Edward Estlin Cummings (October 14, 1894 – September 3, 1962), abbreviated E. E. Cummings, was an American poet, painter, essayist, and playwright. His publishers and others have sometimes echoed the unconventional capitalization in his poetry by writing his name in lower case, as e. e. cummings; Cummings himself did not approve of this rendering.
Cummings is probably best known for his poems and their unorthodox usage of capitalization, layout, punctuation and syntax. There are extensive word gaps, line breaks and omitted punctuation marks. Grammar and word order are sometimes odd and he tends to condense many words into a single word.
Despite Cummings' affinity for avant garde styles and for unusual typography, much of his work is traditional, as can be seen in his sonnets. Cummings' poetry often deals with themes of love, nature and the relationship between the individual and society. The Enormous Room, written while a prisoner of war, is considered his spiritual autobiography. In this work Cummings sets up parallels between his journey and that of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.
Cummings was a central figure in a generation of American writers that carried out a revolution in literary expression in the early twentieth century. His writing reflected a distrust of all established institutions and a conviction that organized religion was a failure. He is frequently quoted by people on non-traditional spiritual paths.
Some argue that Cummings' artistic challenges to social norms and conventions reflect tragedies and difficulties in his personal life and family relationships, such as the early death of his beloved father, short-lived marriages and custody struggles, and other painful experiences in life. His art changed for the brighter when his personal relationships and natural environment also settled into greater beauty.
Cummings is remembered as one of the preeminent voices of modernist poetry in the twentieth century. During his lifetime, he published more than nine hundred poems, along with two novels, several plays and essays, as well as numerous drawings, sketches, and paintings.
Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Edward and Rebecca Haswell Clarke Cummings. Cummings' father was a professor of sociology and political science at Harvard University and later a Unitarian minister. Raised in a liberal family, Cummings was writing poetry as early as 1904 (age ten). His only sibling, a sister, Elizabeth, was born six years after he was.
In his youth Cummings attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. Early stories and poems of his were published in the school newspaper, the Cambridge Review.
In 1926, Cummings' father, whom he was close to and who had been one of Cummings' most ardent supporters, was killed in a car accident. Though severely injured, Cummings' mother survived, and lived for more than twenty years until her death in 1947. Cummings detailed the accident in the following quote, from Richard S. Kennedy's (1980) biography of Cummings, Dreams in the Mirror:
...a locomotive cut the car in half, killing my father instantly. When two brakemen jumped from the halted train, they saw a woman standing – dazed but erect – beside a mangled machine; with blood spouting (as the older said to me) out of her head. One of her hands (the younger added) kept feeling her dress, as if trying to discover why it was wet. These men took my sixty-six year old mother by the arms and tried to lead her toward a nearby farmhouse; but she threw them off, strode straight to my father's body, and directed a group of scared spectators to cover him. When this had been done (and only then) she let them lead her away.
His father's death had a profound impact on Cummings and his artistic life. Cummings began to focus on more important aspects of life in his poetry. He began this new period by paying homage to his father's memory in the poem “my father moved through dooms of love.”
Cummings was married three times, including a long common-law marriage.
Cummings' first marriage, to Elaine Orr, began as a love affair in 1919 while she was married to Scofield Thayer, Cummings' friend from Harvard. The affair produced a daughter, Nancy, who was born on December 20, 1919. Nancy was Cummings' only child. After Orr obtained a divorce from Thayer, she and Cummings married on March 19, 1924. However, the marriage ended in divorce less than nine months later. Elaine left Cummings for a wealthy Irish banker, moving to Ireland and taking Nancy with her. Although under the terms of the divorce Cummings was granted custody of Nancy for three months each year, Elaine refused to abide by the agreement. Cummings did not see his daughter again until 1946. Nancy was then living in the United States and married to Willard Roosevelt, a grandson of former President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919).
Cummings married his second wife, Anne Minnerly Barton, on May 1, 1929. The two separated three years later in 1932. That same year, Anne obtained a divorce in Mexico, although it was not officially recognized in the United States until August 1934.
Soon after separating from Barton in 1932, Cummings met Marion Morehouse, a fashion model and photographer. Although it is not clear if the two were ever officially married, Morehouse would live with Cummings for the remainder of his life.
A change of tone in his next three volumes of verse, 50 Poems (1940), 1 X 1 (1944), and Xaipe (1950), reflects not only the happiness that this relationship brought, but also the fact that Cummings was spending more time at his summer home in Madison, New Hampshire (named “Joy Farm”), absorbing the natural landscape and the benevolence of the rural seasons.
Robert S. Kennedy wrote in his biography of Cummings:
These books express more clearly the individualistic philosophy of life that Cummings had developed out of his dedication to art and his casting off the restraints of society. What emerges is his affirmation of life in all its essential forms, but especially in whatever is natural, unpretentious, and unique. His philosophy entailed a rejection of social forces that hinder the expression of individualism, especially whatever encourages group behavior, conformity, imitation, or artificiality. It valued whatever is instinctively human and promoted feeling and imagination; it rejoiced in romantic and sexual love; and it thrust aside the products, both material and spiritual, of an overly organized, emotionally anesthetized, technologically quantified civilization. His painting changed too: he became representational in technique as he turned to still lifes, portraits, nude figures, and landscapes.
In 1911 Cummings entered Harvard University, receiving his bachelor of arts degree in 1915 and his master’s degree for English and Classical Studies in 1916. In 1912 Cummings began publishing poems in the Harvard Monthly, and later in the Harvard Advocate.
Cummings graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1915 and delivered a controversial commencement address entitled "The New Art." This speech gave him his first taste of notoriety as he managed to give the impression that he thought the well-liked imagist poet, Amy Lowell, was "abnormal," when his intention was to praise her. He was heavily criticized in the newspapers.
In 1917, Cummings' first book of poems appeared in a collection entitled Eight Harvard Poets. That same year Cummings went to France as a volunteer for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps in World War I. Due to an administrative mix-up, Cummings was not assigned to an ambulance unit for five weeks, during which time he stayed in Paris. Cummings became enamored with the city, which he would return to throughout his life.
On September 21, 1917, just five months after his belated assignment, he and a friend, William Slater Brown, were arrested on suspicion of espionage. They were sent to a concentration camp, the Dépôt de Triage in La Ferté-Macé, Orne, Normandy, France. Cummings was released December 19, 1917, after much intervention from his politically connected father. The Enormous Room (1922), his witty and absorbing account of the experience, was also the first of his literary attacks on authoritarianism. Cummings returned to the United States on New Year's Day 1918. He was soon drafted into the army and served in the 73rd Infantry Division at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, until his discharge following Armistice in November 1918.
At the end of the First World War, Cummings went to Paris to study art. On his return to New York in 1924 he found himself a celebrity, both for The Enormous Room and for Tulips and Chimneys (1923), his first collection of poetry (for which his old Harvard classmate John Dos Passos had finally found a publisher).
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Cummings traveled often. He frequented Paris and went all throughout Europe, meeting such notable figures as Pablo Picasso. In 1931 Cummings traveled to the Soviet Union and recounted his experiences in Eimi, published two years later. Cummings also traveled to North Africa and Mexico and worked as an essayist and portrait artist for Vanity Fair magazine (1924 to 1927).
During his time at Harvard, Cummings read much of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein's works. He was also influenced by such imagist poets as Amy Lowell. In Paris, he was exposed to Dada and surrealism, and influence from both of these are apparent in his later work.
Cummings is best known for his unique free verse. Punctuation, line spacing, and even word separation become mediums that he manipulates for his poetry. An example of Cummings' unorthodox typographical style can be seen in his poem "the sky was candy luminous..."In a number of poems, Cummings would misspell words by writing them phonetically or to make them represent a certain dialect. He also made use of inventive formations of compound words, as in "in Just-,” which feature such words as "mud-luscious" and "puddle-wonderful." Many of Cummings' poems address social issues and satirize society, but he often reverted back to romanticism. He wrote many works celebrating love, spring, and sex.
In 1923 Cummings published a collection of poems called Tulips and Chimneys, the public's first encounter with his characteristic manipulation of grammar and punctuation. An example of which is shown here in “leaf falls loneliness”:
Cummings wrote sonnets with recognizable rhyme schemes and the traditional 14 lines as well. Some of Cummings' most famous poems do not involve much if any odd typography or punctuation but still carry his unmistakable style. For example, the poem “anyone lived in a pretty how town” begins as follows:
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did
Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
His talent extended to children's books, novels, and painting. A notable example of his versatility is an introduction he wrote for a collection of the best Krazy Kat comic strips.
Cummings was criticized for allowing himself to become static in technique, and accordingly showing a lack of artistic growth. His satires have led some to believe that he sincerely hated or mistrusted humankind. During one period in his career, his work had been accused of being racist and anti-Semitic. However, it is more often noted by critics that although his approach to form did not often vary, his messages grew stronger, harsher, and more effortlessly romantic later in life.
Cummings always considered himself just as much a painter as he was a poet or writer. Later in life, when he lived in New Hampshire, Cummings would paint during the day and then write at night.
Cummings first received critical acclaim for his drawings and caricatures in the literary magazine The Dial during the 1920s. Cummings later gained recognition as a painter, participating in a number of art shows. In 1931, he also published CIOPW, a collection of works in various mediums.
Cummings' paintings were placed in a number of shows during his lifetime, including:
During his lifetime, Cummings published four plays: him (1927), Anthropos: or, the Future of Art (1930), Tom: A Ballet (1935), and Santa Claus: A Morality (1946).
In 1952, Harvard awarded Cummings an honorary seat as a guest professor. The lectures he gave in 1952 and 1953 were later collected as i: six nonlectures.
Cummings spent the last decade of his life largely traveling, fulfilling speaking engagements, and spending time at his summer home, Joy Farm, in New Hampshire.
During his lifetime, Cummings received numerous awards in recognition of his work, including:
All links retrieved October 4, 2017.
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