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cummings, e.e. (1894-1962)

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e.e. cummings grew up a Unitarian. His life embodied endless conflict between radical individualism and faith in love. The following biography reveals the volcano of his uniquely creative soul.

Edward Estlin Cummings was born (1894) and brought up on a quiet street north of the Harvard Yard, one where distinguished professors lived. William James and Josiah Royce were neighbors, and Charles Eliot Norton had a wooded estate nearby that bordered on Somerville and its Irish tenements. Cambridge in the early l900s . . . good manners, tea parties, Browning, young women with their minds adequately dressed in English tweeds. I think it was T.S. Eliot who said that life there was so intensely cultured it had ceased to be civilized. The younger poet’s family was part of that life. Edward Cummings, the father (Harvard ’83), had been an instructor in sociology, but then had become a clergyman, preaching in Boston as the assistant, the colleague, and finally the successor of Edward Everett Hale at the South Congregational Society, Unitarian. Sometimes on Sundays little Estlin, as the family called him, passed the plate. The father, famous for rectitude, was also president of the Massachusetts Civic League and was later executive head of the World Peace Foundation.

E.E. Cummings's graduation photo from the Cambridge Latin School, 1911
E.E. Cummings’s graduation photo from the Cambridge Latin School, 1911

The son attended a public high school, Cambridge Latin, where he tells us that the admired principal was a Negro. Sending Estlin there was apparently one of his father’s democratic ideas, and another—when the son went on to Harvard, class of ’15—was to have him live at home for the first three years. That encouraged his bookish habits and also cut him off from college life, including the club system and its societies, waiting clubs, and final clubs‚—always something ahead to make students act with propriety for fear of being blackballed. Cummings joined nothing but the Musical Society and the board of a literary magazine that had published some of his early poems. There were two such magazines at Harvard in those days, The Monthly and The Advocate, and they looked down on each other—or, to be accurate, they nodded to each other coldly from the facing doors of their respective sanctums on the dusty third floor of the Harvard Union. The Monthlies thought that the board of The Advocate, which then appeared fortnightly, was composed of journalists, clubmen, athletes, and disciples of Teddy Roosevelt, a former editor, with not a man of letters among them. The Advocates suspected that the Monthlies were aesthetes (as indeed most of them came to be called), scruffy poets, socialists, pacifists, or worse. It was for The Monthly that Cummings chose to write.

In his last undergraduate year he took a room at college and became a gossiped-about figure in the group that surrounded The Monthly. It was the only time in his life that he formed part of a group, but even then he stood apart from most of the others and preferred to keep his relations one to one. He was intensely shy and private in the Cambridge fashion. Still, among the ones he saw often were Dos Passos, the conservative poet Robert Hillyer (though with some distrust on both sides), and two very rich young men, James Sibley Watson and Scofield Thayer, who greatly admired his poems and drawings. Cummings decided to stay at Harvard for a year of postgraduate work. At commencement he was awarded a degree magna cum laude, with honors in Literature, Greek and English. He was also chosen to give the Disquisition and shocked his classmates and their parents—those who listened—by speaking on “The New Art,” with examples from Amy Lowell and Gertrude Stein.

At the time he was in full revolt against almost everything—except personal integrity—that Cambridge and his father stood for. Cleanliness, godliness, decorum, public spirit, then chastity went by the board. Cummings developed a taste for low life, something that teemed in Boston. One night the Boston police were embarrassed to find his father’s car, with its clergyman’s license plates, parked outside a joint near Scollay Square. Cummings and Dos Passos, both virgins at the time, were not “upstairs”; they were drinking in the parlor while holding a polite conversation with the madam.

In the autumn after his postgraduate year, Cummings went to New York, where he spent three months at the only office job he was ever to hold. The experiment having failed by reason of pure boredom, he went to work seriously on his drawing and painting (the drawing was often inspired; the paintings were impressionistic and weak in color). He took no part in the debate over preparedness for war, one which shook the country in the winter of 1916-17 and which, as a minor effect, disrupted the board of The Harvard Monthly. Four of the editors were pacifists, the other four were superpatriots, all eight were impractical, and they couldn’t agree on what to print. In April 1917, when Congress declared war, The Monthly disappeared from Harvard, but not from memory. Cummings by that time was on his way to France as a volunteer in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps.

Graduation photo from Harvard College, 1915
Graduation photo from Harvard College, 1915

On the old Touraine of the French Line, a tub that wallowed its way through the submarine zone, he met William Slater Brown, another New Englander. Brown, lately a student at Columbia, was a pacifist proud of knowing the anarchist Emma Goldman. Cummings was mildly patriotic, but he didn’t allow opinions, at the time, to interfere with his friendships. Through a mistake at headquarters, the two young men were not immediately assigned to an ambulance unit and had a month to spend in Paris. They roamed the streets in all the glow of youth, went to the Russian Ballet, and learned to speak passable French, apparently with the help of Paris ladies (“little ladies more / than dead exactly dance / in my head”). Finally they went to the front. An artillery company quartered in their village had mutinied that spring, and Brown talked about war weariness in letters to friends (as well as in one to Emma Goldman). A French censor reported his remarks to Lieutenant Anderson, who said that Brown was a dangerous character and that Cummings should be arrested too. Cummings might have been cleared of what charge? There was none‚ but a sense of personal honor kept him from assuring the military examiners that he detested all Germans. Together the friends were shipped off to La Ferte, to a detention barracks that Cummings was later to celebrate as “the Enormous Room.”

The three months he spent there were another watershed, after the rebellion of his last two years at college. Confined with men of all nations, mostly illiterate, even inarticulate, all used to living outside the law, Cummings found that he liked some of them vastly more than he liked his college classmates.

The honors student in Literature, Greek, and English was busy unthinking his five years at Harvard and was getting ready to write poems that would each, he hoped, embody a moment of intensely alive and personal feeling. Meanwhile Dr. Edward Cummings, having learned of his son’s disappearance, made vigorous efforts first to find where he was, a difficult task in itself, and then to obtain his release. As pastor of the South Church, he was not without friends in Washington. When the French received official inquiries, they gave the son another farcical hearing and finally set him free. Brown fell victim to scurvy, but he was released before the disease had crippled him.

After the Armistice, Brown and Cummings rented a Greenwich Village apartment that became a model of squalor. Cummings liked to roam through the Lower East Side and the Syrian quarter near the southern tip of Manhattan. He was painting “all the time,” Brown says, but was also writing scores, even hundreds of poems in many new manners. Meanwhile the death of The Harvard Monthly had an unexpected sequel. Scofield Thayer and Sibley Watson had bought a moribund political fortnightly, The Dial, which they set about transforming into the most distiguished magazine of the arts that had appeared in this country. In some ways and in some contributors it carried on the tradition of The Monthly, this time with a national audience. The first issue, for January 1920, featured the poems and drawings of E.E. Cummings. I remember how they provoked indignant remarks from more conservative poets and, in particular, how Bobby Hillyer fumed.

In the autumn of that year Cummings wrote The Enormous Room at his father’s house near Silver Lake, New Hampshire. He wrote it at the father’s suggestion and partly to keep Dr. Cummings from suing the French government for a million dollars; also he wrote it very fast, in a style close to the spoken idiom he had fashioned for himself over the years. Dr. Cummings had the manuscript copied by his secretary, then went over it with a blue pencil, crossing out the bad words and making other minor changes (for example, a character whom the son called Jesus Christ was renamed Judas). It was hard to find a publisher, but the new firm of Boni and Liveright was more venturesome than others, and Dr. Cummings persuaded them to accept the book. When it appeared in 1922, it was read with enthusiasm by younger writers, and the free-ranging, partly colloquial, partly involved style had a lasting effect on American prose. The Enormous Room was not a commercial success. Horace Liveright, who thought he had been fooled, came to dislike the book so much that he wouldn’t allow the unsold copies of the first edition to be remaindered; he sold them for wastepaper.

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In the years from 1923 to 1926 Cummings published four books of poetry: Tulips and Chimneys, & (he wore his titles cut short), XLI Poems, and Is 5. Many or most of the poems in all four were written either at college or during the burst of activity and experiment that followed his release from the detention barracks at La Ferte.

None of the first four books was a popular success. With Cummings the critics were severe: they condemned his fleshly realism, his experiments with typography, and his custom of using a small “i” for the first-personal pronoun. “e.e. Cummings” they called him, with a visible curl of the lip. But the more his work was condemned by critics, the more it was admired by many of the younger writers and the more he was adopted as one of their spokesmen, along with Dos Passos and Hemingway. As for his private life, he kept it private, and that added to his prestige.

He wasn’t often seen at parties in the middle 1920s, though hostesses tried to capture him and though he had overcome his shyness to the point of liking to have an audience. “I’ve watched him operating among strangers,” another poet said rather envyingly. “He starts talking to one person in a low confidential voice and the person starts laughing. Then another person drifts up, glass in hand, and bends forward to hear what is being said. Cummings talks lower, faster, and funnier, without cracking a smile, and a third person appears. Pretty soon the whole room is grouped around Cummings, everybody laughing, everybody with eyes on him so as not to miss a word.” “Jesus, he was a handsome man,” as he had written of Buffalo Bill. He had large, well-shaped features, carved rather than molded, eyes set wide apart, often with a glint of mischief in them, and in those days a good deal of fine khaki-colored hair. In later years, when he had lost most of the hair and the rest was clipped off, he looked more like a bare-skulled Buddhist monk.

He was the most brilliant monologuist I have known. What he poured forth was a mixture of cynical remarks, puns, hyperboles, outrageous metaphors, inconsequence, and tough-guy talk spoken from the corner of his wide, expressive mouth: pure Cummings. Perhaps the style of those harangues is better suggested by his six nonlectures as these were delivered at Harvard in the early 1950s. The second nonlecture, for instance, starts by praising the world in which he grew to manhood: “a reckless world, filled with the curiosity of life herself; a vivid and violent world welcoming every challenge; a world worth hating and adoring and fighting and forgiving: in brief, a world which was a world.”

The 1920s had other favorite themes and one is amazed, in rereading his early work, to find out how often Cummings expressed them. Of course he was a lyric poet in the bad-boy tradition, but traditional as he was on one side of his work, and determinedly unique on another, he was also a man of his generation. Much oftener than one might expect, he said what other young writers were saying at the time, or would soon be saying, and he usually said it with more ingenuity and morning freshness.

There is first of all the revolt against Victorian standards, especially those prescribing chaste language and chaste behavior. Cummings made himself a leader in the revolt by describing, explicitly and often, the act of sex. Thus, in his second book of poems, &, there are nine rather labored sonnets recording visits to various prostitutes, including “Cecile . . . Alice . . . Loretta, cut the comedy, kid . . . Fran Mag Glad Dorothy.”

There is the contempt for citizens who lead ordinary lives, “impersons” who accept the slogans at face value.

There is the utter scorn for conventional poets still feeding on the past. There is the respect for rebels of all sorts. There is compassion for outcasts, not excluding the drunk lying in his pool of vomit as people carefully step around him, and there is the feeling that poets are outcasts too, for all their pride.

There is finally the deep strain of anti-intellectualism, a prejudice against scientists and “prudent philosophers” who poke and prod the earth, combined with praise for a child’s direct vision that sees the earth as “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful.”

There is, in fact, almost every theme that was to be widely treated by new writers in the 1920s, except for Hemingway’s theme of giving and accepting death, and Fitzgerald’s theme of the betrayed suitor for the very soul of money. Cummings spoke of money not often and then with the disdain of a barefoot friar. Besides the themes he treated, his poems embody various attitudes that lay behind them: the passion for reckless experiment in life and art, the feeling that a writer’s duty was to be unique, and the simple determination to enjoy each moment and make the most of having been born. In spite of his aloofness, it is no wonder at all that the rebel writers had come to regard him as an indispensable spokesman for their cause.

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A new book of poems, VV (which he also called “ViVa”), appeared in 1931 and was a mild disappointment to his readers. Mostly the book deals with the same themes as his earlier work, but it is less exuberant than Is 5—much less of a hurrah than the title promises—and it speaks less directly for the poet’s generation. There is a growing bitterness in the satires directed against politicians, generals, and run-of-the-mill people. The bitterest of all has proved to be the most enduring: it is the ballad of blond Olaf, the conscientious objector who is prodded with bayonets, then beaten to death while repeating “I will not kiss your king flag.” As a general thing, however, the development revealed in the book is a matter much less of tone than of technique.

There had been changes in his life and they had led to a number of ideas that were partly new for him and were completely opposed at the time to those held by “mostpeople,” as he called the American public. When one looks back at his career, it would seem that he had to invent his new language as the only fresh and serviceable means of expressing the ideas in poetry. His father had been killed in a motor accident (at a grade crossing in a blinding snowstorm), his second marriage had broken up, and in 1931 he had made a trip to Russia. This last was a shattering experience, much on the order of Dos Passos’ visit to Loyalist Spain in 1937. Russia, he reported, was a country racked by fear and suspicion. Living under the shadow of Stalin, Communists were the bigoted defenders of a system that destroys individuals. Soon the same conclusions were being stated in his poems:

every kumrad is a bit
of quite unmitigated hate
(travelling in a futile groove
god knows why)
and so do i
(because they are afraid to love

Cummings was not afraid to love, but he hated, too, and his hatred (or call it his feeling of revulsion) circled out from Stalin and his “kumrads” to wider and wider social groups. First to be encompassed were politicians who abetted communism by making appeals to the same public yearning for a better life. Cummings had always detested politicians, but now he raged against them:

a politician is an arse
upon which everyone has sat except a man

Reformers and crusaders, especially those who supported the New Deal, came next into the circle of aversion. Growing still wider, the circle was drawn about salesmen of every type: “a salesman is an it that stinks.”

Labor unions were still another abomination:

when serpents bargain for the right to squirm
and the sun strikes to gain a living wage—
when thorns regard their roses with alarm
and rainbows are insured against old age

—then, Cummings says, “we’ll believe in that incredible unanimal mankind.” At this point the circle of those rejected has become so wide that it includes almost everyone living except “you and me,” that is, the poet, his love, and perhaps a handful of friends.

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Not since the trip to Russia had Cummings been a spokesman for his literary generation. Most of its other members—with almost all the younger writers—had been moving in an opposite direction from his. Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) tells how the mistreated Okies in California acquired a sense of collective purpose, until each of them—as Preacher Casy prophesies before his death—was on the point of becoming only a little piece of “one big soul.” Cummings had no patience with this religion of humanity, or with humanity itself. He was to write during World War II:

pity this busy monster,manunkind,
listen:there’s a hell
of a good universe next door;let’s go

Cummings’s first Collected Poems (1938) had less trouble in finding a home, and the books that followed had none at all, but I can’t remember that they were widely discussed. In the left-wing press, hardly anyone excoriated Cummings or pleaded with him sorrowfully, as some did with Dos Passos; the books were mostly passed over in silence, as if they were social blunders. Perhaps it was the feeling of simply not being heard that made the poet’s voice too shrill in some of the later diatribes.

Cummings took no interest in historical forces. He was essentially a lyric poet, and in the best of his later work he continued to deal with the traditional lyric themes of love and death, of springtime and the ineffable quality of moments. There was less exuberance than in the early poems, less inventiveness in spite of the game he played with parts of speech, but there was at times more depth, combined with the effort I mentioned to express a coherent attitude, almost a metaphysic.

This last was something that Dr. Edward Cummings would have understood, and indeed it represented, in some measure, a return to the father. Such returns can be traced in the lives of many writers: Dos Passos is one of them, but there are scores of examples from which to choose. How often rebellion against the father‚ perhaps under the sign of the mother‚ is revealed in early works, and how often the father’s image looms behind the later career.

If Cummings too admired his father more and more, it was obviously not for the social doctrine one assumes that the father preached to his congregation at the South Church, Unitarian. It was for personal qualities: love, kindness, utter independence, and faith based on an inner rightness of feeling:

Scorning the pomp of must and shall
my father moved through dooms of feel;
his anger was as right as rain
his pity was as green as grain

A colorful Cummings landscape
A colorful Cummings landscape

The New England tradition to which the poet returned was not that of the Unitarians or of the Calvinists, much less of the Come-outers, but that preached by Emerson in the years after he left the pulpit and before he became an Abolitionist. It was the tradition of the autonomous individual standing before God (or the Oversoul), living by universal laws in harmony with nature, obeying an inner voice, and letting society take care of itself. Emerson . . . there is no record that Cummings ever read his essays, yet his ideas had once pervaded the Cambridge air, and Cummings’s later poems are Emersonian in more respects than one.

Emerson wrote, and Cummings would have agreed, that “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” As a rule, however, Emerson expressed less hostility to groups than Cummings did; he simply disregarded them in his scheme of things.

Emerson was more of a mystic, in the technical sense of the word, than most critics have realized, and some of his essays refer explicitly to an “ecstatical state” in which the soul is reunited with the Oversoul. Such a state is to be understood in a famous passage near the beginning of Nature: “Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed in the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egoism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.” Time and space being abolished at such moments, the soul is bathed in a higher Reason to be distinguished from mere Understanding. The distinction in Cummings’ later poems is between “know” or “because,” both contemptuous nouns in his language, and “feel,” which is something to be honored (“my father moved through dooms of feel”). As for the states of ecstasy, they are possibly foreshadowed in the early poems by Cummings’ effort to render the special quality of moments. In later poems that sense of the moment, the now, is so intensified that it comes close to being a mystical vision. “ten centuries of original soon”—that is, of history—are ‘plunged in eternal now.” “dimensionless new ails of joy” flood over the poet as he perceives the “illimitably spiralling candy of tiniest forever.” “now the ears of my ears awake,” another poem ends, “and now the eyes of my eyes are opened.” In passages like these Cummings appears to be writing as the latest—though I suspect not the last—of the New England Transcendentalists.

The parallel can be carried too far. Where Emerson was essentially a Neoplatonist, Cummings was a scoffer in his youth, then more and more a Christian. He does not think of Christ as the most perfect man, in Emerson’s way of speaking, but rather prays to him as a divine intercessor. In theological terms his God is less immanent than Emerson’s and more transcendent. He says in a poem addressed to God—here I translate into prose—”How should any tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, breathing, merely human being—lifted from the no of all nothing—doubt unimaginable You?” As regards a future life, one of the subjects on which Emerson remained ambiguous, Cummings lets us infer that he believes in the resurrection of the flesh. “our now must come to then,” he tells his love in a late sonnet

our then shall be some darkness during which
fingers are without handstand i have no
you and all trees are(any more than each
leafless)its silent in forevering snow
—but never fear(my own,my beautiful
my blossoming)for also then’s until

*Other poems of the time make it clear that “until,” for Cummings, was the moment when lovers shall rise from the grave.

Cummings lived into the late summer of 1962 and continued working to the last day. His career, if not his opinions, had been remarkably self-consistent. Except for his painting, carried on through the years, and except for a few lively incursions into prose—of which The Enormous Room is the most durable—he had never worked at any trade except that of writing verse. “Peintre et poete,” he had told a French policeman who asked his profession before arresting him; I think that was in 1923. Poet and painter—and nothing else—he remained to the end.

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He wrote twelve books of poetry, including one that appeared after his death (73 poems, 1963), but not including collected or selected works. The books contain 770 poems in all, an impressive output for a lyric poet and one recalling that of another New Englander, Emily Dickinson. Most of the poems are as short as hers, with perhaps one-fourth of them variations on the traditional fourteen-liner. After the early romantic pieces in Tulips and Chimneys, Cummings never ventured again into longer forms. Not all the poems are on the same level, and some of the more ingenious ones remind me that there is a drawer in our house full of kitchen gadgets made of stamped tin and wire, all vastly ingenious—U.S. patent applied for—but many of them unworkable and most of them seldom used. Cummings’ inventions, too, are sometimes gimcrack and wasted, but the best of them have enriched the common language. The best of his lyrics, early and late, and not a few of the sonnets—more, it seems to me, on each rereading—have a sweep and music and underlying simplicity that make them hard to forget. And where does he stand among the poets of our time? He suffers from comparison with those who built on a larger scale—Eliot, Aiken, Crane, Auden among others—but still he is unsurpassed in his special field, one of the masters.

One may feel that in his later years, when he was groping his way back toward Emerson, Cummings wrote rather more new poems than he had new things to say. He might have been more severe with his work, and with his acolytes, but he had earned the privilege, after all, of being a little self-indulgent. He did not abuse the privilege. Except for those six nonlectures at Harvard, his only concession to the public, and to the need for earning money, was reading his poems aloud to mostly undergraduate audiences in all parts of the country. It required physical courage, for by that time he was partly crippled by arthritis, wore a brace on his back that jutted out two inches from his shoulderblades, and had to read while sitting in a straight-backed kitchen chair. After reading for half an hour, he had to rest for ten minutes; then he came back to finish the program. Nevertheless he held and charmed the audience, which was usually acquainted with his work and well prepared to listen.

He was speaking in the McCarthy years to what had come to be known as the silent generation. Sometimes he scolded the youngsters, as at Harvard, for being obsessed with security. “What is that?” he asked them. “Something negative, undead, suspicious and suspecting; an avarice and an avoidance; a self-surrendering meanness of withdrawal; a numerable complacency and an innumerable cowardice. . . . How monstrous and how feeble seems some unworld which would rather have its too than eat its cake!” The youngsters, cautious as they were at the time, liked to dream about the romantic freedom of the 1920s. They specially enjoyed his early poems, with their recklessness and brig, but they did not object to the conservative Christian anarchism of the later poems. Once again Cummings, the man stubbornly alone, found himself accepted by others as a spokesman.

By Malcolm Cowley, abridged from “Cummings: One Man Alone,” Yale Review, Courtesy of Yale University and the Literary Estate of Malcolm Cowley

“As I Grow Older, I Tend Toward Piety”

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On a visit to Tucson, Arizona, e.e. cummings had a mystical experience while walking in the desert where he encountered a strange cactus-like plant: he touched one spine and jumped “spiritually 40 miles.” His journals are full of references to “le bon Dieu” and frequent prayers for help in his creative life (such as “Bon Dieu! may I some day do something truly great. amen.”). He also prayed for strength to be his essential self (“may I be I is the only prayer–not may I be great or good or beautiful or wise or strong”), and for relief of spirit in times of depression (“almighty God! I thank thee for my soul; & may I never die spiritually into a mere mind through disease of loneliness”). His basic religious feelings were in tune with his Unitarian upbringing. His concept of God was that of a comprehensive Oneness together with a sense of the presence of this Oneness in nature. In Xaipe he expressed this belief most clearly in a sonnet that combined both prayer and an awareness of Divinity in the natural world:

I thank You God for most this amazing
One of several self-portraits

day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(I who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
double unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

From E.E. Cummings Revisited by Richard S. Kennedy