Authors: E. E. Cummings

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American experimental poet, dramatist, and nonfiction writer

October 14, 1894

Cambridge, Massachusetts

September 3, 1962

North Conway, New Hampshire

Biography

Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1894. His father was the Reverend Edward Cummings, who taught English at Harvard University and Radcliffe College and was a well-known preacher and lecturer. E. E. Cummings also attended Harvard, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1915 and his master’s degree in 1916. A year later he and Slater Brown, a Harvard friend, enlisted in the ambulance service and served as drivers for six months in France. Because of an error of the military censor, Cummings spent three months in a French prison. From this experience came The Enormous Room, a prose account of life in a military prison that contains none of the bitterness and self-pity commonly found in such works. Instead, Cummings looked at the daily life and the strange characters in the enormous room with the saucy eye and original wit so evident in his poems. The Enormous Room may not be the most powerful book to come out of World War I, but it is certainly one of the most original and interesting. It was written because his father offered to pay him a thousand dollars if he would write it. The book was Cummings’s first remarkable achievement.

After his release from the French prison, Cummings served as a private in the American infantry until the armistice. He then returned to New York for two years. He subsequently spent some time in Paris, where he won recognition both as a poet and as a painter. Cummings shuttled between these two cities for many years and finally settled in New York. His brief 1931 trip to the Soviet Union inspired Eimi, a travelogue disparaging the Communist dictatorship there.

E. E. Cummings

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(Library of Congress)

Between Cummings’s first book of poems, Tulips and Chimneys, and his Poems, 1923-1954, there is a sort of consistent inconsistency. His recurring themes are conventional: nature, which he treats with charming lyricism; love, which for Cummings can be idyllic or brutally sensual; the underdogs, both men and women, whom he tenderly champions; and the blatant materialism of the times, at which he scoffs in witty satire. In the presentation of these themes Cummings turns into a fearless experimenter, using every trick of typography to heighten the visual image. At his best he can depict his scene with the arrangement of words (as in “Sunset”) or use it to intensify his colloquial style (as in “Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr. Vinal”). His critics have sometimes disparagingly referred to him as “lower case cummings” because of his unusual typography, although he did not, as some have claimed, write his name e. e. cummings, using no capitalization.

In 1952 Cummings was invited to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton lectures in poetry at Harvard. Characteristically, he refused to become a lecturer. His witty, and frequently wise, series of comments on poetry was published as i: six nonlectures. In 1955 he received a special citation from the National Book Awards Committee for his collected poems. Cummings was also awarded the American Academy of Poets Fellowship in 1950, the Guggenheim Fellowship in creative arts both in 1933 and 1951, and the prestigious Bollingen Prize for Poetry from Yale University in 1957.

About the middle of his career Cummings appeared headed for the oblivion of an avant-garde poet who fails to bound ahead of his competitors. However, his complete work reveals a poet who cannot be dismissed as an upstart innovator; his is an authentic voice of the twentieth century, and his works reflect an element frequently lacking in those of his dour contemporaries: a sense of humor.

E. E. Cummings died of cerebral hemorrhage on September 3, 1962, at his family's farm in North Conway, New Hampshire.

Author Works Poetry: Tulips and Chimneys, 1923, enlarged ed. 1937 Puella Mia, 1923 &, 1925 XLI Poems, 1925 is 5, 1926 W: Seventy New Poems, 1931 No Thanks, 1935 1/20 Poems, 1936 Collected Poems, 1938 50 Poems, 1940 1 x 1, 1944 XIAPE: Seventy-One Poems, 1950 Poems, 1923-1954, 1954 95 Poems, 1958 100 Selected Poems, 1959 Selected Poems: 1923-1958, 1960 73 Poems, 1963 A Selection of Poems, 1965 Complete Poems, 1923-1962, 1968, rev. ed. 1972 Poems, 1905–1962, 1973 Love Is Most Mad and Moonly, 1978 Etcetera: The Unpublished Poems of E. E. Cummings, 1983, revised and expanded 2000 (George James Firmage and Richard S. Kennedy, editors) Selected Poems, 1994 22 and 50 Poems, 2001 (George James Firmage, editor) Erotic Poems, 2010 (George James Firmage, editor) Children's/Young Adult Literature: Fairy Tales, 1965 (art by John Eaton) Hist Whist and Other Poems for Children, 1983 (illustrated by David Calsada; George James Firmage, editor) Little Tree, 1987 (illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray) Love: Selected Poems, 2005 (art by Christopher Myers) Drama: Him, pb. 1927, pr. 1928 Tom: A Ballet, pb. 1935 Anthropos: The Future of Art, pb. 1944 Santa Claus: A Morality, pb. 1946 Three Plays and a Ballet, 1967 (George Firmage, editor; reprinted as The Theatre of E.E. Cummings, 2013) Nonfiction: The Enormous Room, 1922 CIOPW, 1931 (drawings) Eimi, 1933, 1958 i: six nonlectures, 1953 E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany, 1958, rev. ed. 1965 (George James Firmage, editor) Adventures in Value, 1962 (photographs by Marion Morehouse) Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings, 1969 (F. W. Dupee and George Stade, editors) Pound/Cummings: The Correspondence of Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings, 1996 (Barry Ahearn, editor) AnOther E. E. Cummings, 1998 (Richard Kostelanetz, compiler) Translation: The Red Front, 1933 (a selection of poems by Louis Aragon) Bibliography Ahearn, Barry, ed. Pound/Cummings: The Correspondence of Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. These interchanges cast light on both the poets and their times. Includes bibliographic references. Cowley, Malcolm. A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation. New York: Viking, 1973. Contains a chapter on Cummings that focuses on his life in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Discusses his philosophy and evaluates his poetry. Dumas, Bethany K. E. E. Cummings: A Remembrance of Miracles. London: Vision Press, 1974. Contains a chapter on Cummings’s life and several chapters analyzing his poetry, prose, and dramatic works. Includes a bibliography and indexes. Friedman, Norman. E. E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1960. The first book-length analysis of Cummings’s poetry. Discusses his poetic vision and his techniques. Includes indexes. Friedman, Norman. E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964. Detailed discussion of each of Cummings’s major works in order to show his development. Includes index and a brief bibliographical note. Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1980. A detailed, scholarly study of Cummings’s life that discusses his poems and his philosophical views. Includes a chronological list of Cummings’s works, a bibliographical essay on secondary works, an index, and illustrations. Kennedy, Richard S. E. E. Cummings Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994. Primarily an analysis of Cummings’s major writings but also provides a condensed version of his life interspersed with the analysis. Includes a chronology of the poet’s life, a bibliography of works by and about him, an index, and numerous illustrations. Kidder, Rushworth M. E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. Because of the separation in time between Cummings’s life and the appearance of this volume, Kidder had gained some objectivity over earlier critics, enabling him to focus on enduring values in the poetry. His commentaries are fresh and insightful, often correcting existing misconceptions. Includes a bibliography and indexes. Lane, Gary. I Am: A Study of E. E. Cummings’ Poems. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976. A good reference for new readers. Reprints selected poems, appending detailed discussions designed to make the obscure and complicated devices transparent. The critical apparatus features complete notes, an index, and a bibliographical note. Muldoon, Paul. “Capital Case.” The New Yorker, vol. 90, no. 2, 03 Mar. 2014, pp. 70–71. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=94952139&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 30 Mar. 2017. Analyzes Cummings’s selective use of capitalization and lack of punctuation. Discusses his relationships to contemporaries such as William James as well as his romantic partners and family members. Norman, Charles. The Magic Maker: E. E. Cummings. Rev. ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972. First written while Cummings was still alive, this combination memoir and critical introduction grows out of a long and intimate relationship with the poet. The personal material bears a rich authenticity, full of telling anecdotes. The illustrations are unrivaled. A good index offers useful cross-references, but there are no notes. Sawyer-Lauçanno, Christopher. E.E. Cummings: A Biography. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2004. Massive in scope and in number of pages, this biography and literary study of Cummings is readable, comprehensive and highly recommended. Waggoner, Hyatt H. American Poets from the Puritans to the Present. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968. Contains a section on Cummings that discusses his transcendental philosophy and evaluates his poetry. Wegner, Robert E. The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. More than the other sources, this book focuses on revealing the evolution of Cummings’s style and the relationship between his life and work. It includes a chronology of publications rather than of his life. Includes footnotes and indexes of first lines and subjects but no bibliography.

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