Last reviewed: June 2017
American experimental poet, dramatist, and nonfiction writer
October 14, 1894
September 3, 1962
North Conway, New Hampshire
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
E. E. Cummings
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.