Born in 1894, E.E. Cummings—poet, painter, playwright, novelist—is known for his innovative idioms, very unconventional punctuation and experimental forms. He is less remembered for his staunch commitment to philosophical and political individualism, in the tradition of 19th-century transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, which found its fullest expression in his opposition to the ascendent Marxism and communism of the early 20th century.
Cummings was raised by Unitarian parents around Harvard Yard (his father taught at the university) at a time when the chief modes of transportation were not yet by automobile. The ebullient young poet enjoyed his academic milieu with its residual transcendentalism. Even the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., an allegedly cold realist then serving on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, acknowledged Emerson as his inspiration and wrote about “an echo of the infinite” and “a hint of the universal law.”
An urban center for publishing and speaking and all varieties of expatiation, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was at the time home to American intellectuals such as William James, Josiah Royce and Charles Eliot Norton, as well as to the nascent pragmatism that would eclipse republicanism, Unitarianism and other New World paradigms in its importance to the identity of educated Bostonians and Harvard highbrows. Burgeoning industry generated prosperity and energetic commercialism in Boston and its surrounds. The Civil War had tempered the optimism of earlier generations, but vibrant efforts to fashion a uniquely American culture and to break free from the constraints of European customs and traditions continued to shape the growing market for newspapers and books.
In this stimulating climate, under his parents’ care, young Cummings cultivated his creative talents, especially for poetry. He entered Harvard University in 1911, published his first poem in 1912, graduated in 1915 and earned a master’s degree from Harvard in 1916. As a college student he became, according to biographer Susan Cheever, “a new man, an archetypal questioner, and with this newness would come a different kind of poetry.”
Originality was the hallmark of American writing long before Cummings. The national literature, such as it was, sought discontinuity and inventiveness. The crass humor of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), the gothic grotesqueness of Edgar Allan Poe, the bold activism of Margaret Fuller, the caustic realism of Edith Wharton, the performative independence of Henry David Thoreau, the shocking obscenity of Walt Whitman—each contributed to the paradox of the emergent American canon: its derivative novelty and mimetic resistance to outside influences.
Strictly rhyming meter and syntax in American poetry gave way to a rebellious free verse and democratic improvisation. The ostentatious vocabulary and syntactical pretensions of upper-class Europeans were not suited to rugged American prose, which—as in Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”—featured common speech, plain diction and vulgar colloquialisms. But how far could writers push boundaries? How could they transcend the inescapable past or reimagine inherited orthographies? Could language exist without recognizable precedents, rules or structures? What approaches had not been tried? What poems could satisfy the endless aspiration for American ingenuity?
Stretching the Limits
Cummings may have stretched the limits as far as they could go. His anarchic, avant-garde style signaled his rogue, rollicking individualism, which, in his view, defied the dehumanizing forces of collectivism. This is not the space to examine his extensive oeuvre or undertake close readings of his thousands of brilliant poems. Yet two acclaimed examples suffice to show the lyric distinctiveness of his curious method:
when my love comes to see me it’s
when my love comes to see me it’s
just a little like music,a
little more like curving colour(say
against silence,or darkness….
the coming of my love emits
a wonderful smell in my mind,
you should see when i turn to find
her how my least heart-beat becomes less.
And then all her beauty is a vise
whose stilling lips murder suddenly me,
but of my corpose the tool her smile makes something
suddenly luminous and precise
—and then we are I and She….
what is that the hurdy-gurdy’s playing
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
whistles far and wee
and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
when the world is puddle-wonderful
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing
from hop-scotch and jump-rope and
In the first poem we experience a traditional theme: tender, romantic love. The second, with its evocative images, vague figures, fragmented lines and unusual, disruptive punctuation, is like the scene of an abstract painting or photograph, a rendered moment, the sounds purely imagined.
Cummings famously embraced lowercase font (or, if you prefer, infamously avoided capitalization). The spatial arrangement of this poem—large gaps between words, for instance, or the swaying effect of differing line lengths—lends the impression that the wind has blown the letters and words back and forth, together and apart, and that the ominous perspective is that of a child who is unable to articulate clearly or cogently the evanescent flurry of activity he beholds.
Emerson coined “individualism” for the American lexicon to capture the “individualisme” that Alexis de Tocqueville recorded in the early 1830s in his observations while touring the United States. The individualism that Cummings developed was more than merely a youthful sense of bravado and self-importance that would moderate as his testosterone receded with age. It was deep-seated, rational and enduring—in a word, Emersonian.
Lasting beliefs earn staying power through lived experience; trying circumstances force people to validate or renounce their convictions. Two pressing events reinforced Cummings’ individualism, which he exposited with an ever-maturing understanding of the dangers of totalitarianism.
One was his detainment during World War I, right out of college. He and novelist William Slater Brown had volunteered for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance service in France. Charged with espionage because of cryptic comments in their letters home, they were imprisoned for three months in holding cells at a military detention camp in the French town of La Ferté-Macé. Meanwhile the U.S. Department of State erroneously notified Cummings’ parents that he had been aboard the SS Antilles, which a German U-boat had torpedoed and sunk.
Cummings was released from confinement without commotion or fanfare shortly before Christmas 1917 and was stateside again by January. He would later portray this period in his autobiographical novel “The Enormous Room,” which biographer Richard S. Kennedy describes as a “symbolic attack upon all governmental structures whatsoever.”
The other belief-affirming event was Cummings’ five-week trip to the Soviet Union in 1931, which hardened him against communism and its American supporters. During this trip Cummings kept a diary that became his second prose book, “Eimi.” The title is Greek for “I am.” In his 1958 preface, Cummings wrote, “To devotees of the Old Testament, this may suggest Exodus III, 14—‘I AM THAT I AM.’” Cummings’ signature “i,” rendered in lowercase throughout his poetry, lacks the grandeur and majesty of the Hebrew God. Yet, paradoxically, it seems mighty in its diminutive size: a sign of individuality that draws attention to itself, its power made perfect in weakness.
First published in 1933, “Eimi” abounds with bitter, biting critiques of collectivism and of its corollary, a planned economy. This diary-invective can be obscure, its plot sequencing at times difficult to follow. Guided by a derisory version of Virgil, Cummings—the mocking and mythical narrator, a 20th-century Dante—undertakes a depressing, disturbing passage through the “unworld,” Stalinist Russia: a nightmarish hell of senseless bureaucracy, unimaginative ideology and brutalizing oppression.
His first stop on this journey: “A singularly unbanklike bank:outside,mildly imposing mansion; inside,hugely promiscuous hideousness—not the impeccable sanitary ordered and efficient hideousness of American or imitation-American banks,but a strictly ubiquitous whenwhere of casual filth and aimless commotion and profound hoping inefficiency.” Such bleak, odd imagery and frank disgust anticipate the surreal, satirical episodes he later sees and records: propaganda plays, indoctrination speeches, a plethora of comrades, secret police, a socialist jail. The neologism “whenwhere” emphasizes the managerial pointlessness of Soviet administration, which homogenizes society into a monotonous, mechanistic mass of inept, brainwashed automatons.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “Harry” Dana (grandson of the renowned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who had died in 1882), a union-loving advocate of labor causes, a Harvard habitué and a lively expert on Russian drama, happened to be in Russia when Cummings arrived there. With entrée into Russian cognoscenti society, Dana was Cummings’ Virgil, introducing him to the glitterati, the literati and local theater. Anti-authoritarian to his core, Cummings was unimpressed. He “went to the Soviet Union with his eyes open and without an agenda,” explains biographer Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, but “his experiences there, in which he witnessed first-hand the privation and sadness of the Stalinist state, certainly helped him develop an agenda.”
In “Eimi,” Cummings allegorizes his haunting visit to Lenin’s mausoleum, calling it the “Vision of Satan.” The revulsion with which Cummings illustrates the procession of bodies to the grave is palpable. Too lengthy to quote here, these lines scramble with intensity in the manner of the mourning throng—a “number of numberlessness”—which mobilizes toward “the Tomb of Tombs,” toward “Lenin our life!” and “Lenin our hope!” The tomb, discussed much earlier in the narrative, is “a rigid pyramidal composition of blocks; an impurely mathematical game of edges.”
The picture here is religious, or irreligious—the hallowed Lenin in his sacred space, wholly consecrated, absolutely revered. If Lenin is God, then his state—his government—is holy. Nothing could have been more frightening or distressing to Cummings.
Kennedy asserts that the concluding lines of “Eimi” attempt to “express something similar to an Emersonian transcendental experience, a mystical union with the creative force”:
silence is made of
(behind perfectly or
whereless fragrant whenlessly erect
a sudden the!entirelyblossoming)
Notice the emergence of sound from silence: the voice a mode of agency, a source, a genesis, a conception. The result is as if to say, “You, reader, are now released from Soviet censorship, restraint and restriction; you have ended that chapter and may close this book; the future is yours to make.”
Kennedy explains that the self-celebrating and increasingly embittered Cummings sometimes “felt isolated from other literary contemporaries, mostly leftists who shunned him because of his strong anticommunist views.” True Emersonian self-reliance means standing alone, if necessary, in the face of hostility and to the chagrin or ire of the naysaying multitudes. Cummings, “no base imitator of another,” struck out on his own, taking great risks with his poetry despite harsh charges that his writing was indecipherable, esoteric or impenetrable.
His acrobatic, often puzzling techniques represent aesthetically the prevailing motifs of his romantic, nonconformist individualism: imagination, life, emotion, instinct, spontaneity and love. His liberating eccentricity contrasts with the crushing, repressive and absurd Soviet system. “Eimi,” a sustained indictment of Marxism and communism, depicts the all-encompassing despotism of mobs as well as a cruel and implacable government run by myriad comrades who lack character or personality because they are subservient sycophants: dispensable units within an indiscriminate superstate of interchangeable agents and functionaries.
When the idiosyncratic Cummings died of a stroke in 1962, he was a household name, his stature secured by the blooming hippie, hipster subculture that, dissatisfied with current affairs, followed his lead in rejecting establishment standards and submission to authority. His obituary in The New York Times, published the day after his death, commences on the front page and, because of its length, extends to another section. He was a force, a giant of his time, a modernist trendsetter whose trends were insuperable, a transparent eyeball, the “i” and the person he decided to be, the Whitmanesque “me myself” who would not capitulate to badges, names, large societies or dead institutions. He was e.e. and E.E., living truly, seeing truly, acting singly. There can never be another.