Edward Estlin Cummings was born October 14, 1894, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Edward and Rebecca Haswell Clarke Cummings. His father had studied at Harvard and at Oxford before teaching English, sociology, and political science at Harvard University. Edward was ordained minister of the South Congregational Society, Unitarian, of Boston in 1900, and many of his sermons were published during his lifetime. Cummings' mother delighted in caring for her children. She had a deep aesthetic appreciation of the world and enjoyed helping her husband with all kinds of activities, even shingling the roof. Rebecca Cummings learned to drive an automobile early and taught her children their letters and how to keep diaries. The Cummings family was fairly well-off, having the first telephone in Cambridge. Dr. and Mrs. Cummings bought Joy Farm in New Hampshire as a summer retreat. Elizabeth, Cummings' only sibling who eventually married Carlton Qualey, was born about six years after her brother.
Elizabeth described her brother, Estlin, as he was known to the family, as curious, creative and fun to be with as a child. Cummings recalled at a Harvard lecture, “I read or was read, at an early age, the most immemorial myths, the wildest wild animal stories, lots of Scott and quantities of Dickens”. Cummings began writing letters filled with artistic drawings (many of elephants) to family members at age five. He was encouraged to learn by his father, who built play and study areas for the children at both homes. Cummings first attended private schools in Cambridge but eventually moved to public schools. In 1911 he entered Harvard to study Greek and other languages, and by the end of his first year was contributing to the Harvard Monthly, a literary journal. In it he published his first poem, “Vision”, in which his inspiration was Harvard itself. He also made contributions to the Harvard Advocate, including “Ballade” and “Summer Silence” among many others. At Harvard Cummings was introduced to the work of Ezra Pound and other modernist writers and painters. He graduated magna cum laude in 1915, and gave the commencement address on “The New Art”. In 1916 Cummings earned an MA from Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Cummings had also found life-long friends at Harvard such as John Dos Passos, Scofield Thayer, Robert Hillyer, and S. Foster Damon. He and some of these friends helped organize the Harvard Poetry Society, and they collaborated on a collection of poetry entitled Eight Harvard Poets. Cummings is featured on pages 3 through to10 with four sonnets and four other poems that were later published in subsequent volumes of his poetry. It was in Eight Harvard Poets that Cummings, in part, established his unique style: using lowercase letters even though the other contributors and printers questioned him. The following lines from “in Just-”, Cummings' most famous poem, are typical:
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyanddisbel come dancing
from hop-scotch and jump-rope and
Cummings took a job for P.F. Collier & Son, Inc., while his book was in the publishing process. He answered letters elicited in advertisements in Collier's Weekly for $50 a week, an immense sum at that time. After only three months, Cummings quit. Shortly after, trying to escape being called to service during World War I, he volunteered as an ambulance driver for the Harjes-Norton American Ambulance Corps which served in France (Norman 73, 75). Once in Paris, Cummings was supposed to be shipped out on assignment, but a mix-up left him (along with William Slater Brown, also a new volunteer) in Paris for a month. He developed a love for the city and would return many times during his lifetime. When they were finally deployed, Cummings and Brown were arrested by the French military on charges of espionage, interrogated, and released after about three months. This experience inspired Cummings to write The Enormous Room. This prose record of Cummings' imprisonment in France was first published in 1922, and is unlike anything he later wrote. The Enormous Room received good reviews on the whole, but its sale was modest.
E.E. Cummings was drafted in the spring of 1918 and reported to Camp Devens, Massachusetts, but was released from duty in the fall. Cummings returned to New York and began spending much of his time in Greenwich Village. In 1920 Cummings, Brown, and others came together to contribute to the literary and art magazine The Dial. Scofield Thayer and James Sibley Watson bought The Dial in November 1919, when it was a bi-weekly publication, but they changed it to a monthly in January 1920. Cummings established himself as a poet in the January 1920 issue with seven poems and four line drawings. Just before the issue was published, Thayer's wife, Elaine, gave birth to a daughter, Nancy – Cummings' daughter as a result of an affair. Both Thayer and Cummings knew the child was Cummings's, but the situation did not drive a wedge between the two good friends. Elaine was an inspiration to Cummings, and she was the subject of “Puella Mea”, his longest poem.
During the summer of 1919 Cummings had also begun working on his first book of poetry, Tulips & Chimneys. A combination of poems that look back and forward, to the past and to the future, it was published four years later after several rejections from several publishers. In the spring of 1920 Cummings was also noticed as a result of the paintings that he entered into the Independent Exhibition in New York. However, in the spring of 1921, with Tulips & Chimneys still not published and his paintings not going as far as he had wished, Cummings decided to leave for Europe. The Thayers were also planning to travel to France in July to get a French divorce – a divorce that became final on July 25.
In 1923, at Elaine's request, Cummings returned to New York and began spending more time with Nancy, who was then three-and-a-half. At Scofield and Elaine's urging, Cummings and Elaine were married by Edward Cummings at the Cambridge home on March 19, 1924. They seemed more like roommates than husband and wife. Elaine and Nancy left for Europe only two months after the wedding to settle the estate of Elaine's recently deceased sister. While Elaine was away, Cummings began working on & and XLI Poems. They were to be filled with poems that the publisher had thought too shocking for Tulips & Chimneys; & would be Cummings' privately printed volume, while XLI Poems would be sold to the public. Another painting, “Noise Number 12”, was hung in the 1924 spring Independent Artists show.
While his professional life was taking off, his marriage with Elaine was ending. In June Elaine wrote to ask for a divorce. Cummings granted the divorce, but not before trying desperately to persuade Elaine otherwise and threatening suicide several times. In mid-February 1925 Cummings got custody of Nancy three months out of the year. However, Elaine was more than reluctant to uphold the custody agreement – she passively refused. Cummings only saw Nancy three or four times in the two years after the divorce, and the Cummings grandparents never saw her again.
In 1926 Cummings was preoccupied with Anne Barton, a promiscuous flapper, and they travelled in Europe together for four months. He also began working on Is 5, short for “Twice Two Is Five”. However, Cummings received bad news while at a party with Anne on November 2: his parents' car was hit by a locomotive. Edward Cummings died instantly and Rebecca was seriously injured. Although she was not expected to live past five days, she went home in a few weeks. Near the end of 1926 another unfortunate event occurred; Scofield Thayer had a mental breakdown and was under private care until he died.
Cummings' play Him was published in 1927 and opened April 18, 1928. While the Broadway critics thought it empty and ‘looney', the audience loved it. On May 1, 1929, he married Anne in New York. She and Cummings received Joy Farm from Rebecca in 1930. In late 1930 Cummings finished another volume of poems, VV (ViVa), based on the number seven. It contains seventy poems; every seventh poem is a sonnet, and the last seven are sonnets.
During the late 1920s Cummings had become fascinated by the idea that Russia's communist society seemed to be working better than the American democracy that was struggling during the depression, so he left for Moscow to see for himself. A diary he kept from May 10 to June 14 became the basis for his book Eimi, published in 1933. Cummings found Russia suspicious and constricting and was anxious to leave.
His book [No Title] first appeared in The New American Caravan in 1929. Cummings' biographer calls it his “least satisfactory work”. A book of artwork entitled CIOPW (initials standing for charcoal, ink, oil, pencil and water colour) was published in 1931 and included sketches of his family, friends, and Joy Farm, among other people and places. Also in 1931, Cummings published ViVa (VV).
Throughout 1932 Anne's restlessness at Joy Farm crumbled her marriage with Cummings. She began seeing other men and became increasingly spiteful toward her husband. The only reason she remained married, according to a friend, was to keep her part of Joy Farm. In mid-1932, however, she travelled to Mexico with a New York surgeon to obtain a divorce from Cummings. She remarried on October 31, 1932, and signed over her half of the farm to Rebecca Cummings the following March.
Eimi (I am in Greek) came off the press in 1933, at a time when Americans were intoxicated with Karl Marx's paradise. However, Eimi was anti-Russian – it is “much too long . . . and it is written in a highly idiosyncratic style”. Cummings added a short explanatory preface and a glossary of Russian words to the 1958 edition making it slightly easier to read.
During the divorce negotiations with Anne, Cummings met Marion Morehouse, an actress and model, through mutual friends. Although completely taken by her beauty and friendliness, Cummings worried at first that she was not his intellectual equal. Eventually he found all the qualities he had loved about Elaine and Anne in Marion. They left for Paris in April 1933. After remaining in Europe for a year, they considered spending the summer at Joy Farm. However, Cummings' mother was concerned that the residents of the town would shun Marion unless she married Cummings. He insisted that Marion was his common-law wife, as she had been in Paris and other parts of the world, and argued that the town would never know the difference. From that point, Cummings called Marion his wife, although it is unlikely that he and Marion ever had a marriage ceremony.
Cummings had been working on the ballet Tom during their stay in Europe, but the production was delayed in 1934. His books Eimi, Is 5 and ViVa had sold very few copies, and he was working on a new book of poetry, No Thanks, dedicated to all the publishers who had turned him down in the past few years. All the publishers' names are listed in the shape of a funeral urn on the title page. Since none of these projects earned enough money on which to live, Cummings began looking for other ways to support himself and Marion.
Cummings was still trying to get Tom into production, but was told that it would not work as a ballet. He published it as a small book in October 1935. A musical score was eventually composed by David Diamond in 1936, however, and Cummings again searched for a producer. In 1938 Cummings' career took a turn for the better when he finally got recognition from the literary world with the publication of Collected Poems. Harcourt Brace was worried that some of the poems from Cummings' private collection might be too sexual and invite prosecution, but their lawyers finally decided that none of the poems would cause problems. A British publisher was also planning to produce a twenty-poem book entitled 1/20 (one over twenty).
Between 1939 and 1941, aside from working on 50 Poems, which was published in late 1941, Cummings became involved in the America First party, the strongest voice opposing America's involvement in the war. His active involvement declined, however, due to osteoarthritis in his spine. He was required to wear a special corset to alleviate the pain – “The Iron Maiden”, as he called it. Marion also developed arthritis in her legs and other joints. She was hospitalised several times over the next few years and was in nearly constant pain. Unknown to Cummings at the time, Nancy was married on December 23, 1943, to Willard Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt's grandson.
Cummings' One Times One (1 x 1) found publication in 1944 by Henry Holt and Company, and Santa Claus, a children's Christmas play, was published by Holt in 1946. One Times One was dedicated at the end as “marion's book” because it progresses toward love and joy. It sold well immediately, went into a second and third printing, and earned Cummings the Shelley Memorial Award for 1944 from the Poetry Society of America.
Cummings, at fifty-two, began to withdraw from the public and retreated to his New York apartment, Patchin Place. He was annoyed by noisy radios, telephones, and constant knocking at the door by his admirers. Marion began to answer all calls and the door to prevent any interruptions to Cummings' work. Cummings made very few trips, but he did visit his mother who was staying with Elizabeth in Minnesota. In January 1947 she had a severe stroke and died later that month. Two of her son's poems were read at the funeral service.
Meanwhile, Cummings' daughter, Nancy, had moved to the United States in 1940 to escape the war in Europe. She still thought that Thayer was her father, but Elaine encouraged her not to seek him out because of his mental condition. Cummings knew of her presence, but avoided her for a few years, worried that she would interrupt his work. Eventually, though, they met and began to spend a lot of time together. Nancy decided to cut off their relationship after a few months, however, and went to have tea with him one last time. During this meeting, Cummings revealed that he was her father.
On March 30, 1950, the Oxford University Press published Xaipe (pronounced Kyereh, almost rhyming with fiery). The publication caused what his biographer calls “the most unpleasant controversy Cummings ever provoked”. In it he says that “kike[s]” are “the most dangerous / machine as yet invented”. Although he explained that he had no intention to insult Jews, he received criticism from his supporters and enemies alike.
After his mother died, Cummings went through the $7,300 she left him fairly quickly. He was about to make an arrangement for money from his Aunt Jane when he received some good financial news. In June 1950 he won Poetry magazine's Harriet Monroe Prize of $500. Nancy then bought a self-portrait from her father for $300. Later that year he was awarded the $5,000 Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, the most prestigious literary award in the United States. Aunt Jane also died shortly after leaving him over $17,000.
In February 1952 Harvard invited Cummings to fill the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship for a year, which carried a $15,000 salary and required only six lectures. He accepted the appointment, and he and Marion moved to Cambridge. The first “nonlecture”, as Cummings called it, was packed, with students being turned away, but when he began to speak, the hall went silent. The nonlectures were the beginning of his fame as a great reader. He read at Northwestern, Duke, Dartmouth, and the University of Chicago, among others during 1955.
After his reading tours were over, Cummings isolated himself once again and fell into depression. He did, however, continue to compose; and he assembled a volume of all his published poems under the title Poems 1923-1954. Harvard University Press had published his lectures in i: six nonlectures in 1953, and he wrote “THANKSGIVING (1956)”, a satire about the Hungarian Revolution, for the Boston Arts Festival. The festival committee, however, insisted that he substitute something else for it. He agreed, but declared that he would also read “THANKSGIVING (1956)”. After a gasp from the audience, it was applauded and warmly received.
1958 was another big year for Cummings' professional life. Eimi was reissued, a biography appeared, and a bibliography was underway, although it was not published until 1960. A Miscellany, a volume of all the uncollected prose, was being published as well. It was reissued in 1965 to include other items, such as the complete illustrated version of [No Title]. 95 Poems was also published that year; the last book of Cummings' new poems published while he was alive. At sixty-four he embarked on yet another reading tour from 1958 to 1959. After the tour was over, he and Marion took one last trip to Europe, and he began work on another volume of poetry, 73 Poems.
Returning from Europe, Cummings and Marion stayed at Patchin Place where he once again withdrew from the public eye. He was invited to the White House during the Kennedy administration in a display of support for the arts, but he refused the invitation. On September 2, 1962, during an unusually hot afternoon at Joy Farm, Cummings was at the barn splitting wood. When finished, he sharpened the axe, went inside, and walked upstairs. Marion heard him fall and found him lying in the hall unconscious. He died the following morning of a brain haemorrhage. Marion arranged a private funeral service in Boston, and only three or four people attended. He was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery near his parents.
E.E. Cummings is remembered as a lover of language, art, cigarettes, and Paris, and as an experimental poet whose work was perhaps before its time. His style of sporadic capitalization, fragmented words, and shaped lines makes him instantly recognized by almost anyone who has read his poetry before. Throughout his life he struggled financially, always wondering where his next support would come from. Still, he managed to spend a lot of time abroad and took only one job that did not depend on his artistic abilities.
Modern scholars are still fascinated by Cummings and continue to contribute to the abundance of scholarship available on him. The most recognized Cummings scholars are George James Firmage, Norman Friedman, and Richard S. Kennedy. In 1960 George James Firmage compiled the only authoritative bibliography, E.E. Cummings: A Bibliography (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP). A descriptive bibliography of all editions of books up to 1960, it also lists contributions to periodicals, books, etc.; translations of his works; musical settings of poems; recorded readings, and reproductions of art by Cummings. An index lists titles and first lines. Firmage also edited the Typescript Editions of several Cummings books, which are based on the original manuscripts instead of the first editions.
Norman Friedman edited E.E. Cummings: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972) and wrote E.E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1960) and E.E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1964). These three books contain the most worthwhile criticism available. Currently (November 2001) Friedman is involved with Spring: The Journal of the E.E. Cummings Society. Its editors work to include “articles and studies of Cummings' life, works, and times . . . [and] continue to aim for the freshness, spontaneity, and variety” Cummings appreciated (Spring online).
Richard S. Kennedy is the author of one of the three biographies published on Cummings: Dreams in the Mirror (New York: Liveright, 1980). He consulted Rebecca Cummings' scrapbook, the Cummings family, friends, and numerous other sources to complete it. The second biography, The Magic Maker: E.E. Cummings (New York: Macmillan, 1958), was written by Charles Norman before Cummings' death. He obtained most of his information from Cummings himself, Marion Morehouse, and Elizabeth Cummings Qualey. Kennedy believes that Norman's biography may have been altered, however, by Cummings, who insisted on painting himself in a positive light. The most recent biography, E.E.Cummings: A Biography (Methuen, 2006), is written by Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno. Although Cummings never wrote an autobiography, i: six nonlectures includes autobiographical elements.
Guy L. Rotella also compiled a useful resource entitled E.E. Cummings: a reference guide (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1979) that includes a selected list of Cummings' works and an extensive annotated list of criticism through to1977. Rushworth M. Kidder's E.E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia UP, 1979) is helpful as a guide to reading individual poems. Katharine Winters McBride also compiled an extensive concordance: A Concordance to the Complete Poems of E.E. Cummings (New York: Cornell UP, 1989). A compilation of selected Cummings' letters, Selected Letters of E.E. Cummings (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969), was edited by F.W. Dupee and George Stade. This contains letters to family, friends, colleagues, and many others, between 1899 and 1962 .
Most of Cummings' manuscripts can be found at the Houghton Library at Harvard University, including his diaries, which were sealed until 1991 at the request of Marion Morehouse. The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin also has a large Cummings collection and the best online finding aids for the materials. The University of Virginia holds some manuscripts in its Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Beinecke and Alderman libraries at Yale University and the University of Virginia, respectively, contain letters and other materials in their rare book and manuscript divisions. Other letters, diaries and papers can be located at the Princeton University Library, Massachusetts Historical Society, Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and in Georgetown University's Nicholas Joost Papers.
Since Cummings never revised his poetry except to correct typographical errors, the first edition of each work is usually preferred. However, Cummings corrected some errors in later editions or later printings. Liveright Publishing has also issued the Typescript editions, which are edited by George James Firmage and often have contributions by Richard S. Kennedy. The Typescript editions are compiled using the original manuscripts. Specifically, some Typescript editions available are The Enormous Room in 1994, ViVa (VV) and Xaipe in 1979, and Complete Poems 1923-1962 in 1991. The 1976 edition of Tulips & Chimneys has a forward by Richard S. Kennedy, an after word by George James Firmage, and includes poems intended for the first edition. The third printings of Poems 1923-1954 and 95 Poems have Cummings' corrections. Kennedy edited a version of Selected Poems 1923 - 1958 in 1994 that includes reproductions of original Cummings drawings.
Citation: McGinnis Bailey, Misty. "E. E. Cummings". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 21 March 2002 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=1093, accessed 30 September 2022.]