BOOK REVIEW: 'E.E. Cummings: A Life': Susan Cheever Revisits a Controversial Figure in American Literature

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'E.E. Cummings: A Life': Susan Cheever Revisits a Controversial Figure in American Literature

 The case could be made that Susan Cheever was fated to write about poet, artist, novelist and playwright E. E. Cummings (1894-1962), if only because of her meeting Cummings when she was 17 and unhappy in the private school she was attending.

She writes about meeting the older friend of her novelist father John Cheever in 1960 in "E.E. Cummings: A Life" (Pantheon, 240 pages, 18 pages of black and white images, notes, bibliography, index, $26.95).

In a relatively short book that should be read by everyone interested in not only poetry but the arts scene in the first half of the 20th Century, she writes that Edward Estlin Cummings had been relegated to make "a modest living on the high-school lecture circuit. In the winter of 1960 his schedule brought him to read his adventurous poems at an uptight girls’ school in Westchester where I was a miserable seventeen-year-old junior with failing grades.

"I vaguely knew that Cummings had been a friend of my father’s; my father loved to tell stories about Cummings’s gallantry, and Cummings’s ability to live elegantly on almost no money—an ability my father himself struggled to cultivate. When my father was a young writer in New York City, in the golden days before marriage and children pressured him to move to the suburbs, the older Cummings had been his beloved friend and adviser.

"On that cold night in 1960, Cummings was near the end of his brilliant and controversial forty-year career as this country’s only true modernist poet. Primarily remembered these days for its funky punctuation, Cummings’s work was in fact a wildly ambitious attempt at creating a new way of seeing the world through language. Part of a powerful group of writers and artists, many of whom were Cummings’s friends—James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse—he struggled to reshape the triangle between the reader, the writer, and the subject of the poem, novel, or painting. As early as his 1915 Harvard College graduation valedictorian speech, Cummings told his audience that “the New Art, maligned though it may be by fakirs and fanatics, will appear in its essential spirit . . . as a courageous and genuine exploration of untrodden ways.”

Fashions impact on the arts as well as everything else in a society, but when he died at age 68 in 1962 Cummings was, after Robert Frost, the most widely read poet in the U.S., writes Cheever. To a large extent, his fan base was young girls like Susan Cheever. He was the poetry equivalent of a rock star to them, thanks to his playful use of the language and his beautiful love poems like:

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)i am never without it(anywhere

i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done

by only me is your doing,my darling).

He was also a rebel against authority, which resonated during those pre-Hippie years when "beatniks" ruled. You might even make the case that he was a living, breathing grown-up Holden Caulfield. He was also a conservative, an anti-communist, a fan of Sen. Joe McCarthy  (R-WI),  perhaps influenced by his early 1930s visit to the Soviet Union where he saw a police state first hand. Cheever delves into astrology, noting that Cummings was a Libra, born Oct. 14. As a Libra myself, I understand what she's attempting to state: We Libras are a complicated mass of contradictions!

In a relatively short book -- about 190 pages if you don't count the bibliography, notes, acknowledgement and index -- Cheever also provides the skeleton of a book that examines the American literary scene in the first half of the 20th Century -- in essence a book I'd like to see her write that does for this period what her "American Bloomsbury" did for the 19th Century. 

That book, subtitled "Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau" succeeded in fleshing out the authors most of us laboriously plowed through in high school and college. In "American Bloomsbury" she points out that these authors -- now considered secure in the literary canon -- were once considered avant-garde types at odds with the establishment.

In the same way, in the early 20th Century, Cummings, a product of a nineteenth-century New England childhood, was, in contrast to his "man's man" minister father, a slight, non-athletic youth who loved nature and had a sense of fun that went against the dour New England grain. He grew up in Cambridge, Mass., only a few blocks from Harvard, but he grew to hate the city for its self-assured intellectualism and prejudices.

At Harvard, he roomed with John Dos Passos; befriended Lincoln Kirstein; read Latin, Greek, and French; earned two degrees; discovered alcohol, fast cars, and burlesque at the Old Howard Theater; and raged against the school’s conservative, exclusionary upper-class rule by A. Lawrence Lowell. 

Lowell was the Harvard president who instituted a quota system that aimed at keeping Jewish students a small minority. He didn't care much for black students either at America's most prestigious university. Cheever also points out that women were not welcome at Harvard and were forbidden until well into the 20th Century from taking classes there. They had they own ghetto in Radcliffe.

While Cummings raged against the anti-Semitism of Lowell and others, he wasn't free from it himself, as Cheever clearly states. Among the many poems, or parts of poems by Cummings that she reproduces is one that most people would consider anti-Semitic. She calls his anti-semitism "indefensible."

To explain How to deal with the often vicious anti-Semitism of Cummings, Cheever muses on page 176:  "Trying to re-create another time and place is difficult; trying not to let our own modern knowledge and understanding bleed into those descriptions of the past is almost impossible. On the one hand, a biographer's responsibility is to bring the past to life on the page in all its details -- including the relative knowledge and ignorance of the community described. On the other hand, shouldn't the biographer give the reader and the subject the benefit of everything known at the time of writing? Should poems and books be understood in a vacuum -- in the historical silence in which a writer connects viscerally and spiritually with a reader? Or should they be understood as pieces of the web of their own time and ours?"

Cheever also describes Cummings' complicated relationship with women and the beyond horrible estrangement engineered by his ex-wife Elaine from his only child, Nancy. I marvel at how Susan Cheever managed to get so much material in a very accessible, relatively short book. Please forgive me for harping on the length of the book, but so many biographies these days are gigantic doorstops that intimidate most readers! Even professional reviewers!

About the author

Susan Cheever was born in New York City in 1943 and graduated from Brown University. A Guggenheim fellow and a director of the board of the Yaddo Corporation, Cheever currently teaches in the MFA programs at Bennington College and The New School. She lives in New York City. She is the author of   American Bloomsbury, Louisa May Alcott, and Home Before Dark, a memoir about her father, John Cheever. Her website: www.susancheever.com.

For a 2011 commentary by the late critic Roger Ebert about whether or not Cummings was a racist, click:  http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/e-e-cummings-was-not-a-racist

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