If you like the lyrical, visual poetry of e e cummings, this biography of his life will appeal to you. Even if you are not a poetry fan, but you enjoy reading about Greenwich Village and Paris during their artistic heydays, you will enjoy Susan Cheever’s carefully researched biography.
e e cummings was born into privilege in Cambridge, Mass. His father a professor and minister at Harvard. He loved technology and was always buying the next new thing, whether that was an early automobile or a collapsible canoe with folding seats.
The latter purchase caused one of the most horrifying incidents of e e’s teenage years. He and his sister took the canoe out on a lake at their summer place in New Hampshire. Their favorite dog, Rex, accompanied them, but unfortunately, turned suddenly to see something. The boat capsized. And as Elizabeth, e e’s sister, clung to it, the canoe sank. Meanwhile Rex had swum almost the whole way back to shore, but then heard the children and hurried back. Exhausted by this time, the dog pushed Elizabeth down. Elizabeth came up sputtering for air and Rex shoved her down again. As the dog circled close for his third attempt to rescue himself, e e swam over and held Rex down until he stopped breathing.
If you wonder, how the famous poet came by his lower case initials, he started doing this fairly young having been influenced by the typographically-altered work of Pound in grad school. His actual name was Edward Estlen.
To avoid the World War I draft, e e joined the ambulance corps, a popular alternative favored by his Harvard friends. However, he and a buddy came under the eyes of the French censors who found their letters about the war effort mocking and suspicious.They also accused the young Americans of being friendly toward the enemy, Germany. Before long, both were sentenced to jail. Cummings’s three month imprisonment probably saved his life and provided material for his first book The Enormous Room. Meanwhile back home, the poet’s well-connected father was working for his release. So great was his dad’s anger at France for imprisoning his son that he paid e e to write the book that would prove he was innocent.
Meanwhile e e had fallen in love with his best friend’s wife. This was not as disloyal as it sounds because Robert Thayer was gay and not interested in Emma romantically. Before long, e e and Emma began an affair that resulted in Emma’s pregnancy. Both men involved asked her to get an abortion which she tried with a pill, but it did not work. This fortified Emma to decide to keep the child. e e was totally against this, and Robert agreed to pretend the child was his. But after Emma was born, e e fell in love with the girl. He married the rich Emma, but when Emma’s sister died, e e gave her no emotional support and they soon separated. The reunion of the poet and his daughter Nancy many years later offers a few real surprises.
Throughout the book, Cheever also comments on e e’s poems. She speaks of his 20s as his most productive period and the time when he wrote his most renowned poetry. Through a series of love affairs, she also shows the weaknesses in his character.
Throughout, his love for New York City shines through. In the 20s, he found a quiet little place in Patchin Place where he lived and worked for over 40 years. Besides writing, he was also an excellent visual artist. In fact, the two influenced each other.
For a journey into another time and place peopled with many of the greats of the early 20th century: Duchamp, Tennessee Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, to name just a few, try this book.