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E. E. Cummings: A Lifeby Susan Cheever
Synopses & Reviews
From the author of American Bloomsbury, Louisa May Alcott, and Home Before Dark, a major reassessment of the life and work of the novelist, painter, and playwright considered to be one of America’s preeminent twentieth-century poets. At the time of his death in 1962, at age sixty-eight, he was, after Robert Frost, the most widely read poet in the United States.
E. E. Cummings was and remains controversial. He has been called “a master” (Malcolm Cowley); “hideous” (Edmund Wilson). James Dickey called him a “daringly original poet with more vitality and more sheer uncompromising talent than any other living American writer.”
In Susan Cheever’s rich, illuminating biography we see Cummings’s idyllic childhood years in Cambridge, Massachusetts; his Calvinist father — distinguished Harvard professor and sternly religious minister of the Cambridge Congregational Church; his mother — loving, attentive, a source of encouragement, the aristocrat of the family, from Unitarian writers, judges, and adventurers.
We see Cummings — slight, agile, playful, a product of a nineteenth-century New England childhood, bred to be flinty and determined; his love of nature; his sense of fun, laughter, mimicry; his desire from the get-go to stand conventional wisdom on its head, which he himself would often do, literally, to amuse.
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.
In Cheever’s book we see that beneath Cummings’s blissful, golden childhood the strains of sadness and rage were already at play. He grew into a dark young man and set out on a lifelong course of rebellion against conventional authority and the critical establishment, devouring the poetry of Ezra Pound, whose radical verses pushed Cummings away from the politeness of the traditional nature poem toward a more adventurous, sexually conscious form.
We see that Cummings’s self-imposed exile from Cambridge — a town he’d come to hate for its intellectualism, Puritan uptightness, racism, and self-righteous xenophobia — seemed necessary for him as a man and a poet. Headstrong and cavalier, he volunteered as an ambulance driver in World War I, working alongside Hemingway, Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford... his ongoing stand against the imprisonment of his soul taking a literal turn when he was held in a makeshift prison for “undesirables and spies,” an experience that became the basis for his novel, The Enormous Room.
We follow Cummings as he permanently flees to Greenwich Village to be among other modernist poets of the day — Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas — and we see the development of both the poet and his work against the backdrop of modernism and through the influences of his contemporaries: Stein, Amy Lowell, Joyce, and Pound. Cheever’s fascinating book gives us the evolution of an artist whose writing was at the forefront of what was new and daring and bold in an America in transition.
(With 28 pages of black-and-white images.)
"'Too popular for the academy and often too sassy to be taught in high school,' Cummings today is frequently overlooked in the canon of great 20th-century American poets. Born in 1894, Cummings left blueblood New England for Greenwich Village, where his peers would include Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Djuna Barnes, and others. Cummings's innovations in poetic form and syntax made him a true original, and his kinship to Ezra Pound placed him in league with a variety of modernists. However, his career moved in fits and starts, ultimately succeeding late in life with the 1938 publication of his Collected Poems, and as a touring reader and lecturer in the '50s and '60s. Though Cummings's poems enliven the narrative, Cheever (Home Before Dark) rarely provides any analysis to help unfamiliar readers. Instead, the book focuses on his romantic relationships and his eventual reunion with his estranged daughter. Cheever rends excellent dramatic scenes out of climactic personal moments, but elsewhere the narrative sags. The biography returns frequently to the poet's crotchety conservatism and troubling antisemitism, acknowledging how he 'was suffused by rage and delight at the same time,' but the explanations thereof are mostly boilerplate. Cheever draws upon biographies by Charles Norman and Richard Kennedy and to good effect, but her own stance, beyond giving a psychological reading, remains unclear. 28 pages of b&w images. Agent: Gail Hochman, Brandt & Hochman Literary Agency." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
From the acclaimed author of My Name Is Bill ("A national treasure" —Kurt Vonnegut) and Home Before Dark ("Moving and brilliantly restrained....Intimate, deeply felt, and often harrowing" —The New York Times Book Review)—a major reassessment of the life and work of one of America's preeminent twentieth-century poets.
Cummings's radical experimentation with form, punctuation, spelling, and syntax resulted in his creation of a new, idiosyncratic means of poetic expression. And while there was critical disagreement about his work (Edmund Wilson called it "hideous," Malcolm Cowley called him "unsurpassed in his field"), at the time of his death in 1962, at age sixty-eight, he was, after Robert Frost, the most widely read poet in the United States. Now, in this rich, illuminating biography, Susan Cheever traces the development of the poet and his work. She takes us from Cummings's seemingly idyllic childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, through his years at Harvard (rooming with Dos Passos, befriending Malcolm Cowley and Lincoln Kirstein) when he devoured the poetry of Ezra Pound whose radical verses lured the young writer away from the politeness of the traditional nature poem towards a more adventurous, sexually conscious form.... We follow Cummings to Paris in 1917, and, finally, to Greenwich Village to be among other modernist poets of the day — Marianne Moore and Hart Crane, among them.
A revelation of the man and the poet, and a brilliant reassessment of the freighted path of his legacy.
(With 28 pages of black-and-white images.)
About the Author
Susan Cheever was born in New York City 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.
Table of Contents
Preface: A Visit to the Masters School | xi
1. Odysseus Returns to Cambridge | 3
2. 104 Irving Street | 15
3. Harvard | 30
4. The Western Front | 45
5. The Enormous Room | 58
6. Greenwich Village: Elaine and Nancy | 71
7. Anne Barton and Joseph Stalin | 84
8. Eimi and Marion Morehouse | 98
9. No Thanks | 112
10. Ezra Pound and Santa Claus | 128
11. Rebecca and Nancy | 140
12. “I think I am falling in love with you” | 153
13. Readings: A New Career | 168
14. Victory and Defeat | 181
Coda: Cummings’s Reputation in the Twenty-first Century | 186
Afterword: Patchin Place | 188
Illustration Credits 213
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