Kaylee Mcdevitt on “Exiled Expatriate: Cummings”
E.E. Cummings’ autobiographical novel, The Enormous Room, chronicles his experience in Camp de Triage de la Ferté Macé, Orne, France, where he and William Slater Brown were detained under suspicion of treason during World War I. The author divides the text into three sections—his removal from Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un (his section in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps), his stay in La Ferté Macé, and his speedy expedition to America upon his release. Within these divisions, portraits of the other prisoners and sketches of key locations weave the text into an imaginative study of humanity, painstakingly depicting dignity and essential emotions in light of imprisonment by the French government, wherein smells, sounds, and sights come to signify more complex conclusions about life and morality. Throughout the novel, Cummings uses his idiosyncratic style and humor to belie notions of superior national identity, localized and global authority figures, and the notion of uncritical patriotism. The premise of the novel itself challenges the motivations and validity of expatriation by fracturing the contemporary narrative of European superiority in civilization.
As an expatriate, Cummings performs a service for the French people and government, but a wartime indiscretion on Brown’s part leads them both to a prison. He has ventured to France presumably to become familiar with the culture and has found himself exiled, so to speak, from his chosen society. W. Todd Martin refers to the novel as “a transcendence of the world of social mores” (33), where Cummings’ removal from society serves a catalyst for individuation and “spiritual rebirth” (34). However, constant and sarcastic criticism of “le gouvernement français” for its ostentatious displays of ineffectual bureaucracy and indiscriminant abuse of “any foreigner” underlines any spiritual effect upon the narrator (Cummings 49, 50). In particular, the Delectable Mountains, his name for four individuals whose humanity he wholeheartedly admires, function to induce readers’ disgust at the authorities’ actions.
While La Ferté Macé may be the site of Cummings’ revelations, the narrator posits this personal development in spite of the immediate environment rather than because of some intangible quality of the soil or larger society. Although J. Gerald Kennedy reasonably argues that Cummings’ construction of Paris reflects the state of Cummings self-conception (1), it is not Paris, or even France, that Cummings truly interacts with for the duration of novel. His interaction with the representatives of humanity—with figures whose national identity mattered to themselves in varying degrees, but to the narrator seemingly not at all—brings about the transformation of his character. Only upon hearing of his immediate exportation does he “[turn] into Edward E. Cummings…into what was dead and is now alive…” (Cummings 188). He emerges from the indignity of the situation, from the group of men for whom no one seemed to care, to reclaim the identity that could belong to no one else.
Through this laborious process, Cummings transforms from an American expatriate to an exile from French society to an Individual. Ultimately, the Enormous Room itself serves as a platform for the intersection of shared strife and individual experience. The Enormous Room creates a text where humanity rules over the national, the patriotic, and, more broadly, the political.
Cummings, E.E. The Enormous Room. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2002 . Print.
Kennedy, J. Gerald. “Place, Self, and Writing: Toward a Poetics of Exile.” Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. 1-37. Print.
Martin, W. Todd. “Cummings’s The Enormous Room.” The Explicator 58.1 (Fall 1999): 33-36. ProQuest. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.
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