Kaylie Mcdevitt on “E. E. Cummings: ‘And why not?'”
E. E. Cummings (Edward Estlin Cummings; later stylized e. e. cummings) and his travels mimic the traditional notion of expatriation, but his early writing reflects a boyish antagonism towards political and authoritative figures that follows him throughout his career. Although most known for his iconoclastic poetry, Cummings wrote essays and two autobiographical novels, lectured later in life, and painted. He arrived at his first overseas exploration in the same manner as most able-bodied men from Ivy League universities—World War I.
After signing up as a Norton-Harjes American Ambulance Corps driver, Cummings flippantly remarked, “[h]ope the war isn’t over before I get there” in a letter to his mother (Dupree 16). His depiction of his first voyage does not emphasize an attempt to satisfy moral or intellectual impulses, but rather an opportunity to do both or neither—ce que sera, sera. In conversation with Charles Norman, his friend and biographer, Cummings described his involvement with Norton-Harjes as “‘an opportunity to do something useful and to see France at the same time” (Norman 61). A fortnight later, on May 4, 1917, he wrote from the “Touraine,” his ship to France, declaring he was “…pro-German henceforth. And why not” (Dupree 20). This playful antagonism presents an idiosyncratic interpretation of many Modernist creators’ efforts to distance themselves from their literal and literary ancestors. Though not heedless, Cummings continuously employed contrarian and ironic techniques both to satisfy his own personality and to innovate in an established world of letters.
His mischief quickly landed him on the uncomfortable side of the French government’s censorship laws when he refused to condemn William Slater Brown on the charge of treason or admit to hating Germans, instead insisting that he likes the French people: “Non. J’aime beaucoup les français” (Cummings 11). The resulting three and a half months stint in La Ferté Macé, an internment camp in Orne, led to Cummings’ first autobiographical novel, The Enormous Room. The text itself and his correspondence from this period surprisingly express youthful exuberance associated with anything at all new and exciting. Beneath the impishness of Cummings and his fellow prisoners, who misbehave their guards almost as schoolboys would a teacher, there exists a severe criticism of the French government for its negligence towards men who constantly demonstrate dignity in response to their imprisonment. His critique of the French government presents itself in snide comments about the guards and a scathing account of the review board that decided the fate of each, innocent or guilty, prisoner. After an arduous campaign by his father, Cummings was finally released on December 19, 1917, and arrived in New York on the first day of the new year (Norman 86, 88).
Before his imprisonment, E.E. Cummings fell in love with Paris, though he complained about typical Americans tourists (Dupree 22). In the early 1920’s, he returned to the city and sent a particularly long letter to his sister, Elizabeth, explaining how she might “wake up” and instructing, “WHEN YOU COME TO FRANCE,FOR GOD’S SWEET SAKE LEAVE AMERICA !!! [sic]” (Dupree 87). His advice showcased the popular view among expatriates that one left America in order to escape its materialism and growing consumerism inasmuch as one left to experience European culture. William Slater Brown, Gilbert Seldes, Scofield Thayer, James Sibley Watson, John Dos Passos, and then Ezra Pound were among his closest friends during and after these years. During this time, Cummings also published two collections of poetry entitled Tulips and Chimneys (1923) and XLI Poems (1925).
Another trip abroad to Paris and then the Soviet Union in 1931 produced another autobiographical novel,Eimi, and a collection of artwork entitled CIOPW. Eimi was assembled from his diary entries, perhaps in the style of the “spectatorial attitude” proposed by Malcolm Cowley in Exile’s Return (43), and received little success commercially (Norman 187). According to Milton Cohen, political antagonism became more common during the Great Depression, and Cummings’ experience of the USSR clashed with leftist critics’ preferences (82). As the members of the “Lost Generation” began to repatriate and consumers of Modernist literature began to adopt less bohemian ways of life, Cummings’ strong political messages and bellicose style received less patience. Of course, Cummings only responded with his distinctive brand of pointed antagonism, parodying the parodies of his work.
In the same way critics’ views had politicized since the 30’s, Cummings’ later poetry deals more openly with ideological topics, but artistically, the delivery of his opinions remains in his style. His dichotomy of “you and I” versus “mostpeople” appears in his later poetry, resembling a certain childlike spitefulness that leads critiques to call him a “‘snob’” (Cohen 82-83). If not for the sake of contrarianism, then at least in the way of Modernism, E.E. Cummings explored the distance between this “Lost Generation” and its surroundings. When his contemporary critics tired of his antagonism, or—as Horace Gregory asserts—his “seeming adolescent beyond [his] years” (qtd. in Cohen 80), it may have been they tired of their own ideas and identifications, which they had outgrown or ignored as they returned “home.”
Cohen, Milton. “From Bad Boy to Curmudgeon: Cummings’ Political Evolution.” Words into Pictures: E. E. Cummings’ Art Across Borders. Eds. Jiri Flajsar and Zeno Vernyik. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. 68-89. UTSA Libraries. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.
Cowley, Malcolm. Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s. New York: Penguin, 1994 . Print.
Cummings, E.E. The Enormous Room. Eds. Paul Negri and Susan L. Rattiner. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2002. Print.
Dupree, F.W. and George Stade, eds. Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc, 1969. Print.
Norman, Charles. E. E. Cummings: The Magic Maker. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1964 . Print.
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