In the Coda to her new biography of E. E. Cummings, Susan Cheever acknowledges that her subject’s reputation has waned in the past 20 years: “These days he is too popular for the academy and often too sassy to be taught in high school.”
Nevertheless, Edward Estlin Cummings remains one of the few poets that just about every adult English-speaking American has heard of, even if he is more a name than a person. Cheever’s project, of course, is to transform that name into a three-dimensional human being, and, overall, she succeeds.
Cummings was born into a life of privilege in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was a Harvard professor and a minister of the Cambridge Congregational Church; his mother was, if anything, even more well-heeled. Estlin (as his family called him) was apparently “a good boy,” but like many college students before and after him, he rebelled against the strict, decorous environment in which he was raised and educated. A number of his early and most famous poems—“the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls,” “in Just- / spring when the world is mud- / luscious” and “Buffalo Bill’s / defunct” were written during the time he was disengaging himself from Boston and moving to Greenwich Village where he hobnobbed with the avant-garde.
The book describes several episodes in Cummings’s life that will be unfamiliar to most readers of his poetry: a sojourn in the Soviet Union, for instance, and his two brief and unhappy marriages. He also drove an ambulance during World War I, and the six months he spent locked up in a French prison for “defiance and outrageous behavior” resulted in an experimental memoir entitled The Enormous Room. The fact that Cummings’s poem on a similar theme, “i sing of Olaf glad and big / whose warmest heart recoiled at war,” is much better known speaks to where his real talents lay.
Cummings was also a capable artist, although he ended up making his living as an older man through public speaking appearances. Indeed, Cheever begins her biography with a description of a reading by Cummings in 1952. One woman who attended recalls, “‘He was enchanting, captivating, and magnetic. He was very virile and sexual on the stage. I think he made some of the men uncomfortable.’” If Cummings’s name is now so familiar, it is in part because these “extraordinary readings” made him a national celebrity.
Not surprisingly for the daughter of another renowned American writer, Cheever devotes many of the book’s final pages to recounting the long-delayed reunion between Estlin and his daughter, Nancy, who had been separated from him since the age of five by her manipulative mother. They were reunited when Nancy was in her late twenties, but their fitful attempts to truly connect were clearly a source of pain for Cummings.
Ultimately, though, in chapter after chapter, E. E. Cummings comes across as petty, vain, fickle, selfish, and self-pitying. He displayed the childish pique many a high school student has cherished right to the end of his life, when he died of a heart attack at his beloved Joy Farm in New Hampshire.
While Cheever does her best to isolate the most powerful moments in Cummings’s poetry—and there are more than a few—her admirable unwillingness to give her subject a pass on his many shenanigans means that A Life is unlikely to bolster his current reputation. Instead, Cummings will probably always remain the poet adolescents turn to when they, like the serpents in one of his poems, first “bargain for the right to squirm.”