THE BEAUTY OF LIVING
E. E. Cummings in the Great War
By J. Alison Rosenblitt
Edward Estlin Cummings belonged to the generation of modernists — Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane — who changed American poetry. You might say they did it by making the language more worldly and less English, but for Cummings, in particular, the discovery of Europe and the experience of war were inseparable motives of that change. His formal innovations also owed much to his study of Greek and Latin verse, which may be why J. Alison Rosenblitt, a classics professor at Oxford, found an affinity with his work.
“The Beauty of Living,” Rosenblitt’s account of the formative influences on Cummings’s life and work, begins with his childhood in Cambridge, Mass. His mother doted on him and preserved his earliest efforts as a writer. His father, Edward Cummings, a Unitarian minister and liberal-minded in public, was a rigorous moralist at home. As a student at Cambridge High and Latin School, Cummings excelled in French and twice failed “deportment.” At Harvard, he fell in with a literary society that included S. Foster Damon, Robert Hillyer and John Dos Passos. The group favored the sensualists among the late Victorians — Rossetti and especially Swinburne — and Rosenblitt brings out their “pagan” aestheticism as it emerged in illustrations and motifs of the faun and the goat-god Pan. She offers a plausible speculation that Cummings’s fondness for rearranged letters or syllables may have been due to dyslexia: “That twitch of the mind can also bring an extraordinary facility in handling reversals of other kinds” — as in his grasshopper poem, “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r.”
Cummings and his Harvard circle were enchanted by the European art first shown in America at the Armory Show, which came to Boston in 1913. He was a partisan of the new by the time he arrived in Paris, in May 1917; and on his way to serve as a volunteer in an ambulance unit, he joined his friend William Slater Brown at the debut of the Satie-Cocteau ballet “Parade.” During those first weeks in Paris, he fell in love with a prostitute, Marie Louise Lallemand. On the intensity of his feelings and his later self-reproach for “cruel” treatment of her (the details of which remain obscure), Rosenblitt writes some of her most original and interesting pages. His time at the front, as she tells it, was brief and uneventful: The war was ugly and futile; Army regimentation was a horror in itself. “However busy 60 men may be kept suffering in common,” he would later observe, “there is always one man or two or three who can always find time to make certain of their comrades enjoying a little extra suffering.”
He was recalled from service and sent to prison for a cause he couldn’t know at the time. His friend Brown had written home about the spread of syphilis among American troops and reported conversations about French, English and American soldiers contriving to kill their officers in friendly-fire accidents. Army censors reading the correspondence were unlikely to be good-natured at a moment when, as Rosenblitt points out, General Haig “was utterly persuaded that German morale was on the point of breaking any day.” Cummings was interrogated, for good measure, after Brown, and (though not knowing Brown’s offense) refused to dissociate himself from his friend. When offered an easy way out — would he at least avow that he hated the Germans? — he declined the invitation and answered only that he loved the French.
In France, between May and December 1917, Cummings filled more than a dozen notebooks, and “The Beauty of Living” relies largely on these. Rosenblitt doesn’t attempt a general assessment of his autobiographical war novel, “The Enormous Room”; an odd omission, since that book is the main reason people associate him with the war at all. From evidence in the notebooks, however, she does confirm many details of Cummings’s descriptions of the men who filed into and out of the Enormous Room — his name for the fourth-floor living and sleeping quarters of the camp de triage where he was interned for his offense. In the novel, we get to know the men by their nicknames: Mexique, Judas, One-Eyed Dah-veed, Monsieur Pet-airs, the Young Pole, Bill the Hollander, Garibaldi, Surplice, the Woodchuck and so on. The tyrannical directeur is alternately nicknamed Apollyon, after the hellish beast (fish, dragon, bear and lion) from “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” Cummings hardly figures as a character except by his own explosive or muffled reactions to events. Anger and ridicule lie close to the surface in every sentence.
His poems were known early on for their wildness, but typography and page layout (capitals, punctuation, spacing) had as much to do with their fame as any deeper inventiveness. “The Enormous Room” leans on similar extrinsic or importable means of excitement. The book is strewn with French words and phrases; much of the result is vivid, but just as often the words slide onto the page as proof of Cummings’s fluency, and to throw the reader off balance and introduce the typographical entertainment of italics. We get les hommes, la ville and tout le monde where “the men” and “the town” and “the whole world” would do; or again, on the drawbacks of buying cigarettes: “Why do you dépenser pour these? … Better to buy du tabac and faire yourself.”
The texture of “The Enormous Room” is keyed-up and rather loose, at once frenetic and static, the notations as wandering and improgressive as day after day in prison must be. Two incidents stand out: Cummings’s arrival in the dark, with his first groping impressions of bodies and filth on the floor; and an account of the near-incineration of prostitutes in a locked chamber after guards stuff the cracks with straw and set it on fire. “In telling how and why I disagreed” with his inquisitors, Cummings writes, “I think I managed to shove my shovel-shaped imagination under the refuse of their intellects.” On being informed of his impending release, a guard, he says, “gave me such a look as would have turned a mahogany piano leg into a mound of smoking ashes, and slammed the key into the lock.”
Cummings returned to Paris for a second short stay, lost his virginity to a waitress, Berthe, and went home to America, where he was drafted into the Army. Meanwhile, Cummings’s father carried a longer grudge than young Edward Estlin: To redress the injustice of the false arrest and imprisonment, he hoped to sue the government of France for a million dollars; but to make the charge stick, he needed a full account of Cummings’s experiences. By then, the poet had revolted against his father’s severe morality, yet he felt obligated to pay a debt of honor. He owed his freedom to his father’s persistence in arousing a diplomatic protest. His war book was in this sense a command performance, executed under compulsion by a reluctant but dutiful son.
As moving as any page of “The Enormous Room” is a prose statement, “Armistice,” that Cummings wrote five years after the novel’s publication. The worst thing about war, he said, is that “it is a fake. … It is that colossal fake of fakes in which whole nations indulge, secretly hoping that it will give them a beauty or a courage which they inherently fail to possess.” War can break out only because it appeals to nations rather than individuals, and “millions of people simultaneously delude themselves into believing that they will be reborn through the same magic formula.” Rebirths, as Cummings recognized with the scorn of an unembarrassed atheist, can last a long time and require a great many deaths.