e. e. cummings: a life

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Overview

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” ...

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E. E. Cummings: A Life

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Overview

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.)

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Daisy Fried
It's a delight that in her brief biography Cheever embraces Cummings's contradictions rather than tut-tutting over them, and refuses to treat the poet with the condescension of his more impatient readers…Cheever seems charmed by her subject and is a good prose stylist…
Publishers Weekly
10/28/2013
“oo 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. (Feb.)
From the Publisher

Praise for Susan Cheever’s
E.E. CUMMINGS
 
With boundless new detail gathered through meticulous research, Susan Cheever succeeds where most other biographers have failed.”
 
                                                                                    -The Economist
 
“E.E. Cummings: A Life is like the poet himself: playful, trim, and meticulous.”
 
                                                                                                                -Claire Luchette, Poetry Foundation
 
“Cheever has gone deep into Cummings' personal life and his relationships to give us a fully rounded portrait of one of the previous century's most important writers.”
 
- Andrew McKeever, Manchester Journal
 
 
“Absorbing…a vibrant life that was representative of its time and place in no way more than its refusal to be representative…Cheever revives Cummings as a gregarious, quirky iconoclast through her evocative prose.”
                                                                                                                -Steve G. Kellman, SF Chronicle
 
 
“Cummings’s life is inherently interesting, dramatic, and sad, and Cheever highlights its colorful and tragic aspects…one has to admire the spirit of acceptance that Cheever breathes into her book. Even as she celebrates Cummings’s rebelliousness, bravado, and ‘irrepressible’ nature, she emphasizes, with compassion and tenderness, his frailty, anxiety, vulnerability.”
 
                                                                                    -Priscilla Gilman, Boston Globe
 
 
“Blending biography, memoir and cultural history – among her favored genres – Cheever offers not a definitive scholarly work but a textured inspection of some of the more intriguing faces of the multifaceted Cummings…we get a tightly focused image of Cummings, an image comprising evocative words that occasionally drip Susan Cheever’s heart’s blood.”
 
-Daniel Dyer, Cleveland Plain Dealer
 
E.E. Cummings: A Life isn't the first biography of the poet, but it may be the most charming and heartfelt. An ideal, unpretentious and welcoming biography for those interested in learning more about a great poet too often remembered for his rejection of capital letters than his verse.”
 
                                                                                    -Tom Lavoie, Shelf Awareness
 
 
“Cheever’s biography stands as a welcomed introductory attempt to understand Cummings’s impact, and it is even one of the best efforts to situate a Modernist inside the larger historical context.”
 
                                                                                    -Charles Shafaieh, Daily Beast
 
“Cheever burrows with credibility, exposing Cummings’ actual life, actual unfiltered activities, and from this reveals his motivations and, finally, his world view…She establishes a golden age of poetry with Cummings at its center…Cheever becomes our guide through Cummings’ styles of life and art…She shows remarkable objectivity, which is critical in honest reportage, and her personal skills are beautifully developed and make for delightful reading…With care and responsibility, Cheever gives us a comprehensive view of a man with interesting problems whom we only thought we knew.”
 
-Grace Cavalieri, Washington Independent Review of Books
 
“Cheever’s reconsideration of Cummings and his work charms, rattles, and enlightens in emulation of Cummings’ radically disarming, tender, sexy, plangent, and furious poems.”
                                                                                    -Booklist (Starred Review)
 
“Drawing on letters, archival material and several more comprehensive biographies, Cheever distills the major events of Cummings’ life… This sympathetic life may win Cummings a new generation of readers.”

                                                                                    —Kirkus
 
“Affecting…brilliant…Ms. Cheever is the kind of biographer who can maintain both an intimacy and dispassionate relationship with her subject...deeply satisfying.”
 
-Norman Powers, New York Journal of Books
 
“Cheever rends excellent dramatic scenes out of climactic moments.”
 
                                                                                    -Publishers Weekly
 
 

From the Publisher
Praise for Susan Cheever’s
E.E. CUMMINGS
 
“Blending biography, memoir and cultural history – among her favored genres – Cheever offers not a definitive scholarly work but a textured inspection of some of the more intriguing faces of the multifaceted Cummings…we get a tightly focused image of Cummings, an image comprising evocative words that occasionally drip Susan Cheever’s heart’s blood.”
 
-Daniel Dyer, Cleveland Plain Dealer
 
“She generously and lusciously quotes from his exuberant poetry throughout the book, and takes the time to discuss in depth a number of pieces. E.E. Cummings: A Life isn't the first biography of the poet, but it may be the most charming and heartfelt—a thoroughly enjoyable appreciation. An ideal, unpretentious and welcoming biography for those interested in learning more about a great poet too often remembered for his rejection of capital letters than his verse.”
 
                                                                                    -Tom Lavoie, Shelf Awareness
 
 
“Cheever’s biography stands as a welcomed introductory attempt to understand Cummings’s impact, and it is even one of the best efforts to situate a Modernist inside the larger historical context.”
 
                                                                                    -Charles Shafaieh, Daily Beast
 
“Cheever burrows with credibility, exposing Cummings’ actual life, actual unfiltered activities, and from this reveals his motivations and, finally, his world view…She establishes a golden age of poetry with Cummings at its center…Cheever becomes our guide through Cummings’ styles of life and art…She shows remarkable objectivity, which is critical in honest reportage, and her personal skills are beautifully developed and make for delightful reading…With care and responsibility, Cheever gives us a comprehensive view of a man with interesting problems whom we only thought we knew.”
 
-Grace Cavalieri, Washington Independent Review of Books
 
“Cheever incisively dissects Cummings’ two disastrous marriages and the shocking abduction of his adored only child, Nancy Thayer, who became an artist and poet unaware of who her father actually was… Cheever’s reconsideration of Cummings and his work charms, rattles, and enlightens in emulation of Cummings’ radically disarming, tender, sexy, plangent, and furious poems.”
                                                                                    -Booklist (Starred Review)
 
“Drawing on letters, archival material and several more comprehensive biographies, Cheever distills the major events of Cummings’ life… This sympathetic life may win Cummings a new generation of readers.”

                                                                                    —Kirkus
 
“Affecting…brilliant…Ms. Cheever is the kind of biographer who can maintain both an intimacy and dispassionate relationship with her subject...deeply satisfying.”
 
-Norman Powers, New York Journal of Books
 
“Cheever rends excellent dramatic scenes out of climactic moments.”
 
                                                                                    -Publisher’s Weekly
 
 

Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-29
Biography of the irreverent modernist poet, who was apparently a sad, troubled man. Cheever (Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography, 2010, etc.) met E.E. Cummings (1894–1962) when she was a junior at the Masters School in Westchester, where he had come to give a reading. After his "electrifying and acrobatic" performance, the author and her father drove Cummings back to his home in Greenwich Village, regaled all the way by the poet's mockery of the school, teachers and stultifying pedagogy. John Cheever, who had known Cummings in the 1930s, was as enchanted as his daughter. "Cummings," she writes, "was our generation's beloved heretic, a Henry David Thoreau for the twentieth century." Drawing on letters, archival material and several more comprehensive biographies, Cheever distills the major events of Cummings' life along with reflections on the challenge of interpreting her subject's self-destructive behavior, anti-Semitism, sexuality and egotism. Throughout his life, Cummings berated himself for not being manly enough. Slight, delicate, almost feminine in physique, he felt "overwhelmed," Cheever writes, "by his father's great, masculine bulk." Edward Cummings, besides being large, was authoritarian, prudish and demanding, and his son rebelled messily and noisily. From the time he was a disgruntled undergraduate at Harvard until his death, the poet who exalted spring and flowers and balloons and clowns was an angry man, "an anger that became more of an irritation with the entire world when he drank and as he aged." He hated phonies, politicians and anyone in authority, and he loved children and nature: "The young were wiser and purer, more innocent and more beautiful than the self-appointed elders of the world. Nature with its indecipherable glories was where true enlightenment could be found." Cummings' literary innovations elicited both adulation and disdain. After a dip in his reputation in the 1940s and '50s, "the poet of chaos, playfulness, and topsy-turvy rule breaking" was celebrated again in the '60s. This sympathetic life may win Cummings a new generation of readers.
Library Journal
01/01/2014
After the publication of two other authors' massive biographies of poet Edward Estlin Cummings, well known as e.e. cummings (1894–1962), one can only wonder: What did Cheever (MFA, Bennington Coll. & The New School) hope to add to the cummings industry? The author begins with a personal anecdote. As a high school student, she had the opportunity to spend time at a White Castle burger restaurant with Cummings (and her father, author John Cheever). This personal connection to Cummings certainly affords her book a sense of immediacy that might be lacking in the more serious biographies produced by Richard S. Kennedy (Dreams in the Mirror) and Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno (E.E. Cummings: A Biography)—each well over 500 pages—but it isn't enough to give her book any importance. And neither is her telling of Cummings's life. She adds no particularly valuable new (or personal) insight into this poet, and her tone often comes across as defensive. VERDICT Though Cheever has produced some highly praised works in the past (American Bloomsbury; Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; My Name Is Bill), this new biography is a failed attempt to explore the psychosexual intricacies of a literary life. With the easy availability of more thoroughly researched and readable volumes, there seems no reason to buy this new work. [See Prepub Alert, 8/5/13.]—Herman Sutter, St. Agnes Acad., Houston
The Barnes & Noble Review

As a poet whose reputation has waxed and waned with regularity in the fifty-plus years after his death, there's a certain uneasiness to E. E. Cummings's claim to be one of the great American poets of the twentieth century. The knock on him — and it's a big one — is that he specialized in a kind of middlebrow modernism, with an emphasis on form over substance. There are not, after all, many poets best known for their deployment of lowercase letters. Lowercase letters, though, will only get one so far, and Susan Cheever's chatty bio — it's a book that "dishes" rather than illustrates — shows just what role nepotism and cronyism had in Cummings's ability to get anywhere, and makes you wonder if he would have done so at all on his own.

Cummings's father was a Harvard man, and so Cummings himself becomes one, living just down the road from the campus. Cheever frequently describes the poet as pretentious, and yet, his was a pretentiousness at odds with his more playful, often childlike aspects. The flight from Cambridge is funded by one Scofield Thayer, conceivably the most fascinating, maddening, ephemeral character in the entire book, a guy who deserves, if not a bio of his own, an author to come along and fashion the rudiments of his life into a novel.

Rich and quite mad, Thayer offers Cummings $1,000 to write a poem for his wedding, which allows Cummings to set up house — or a studio apartment, anyway — in Greenwich Village. Thayer then turns his wife over to Cummings, after creating the magazine The Dial, telling his friend that he can publish whatever he wants in those pages, sans editing.

The romantic situation/entanglement goes, of course, dreadfully wrong. Thayer enters into therapy with Freud; Freud tells him to let Cummings have his wife; Cummings gets the wife, has a kid with her, and then has his child taken away from him for a couple of decades. When Cummings and child are reunited, she doesn't know who he is; he doesn't tell her, and she starts to fall in love with the man, now in his fifties, who sired her. All of which leaves out Cummings's second wife, who may have been worse than the first.

By no means a thorough account, this is a bio that is largely anecdotal in nature, and some of the sentences land with a clunk: "There were plenty of broad jokes and plenty of broads," for example. Much mention is made of Cummings as a painter, but rarely are we given a glance into what this element of his creative output entailed. Instead, we get inventories of his various tics, and it comes clear just how trying Cummings's life could be for those who shared it with him, despite all of the playful verse making. There are pills, open marriages, drinking jaunts with Brendan Behan, a crankiness that apparently emanates from back pain but, really, speaks to deeper, more internalized notions of hurt.

Then there's the question of Cummings's anti-Semitism, which Cheever contrasts with Ezra Pound's more virulent prejudice, and while nothing is excused away — quite the contrary — Cheever argues that in Cummings's case it speak more to a prevailing disgust with the world rather than a disgust centered on one group in it:

Cummings was an equal opportunity hater. He hated Hitler and he hated the Jews. He hated Roosevelt and he hated Stalin — he especially hated Stalin. He hated the critical establishment and he didn't like the new restaurants on Tenth Street. He made fun of other poets who had once been his friends.
So: hate. Yet, also, a lot of love, for children, rural New England, and, quaintly, blue jays, with their rakehell personalities (Cummings and Pound had heated blue jay debates). Cummings knew a rascal when he saw a rascal, and rascals pleased him. So, too, did the woman, Marion Morehouse, who became his common- law wife. She was an odd mix, alternately draconian and nurturing. Cheever informs us that Morehouse could not have been less interested in literature when the two met, and yet, by the end of Cummings's life, she was his literary shepherdess, encouraging him in his work and then, after his death, overseeing where it went in the world.

He seems to have needed as much shepherding as he could get. At what should have been the apex of his fame, Cummings had to borrow money from his mother — she funded him for her entire life — to put out No Thanks, a book that no one would touch, not because it was worse or different than anything else he had ever done. So much of lauded achievement in a life like this, we come to see, is circumstantial. Having a Scofield Thayer, say, versus not having one. More often than not, Cummings had one, and so now we have this biography, a work that finds more meat in the foibles of a man than the life of an artist.

Colin Fleming writes for The Atlantic, Slate, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Book Review and publishes fiction with The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, Boulevard, and Black Clock. His first book, Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep, is forthcoming from Outpost19, with his second, Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories, to follow from Texas Review Press. He is at work on two novels: one about a piano prodigy who would rather be anything but, called The Freeze Tag Sessions, and another, told entirely in conversations, called Musings with Franklin, which is set in a bar in what may or may not be hell, where the regulars — Writer, Bartender, and the guy from the suburbs who dresses up as Ben Franklin — gather.

Reviewer: Colin Fleming

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307379979
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/11/2014
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 287,541
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 2.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Cheever

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.

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Read an Excerpt

Preface
 
A Visit to the Masters School
 
During the last years of his life E. E. Cummings made a modest living on the high-school lecture circuit. In the winter of 1960 his schedule brought him to read his adventurous poems at an uptight girls’ school in Westchester where I was a miserable seventeen-year-old junior with failing grades.
 
I vaguely knew that Cummings had been a friend of my father’s; my father loved to tell stories about Cummings’s gallantry, and Cummings’s ability to live elegantly on almost no money—an ability my father himself struggled to cultivate. When my father was a young writer in New York City, in the golden days before marriage and children pressured him to move to the suburbs, the older Cummings had been his beloved friend and adviser.
 
On that cold night in 1960, Cummings was near the end of his brilliant and controversial forty-year career as this country’s only true modernist poet. Primarily remembered these days for its funky punctuation, Cummings’s work was in fact a wildly ambitious attempt at creating a new way of seeing the world through language. Part of a powerful group of writers and artists, many of whom were Cummings’s friends—James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse—he struggled to reshape the triangle between the reader, the writer, and the subject of the poem, novel, or painting. As early as his 1915 Harvard College graduation valedictorian speech, Cummings told his audience that “the New Art, maligned though it may be by fakirs and fanatics, will appear in its essential spirit . . . as a courageous and genuine exploration of untrodden ways.”
 
Modernism as Cummings and his mid-twentieth-century colleagues embraced it had three parts. The first was the exploration of using sounds instead of meanings to connect words to the reader’s feelings. The second was the idea of stripping away all unnecessary things to bring attention to form and structure: the formerly hidden skeleton of a work would now be exuberantly visible. The third facet of modernism was an embrace of adversity. In a world seduced by easy understanding, the modernists believed that difficulty enhanced the pleasures of reading. In a Cummings poem the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition. Like many of his fellow modernists (there were those who walked out of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and viewers were scandalized by Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase), Cummings was sometimes reviled by the fakirs and fanatics of the critical establishment. Princeton poet Richard P. Blackmur said Cummings’s poems were “baby talk,” and poetry arbiter Helen Vendler called them repellent and foolish: “What is wrong with a man who writes this?” she asked.
 
Nothing was wrong with Cummings—or Duchamp or Stravinsky or Joyce, for that matter. All were trying to slow down the seemingly inexorable rush of the world, to force people to notice their own lives. In the twenty-first century, that rush has now reached Force Five; we are all inundated with information and given no time to wonder what it means or where it came from. Access without understanding and facts without context have become our daily diet.
 
Although in the 1950s and ’60s Cummings was one of the most popular poets in America, he sometimes didn’t make enough money to pay the rent on the ramshackle apartment in Greenwich Village on Patchin Place where he lived with the incandescently beautiful model Marion Morehouse. This bothered Cummings not at all. He was delighted by almost everything in life except for the institutions and formal rules that he believed sought to deaden feelings. “Guilt is the cause of more disauders / than history’s most obscene marorders,” Cummings wrote.
 
Cummings was an American aristocrat with two degrees from Harvard; my father had been headed for Harvard when he was expelled from high school, and he adored Cummings’s combination of academic success and lighthearted lack of reverence for academic success. In spite of his establishment background, Cummings treated the establishment with an amused contempt.
 
At a time when The New Yorker annoyingly bowdlerized my father’s mentions of kissing, Cummings got away with writing graphic erotic poetry, neatly stepping around the Mrs. Grundys of the magazine world. “may i feel said he / (i’ll squeal said she / just once said he),” he wrote, in a famous poem that doesn’t upset the apple cart as much as give it a new team of wild horses. He also wrote some of the sweetest love poems of the century:
 
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)i am never without it(anywhere i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done by only me is your doing,my darling)
 
My father drove me to school that night—the Masters School, in Dobbs Ferry, was thirty minutes from where we lived in Scarborough. As we stepped into the entrance hall, Cummings bellowed “JOEY!”—my father’s boyhood nickname. The two men heartily embraced as the school’s sour founders and headmistresses glared down from their gold-framed portraits on the paneled walls.
 
Cummings was taller than my father and eighteen years older, but they both wore tattered Harris Tweed jackets. Cummings had developed an electrifying and acrobatic way to give poetry readings, sitting on a chair and moving around the stage instead of hiding behind a lectern, and timing his readings to the second. For this audience, he knew enough to skip his erotic masterpieces. His elegance and courtesy got him a standing ovation, especially for a powerful, moving evocation of his father: “my father moved through dooms of love / through sames of am through haves of give, / singing each morning out of each night . . .” After an encore, he appeared in his coat and scarf to let the audience know he had to go home.
 
My father and I drove him home to Patchin Place. “He was the most brilliant monologist I have ever known,” wrote Malcolm Cowley; and that night, leaning forward from the backseat of our secondhand Dodge, I was treated to what Archibald MacLeish called one of Cummings’s “virtuoso performances.” Cummings was an unabashed and very funny rebel; he also had an astonishingly mobile face and a flexible dancer’s body. He wasn’t just an inspired mimic; he seemed to become the people he was imitating. To this day my ninety-four-year-old mother fondly remembers his imitations, his collapsible top hat, and his willingness to stand on his head for a laugh.
 
As we turned out of the school’s genteel, tree-lined driveway and down the hill to Route 9, headed for the vibrant city, Cummings let out a deep, comic sigh of relief. My father drove, and Cummings talked, mocking the teachers who were making my life miserable—he said the place was more like a prison than a school. It was a hatchery whose goal was to produce uniformity. I was unhappy there? No wonder! I was a spirited and wise young woman. Only a mindless moron (Cummings loved alliteration) could excel in a place like that. What living soul could even survive a week in that assembly line for obedient girls, that pedagogical factory whose only purpose was to turn out so-called educated wives for upper-class blowhards with red faces and swollen bank balances? I had been told not to be so negative all the time. Cummings reminded me of his friend Marianne Moore’s admonition: you mustn’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.
 
When we stopped for burgers at a White Castle in the Bronx, heads turned at Cummings’s uncanny, hilarious imitation of the head of the Masters School English Department. In that well-lighted place, late at night, my father produced a flask and spiked the coffee. I was already drunk on a different kind of substance—inspiration. It wasn’t those in authority who were always right; it was the opposite. I saw that being right was a petty goal—being free was the thing to aim for. My father, who had always sided with the school, listened. Within a year he had consented to send me to a different kind of school, an alternative school in South Woodstock, Vermont, where I was very happy.
 
History has given us very few heretics who have not been burned at the stake. Cummings was our generation’s beloved heretic, a Henry David Thoreau for the twentieth century. He lived most of his life in Greenwich Village, at Patchin Place, during a time when experiments of all kinds, social, artistic, and literary, were being carried out. He knew everyone in the city’s downtown hobohemia, from the iconic homeless Harvard alumnus Joe Gould, whose oral history was more myth than reality, to the sculptor Gaston Lachaise. In his almost three thousand poems he sometimes furiously, sometimes lovingly debunked anything or anyone in power—even death, in his famous poem about Buffalo Bill, with its spangled alliterations and intimate last lines: “and what i want to know is / how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death.”
 
Cummings despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it. This led him into some political carelessness. After a miserable stint trying to write screenplays in Hollywood, he wrote some stupidly anti-Semitic poems and sentences. His feelings about communism led him to become a fan of Senator Joseph McCarthy. On the other hand, when it came to writing about love and sex, Cummings did for poetry what Henry Miller was doing for prose.
 
Even more shocking, he was no respecter of social mores. “but it’s life said he / but your wife said she / now said he) / ow said she / (tiptop said he / don’t stop said she / oh no said he) / go slow said she . . .” Instead of using dialect as novelists do today, he explored phonetics in a way that urges the reader to speak the dialect in question: “oil tel duh woil doi sez, dooyuh unners tanmih.” In a world where his antithesis Robert Frost was famously opining that free verse was like playing tennis without a net, Cummings—who, unlike Frost, had a rigorous classical education—showed that traditions like the sonnet form could be reinvented.
 
Cummings and my father met in New York City in the 1930s, introduced by the biographer Morris Werner; his wife, Hazel Hawthorne Werner; and Malcolm Cowley. (Malcolm was later my father-in-law, but that’s another story.) “His hair was nearly gone,” my father recalled of their first meetings, with the kind of exaggerated black humor both men loved; “his last book of poetry had been rejected by every estimable publisher, his wife was six months pregnant by her dentist and his Aunt Jane had purloined his income and had sent him, by way of compensation, a carton of Melba toast.” Cummings’s second wife was leaving him, and he was having trouble finding a publisher. Yet he urged my father to be proud. “A writer is a Prince!” he insisted. He also, with more success, urged him to abandon Boston, “a city without springboards for people who can’t dive.”
 
By the time I heard him read at the Masters School that night in 1960, I was steeped in Cummings stories that few people had heard. My father’s credo was taken from a letter Cummings had written to cheer him when my father was an infantry sergeant in the Philippines in 1942. “I too have slept with someone’s boot in the corner of my smile,” my father often quoted, although he cleaned up Cummings’s experimental language. “listen, moi aussi have slept in mmuudd with a kumrad’s feet in the corners of my smile,” Cummings actually wrote. The letter included an autumn leaf and a ten-dollar bill. I have it on my wall today.
 
In another favorite story of my father’s, Cummings and Marion, literally penniless, used their last two tokens to take the subway uptown from Patchin Place to a fabulous New Year’s Eve party. They were dressed to the nines: she, long-legged in a spectacular evening gown, and he in a glamorous gentleman’s top hat and tails. The night was freezing cold; how would they get home? Neither of them worried at all as they dazzled the partygoers and had the time of their lives.
 
In the elevator on their way home in the early morning, the airy, beautiful couple noticed a leaden banker and his stodgy wife. They were all a little drunk on champagne. The banker admired Cummings’s beautiful hat. “Sir,” asked Cummings in his educated accent, “what would you give for the privilege of stepping on it?” The banker paid ten dollars, the hat collapsed on cue, and Cummings and Marion took a cab back to Patchin Place.
 
The way he died, in 1962, at Joy Farm, the Cummings family place in Silver Lake, New Hampshire, was another one of my father’s often-told stories. Marion had called him in to dinner as day faded and the glorious sky lit up with the fires of sunset. “I’ll be there in a moment,” Cummings said. “I’m just going to sharpen the axe.” A few minutes later he crumpled to the ground, felled by a cerebral hemorrhage. He was sixty-seven. That, my father let us all know, was the way to die—still manly and useful, still beloved, still strong. “ ‘how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death,’ ” my father growled, his eyes wet with tears.
 
Fortunately, almost miraculously, Patchin Place is a corner of New York City that has been virtually untouched by the last fifty years. Still a small mews of shabby houses tucked off a tree-lined street in the West Village, it is home to a bohemian group of writers, eccentrics, and people who have lived there for decades. In the summer, through the open windows, you can see a woman reading in a room piled high with books. A gray tabby snoozes in the sun on the pavement. In the spring there are homemade window boxes and piles of literary junk from spring cleanings, and in the winter the snow falls softly on the peeling paint of white fences and sagging iron gates between the mews and Tenth Street. Two plaques are bolted to number 4, where Cummings rented a studio in the back on the third floor, and later a ground-floor apartment with Marion.
 
You step away from the traffic and trendiness of lattes and expensive baby clothes on Sixth Avenue and into a place where time stands still. When I wander there under the streetlights on warm evenings, it could be the night fifty years ago that my father and I drove Cummings home. When we got to Patchin Place that night, Cummings warmly invited us to come in for more conversation. We could talk awhile, have a coffee, and listen to some of his new poems; but it was late, and we had a long drive home. Now, in this book, I would like to take him up on that invitation.
 
New York City
June 2012

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Table of Contents

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
Acknowledgments 189
Notes 191
Bibliography 199
Index 201
Illustration Credits 213
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2014

    Linksolo

    Waits

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2014

    More than adequately and fairly summarizes his life.  However, a

    More than adequately and fairly summarizes his life.  However, a bit repetitive in places.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2014

    Ms. Cheever is very quick to condemn Cummings based on several p

    Ms. Cheever is very quick to condemn Cummings based on several poems containing objectionable language. She does not delve into various interpretations of these works, exploring possible motivations and deeper reasoning for their having been written, but rather chooses to cast off these works as being no more than inflammatory writings from a racist and anti-Semite. In creating her portrait of the man, her brushstrokes are too broad—its reads as nothing more than an extended set of CliffNotes—and she seems to have no more than an elementary understanding of his work.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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