The Enormous Room (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

In the autumn of 1917, zealous French police arrested two American ambulance corpsmen on suspicion of spying. One of the men was Edward Estlin Cummings, a young Harvard graduate and aspiring poet. The two were spent three months in the squalid detention center of La Ferté-Macé in Normandy. Cummings' fellow prisoners--the Machine-Fixer, the Zulu, the Young Skipper's Mate, the Wanderer, the Lobster--presented a human pageant reminiscent of Chaucer.
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Overview

In the autumn of 1917, zealous French police arrested two American ambulance corpsmen on suspicion of spying. One of the men was Edward Estlin Cummings, a young Harvard graduate and aspiring poet. The two were spent three months in the squalid detention center of La Ferté-Macé in Normandy. Cummings' fellow prisoners--the Machine-Fixer, the Zulu, the Young Skipper's Mate, the Wanderer, the Lobster--presented a human pageant reminiscent of Chaucer.
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Introduction

In the autumn of 1917, a disastrous and discontented year on the Western Front, zealous French police arrested two American ambulance corpsmen on suspicion of spying. One of the men was Edward Estlin Cummings, a young Harvard graduate and aspiring poet. After a perfunctory hearing, the two were packed off to the squalid detention center of La Ferté-Macé in Normandy. During three months of confinement, Cummings endured filth, substandard nutrition, and ill treatment, but also met men from all walks of life and from every corner of Europe, from Scandinavia to Turkey. His fellow prisoners--the Machine-Fixer, the Zulu, the Young Skipper's Mate, the Wanderer, the Lobster--presented a human pageant reminiscent of Chaucer. Cummings saw these men as both individuals and archetypes, and he wove them into a narrative at once grand, colloquial, poetic, and slangy. The Enormous Room (1922) is a unique and enigmatic work, part autobiography and part novel; it bubbles over with modernist exuberance at the potentialities of artistic liberation even as it chronicles some of the worst propensities of modernity toward conformism and restraint. In it, Cummings tearfully celebrates the love and courage of friends and laughingly condemns the cruelty and cowardice of officialdom. For the contemporary reader, the book is a trenchant commentary on the travesty of modern war and a still-challenging literary experiment. In fact, The Enormous Room cannot be fully captured by any label and transcends genre; as Ernest Hemingway said, "it is one of the great books."

E. E. Cummings (1894-1962), the son of a prominent Boston minister, was a radical individualist who epitomized the modernist revolt against conventional norms, whether artistic or social. A painter as well as a poet, his style--with its combination of lyricism, eroticism, and bold experiments with syntax and form--became one of the most recognizable of the twentieth century. Although Cummings sometimes railed against the repressiveness of what he called his "New England downbringing," it also gave him a strong sense of justice and unshakeable respect for the individual, qualities that were to be apparent from his first book, The Enormous Room. Like Ernest Hemingway, and also his close friend and Harvard classmate John Dos Passos, Cummings volunteered for the ambulance service during World War I. After the war he led a peripatetic existence ranging between Greenwich Village and Paris, and was a principal figure of what came to be known as the Lost Generation. Married three times, frequently penniless but in later life one of the most successful public poets of the century, Cummings was a bohemian, lover, and self-conscious aesthete as well as heir of the Transcendentalists. In poems such as "i like my body when it is with your / body" and "death (having lost) put on his universe," he celebrated personal experience and physical being in a way that recalled Walt Whitman but predated by decades the "liberated" poetry of the 1960s and 1970s. Most paradoxically, while his poetry is Cummings' permanent legacy, The Enormous Room may be his most enduring book.

Surely few artists have begun life in an atmosphere as encouraging as that of the Cummings household in the closing decade of the nineteenth century. The family traced its ancestry in New England almost to the Mayflower. Cummings' father, Edward Cummings, was an inspiring but also daunting figure; he became Harvard's first sociology professor in 1891, and young Estlin, as he was called, was brought up in a fifteen-room mansion across the street from the home of philosopher William James. Deeply committed to social causes, Edward Cummings became, in the words of Dos Passos, "the most famous Unitarian minister in Boston."

E. E. Cummings showed artistic gifts from an early age--which his mother, Rebecca, assiduously nurtured. As a boy, Cummings' playmates were the children of Harvard intellectuals; but when he strayed into adjacent neighborhoods he could see cows being driven through the streets to slaughter, and the grittier lives of the industrial urban poor. The interplay of contrasts--the hard surface of life, viewed by a contemplative and erudite mind--was a pattern that formed itself early on. At the age of fifteen, Cummings wrote a poem in which he prayed "God make me the poet of simplicity, / Force, and clearness. Help me to live / Ever up to ever higher standards." The high standards were those of Cummings' parents and milieu, and he matched them, graduating from Harvard in 1915, and taking a master's degree the following year. But by then World War I had begun.

Cummings may have grown up in Cambridge, but at La Ferté-Macé he matured. Like his father--who would become the director of the World Peace Foundation--Cummings was a pacifist. When the United States entered the war in spring 1917, volunteering for ambulance duty was one way to avoid being drafted. On the boat to France, Cummings happened to meet William Slater Brown, another young volunteer. Fatefully, they would end up in the same unit of the Norton-Harjes American Ambulance Corps.

The Enormous Room follows quite closely the actual events of the war; Cummings refers to himself by name, and to Brown as "B." Both young men were highly educated and spoke French. They also shared a rebellious streak, and when they showed a preference for the company of the French soldiers rather than their compatriots, it brought them into conflict with their commanding officer (referred to as "Mr. A"), who personified the ugly American ("We're here to show those bastards how they do things in America," he says of the French). After the French censors intercepted Brown's pessimistic and critical letters, Mr. A saw his chance to get rid of his two recalcitrant subordinates. Although Brown was just passing on to his family the grumbling that he heard from soldiers in the ranks, he either did not know or did not care that the French high command had a mutiny on its hands.

Out of a sense of honor, Cummings refused to denounce his friend, and therefore shared his fate. When asked by the French tribunal whether he hates the Germans, Cummings replies that he loves the French. The response was, "It is impossible to love Frenchmen and not to hate Germans."

In The Enormous Room the proceedings are farcical, but in reality the situation was anything but a joke. Governments on both sides were gripped by hysterical fear that the revolt of the Russian armed forces and the Bolshevik revolution would be repeated in their countries. Indeed, as Sir Charles Williams notes in his biography of Marshal Petain, the "growing disenchantment" went beyond the army. It began with unrest among the troops over the abominable conditions in which they served and the pointless casualties they suffered; but as the insubordination spread, it took on "overtones of social revolution." The response of the military was harsh: "By the time calm was restored, approximately 40,000 troops had been involved in episodes ranging from indiscipline to outright mutiny. . . . In all, 554 men were condemned to death . . . of whom 49 were actually shot."

Cummings' sympathies were completely with the common soldiers and against the military and the state. It might be a stretch to call him a prisoner of conscience, as opposed to a victim of ineptitude and official paranoia; however, he does phrase the first part of the book as a "pilgrimage," explicitly making reference to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress--an appropriate choice for the son of a minister. Christian, Bunyan's hero, must face demons and monsters and other allegorized horrors (including the "Slough of Despond") to arrive at divine truth and personal salvation. In his more modern version, Cummings must maintain his sense of himself against anonymous, bureaucratic evil in order to win through to a mature knowledge of lived, personal truth.

At the same time, however, Cummings writes about the experience as if he is having the time of his life. This was partly true: he and Brown had escaped the hated Mr. A and landed in one of those curious and bizarre sets of circumstances that war produces-"everything seemed ridiculously suppressed, beautifully abnormal, deliciously insane." Thus, Cummings experiences imprisonment as a release: "An uncontrollable joy gutted me after three months of humiliation, of being bossed and herded and bullied and insulted. I was myself and my own master." He spends his days talking, writing, sketching, and listening to stories. As for Brown, he exclaims, "Cummings, I tell you this is the finest place on earth!"

In addition to irony and paradox, there is here an element of the absurd. The Enormous Room--actually a converted chapel in a former seminary--is not "fine." It is filthy and crammed with up to seventy men sleeping on straw mattresses; its makeshift toilets are just buckets, and parts of the floor are running with effluent. Minor infractions are punished with stretches of solitary confinement in dank cells of near-total darkness. Most of the men are obviously innocent--Mexique seems guilty mainly of not knowing French, one Norwegian stole three cans of sardines while drunk, and The Man Who Played Too Late is just a musician who violated the curfew.

Prison is one of those places where the same things happen over and over again, ad nauseam. In The Enormous Room, it is not what happens but the way the tale is told that seizes our interest. The prose is poetic--but it is the challenging, arresting poetry of modernism, growing out of Ezra Pound's injunction to "make it new." Modernism revolted against the nineteenth century's prim ideas of progress, order, and decency, which the horrors of trench warfare had revealed as a sham. Even language itself seemed guilty of some kind of deception and needed, it was felt, renovation. The most famous technique of literary modernism was the stream-of-consciousness narrative. Instead of the detached Victorian narrator, the modernists plunge the reader into the minds of characters who are themselves submerged by the chaos and doubt of living in the world; as Edmund Wilson wrote, "they mapped the labyrinths of human consciousness as they seemed never to have been mapped before."

Cummings was always first and foremost a poet. His style is restlessly metaphorical, sometimes packed head to toe: "Like a sharp black mechanical cry in the spongy organism of gloom stood the coarse and sudden sculpture of his torment; the big mouth of night carefully spurted the angular actual language of his martyred body" (the object is a wooden crucifix, perhaps with a scroll issuing from the mouth). There are arresting, illogical combinations ("carefully throwing myself on the bare planks"). There are lines that, if set a little differently, could have come out of one of his poems-"corduroy bigness of trousers, waistline always amorous of knees," for a pair of pants that are continually falling down. And there are phrases that can be closely correlated to specific poems, as the silence of the night "in which our words rattled queerly like tin soldiers in a plush-lined box" echo "the moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy" (in the poem "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls").

Cummings' narrative develops into a series of portraits of the other inmates, the most important of whom are the Delectable Mountains (another reference from Bunyan). Significantly, in The Enormous Room the pilgrim is enlightened not by God but by other men. The mountains are imperturbably, implacably, immovably themselves. More like Buddhas than Christian saints, they embody the complete self-possession that was Cummings' ideal, and which he summed up in an oft-quoted passage that actually refers to the "most completely or entirely indescribable" of the delectable ones, the Zulu (in reality, a Polish farmer whose communication was entirely nonverbal):

There are certain things in which one is unable to believe for the simple reason that he never ceases to feel them. Things of this sort--things which are always inside of us and in fact are us and which consequently will not be pushed off or away where we can begin thinking about them--are no longer things; they, and the us which they are, equals A Verb; an IS. The Zulu, then, I must perforce call an IS.

Gertrude Stein wrote that Cummings was "the natural heir of the New England tradition with its aridity and its sterility, but also with its individuality." But La Ferté-Macé is no Walden, and the mask of serene self-possession sometimes drops, revealing intense hatred of tyranny, the modern state, and what would later be called the "organization man":

Perhaps I should say that nearly every human being, given sufficiently miserable circumstances, will from time to time react to those very circumstances (whereby his own personality is mutilated) through a deliberate mutilation on his own part of a weaker or already more mutilated personality.

This is what happens in Orwell's 1984, written decades later: the two lovers, whose connection is the only healthy thing in lives already distorted, are forced by Big Brother to betray and destroy each other. In The Enormous Room this kind of deliberate cruelty is visited on another of the Delectable Mountains, the Wanderer, whose family was staying with him during his confinement. But then the government decides to separate the family, so that the Wanderer "should suffer as much as he was capable of suffering," and that, in a scene repeated millions of times in the modern world, "the wife, her baby, her two girls, and her little son should be separated from the husband by miles and by stone-walls and by barbed-wire and by Law."

One problem that Cummings never solved imaginatively was how one insulates oneself from the corrosive effects of hate--even hate for injustice. At one point, he imagines one of his captors in Hell, and himself as torturer:

I gave him a pleasant smile which said, If I could see your intestines very slowly embracing a large wooden drum rotated by means of a small iron crank turned gently and softly by myself, I should be extraordinarily happy.

Cummings's iconoclastic individualism, when taken to extremes, led him to lump the unliberated and unenlightened masses together as "mostpeople," an unthinking "collective pseudobeast." Malcom Cowley said that for Cummings, "almost every group of more than two was either mythical or malevolent, or both." Like soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon, Cummings felt disgust for those on the home front who willfully or stupidly believed government propaganda and whatever patriotic, racial, or ideological excuses were offered for war. In one of his most famous poems, "i sing of Olaf glad and big," he memorializes a conscientious objector he once met, who resists all such blandishments and faces beatings, imprisonment, and possible death with the statement, "I will not kiss your fucking flag."

But this libertarian hatred of tyranny, as Cowley says, gradually expanded to include Stalinist fellow travelers, New Deal politicians, and eventually almost everybody but Cummings and his friends. Indeed, The Enormous Room shows traces of the anti-Semitism of which he was later accused. He seems to have taken his eyes off the Delectable Mountains--the eternal possibility of saintliness in humanity--and become obsessed with "manunkind," as he called it. One of his poems of this period ends, "Humanity / i hate you."

After a lot of high-level string-pulling, Cummings was released. It took many weeks for him to recover from skin infections (Brown was even less lucky; he had contracted scurvy). The circumstances of the writing of the book, however, seem rather idyllic. Edward Cummings, deeply enraged at the treatment of his son, said he would reward E. E. Cummings with a thousand dollars for writing the chronicle of his unjust detainment (the book of course, turned out to be something more than just that). Cummings wrote much of The Enormous Room in a tent in New Hampshire across the lake from the family summer home, "commuting" every day by canoe. When the book was published in 1922, it was roundly praised by avant-garde writers as a totally new work--and just as deeply resented by conservatives who saw it as unpatriotic and nihilistic (the country was then in the midst of the first red scare). One of the most impressive and personal appreciations of the book remains that of T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), who said that it gave him, "more keenly than from my own senses, the tang of herded men and their smell. The reading is as sharp as being in prison."

As claustrophobic as prison as it may be, The Enormous Room is also as expansive as a glimpse of the Delectable Mountains. At the end of the book, it is clear that Cummings feels forced to leave, and in a final irony experiences expulsion from La Ferté-Macé as wrenching as his incarceration was (supposedly) welcome. When he has to say goodbye to the "hungry wretched beautiful people," Cummings becomes somewhat "delectable" himself--giving away all he has, taking letters to smuggle outside, and, for the last time, "exchanging big gifts of silence with The Zulu." In the final peroration we stand with him on the deck of a ship looking out at New York, as he returns to a world that is for once big enough for, and to be shared by, Cummings and "mostpeople":

. . .the noises of America nearingly throbbed with smokes and hurrying dots which are men and which are women and which are things new and curious and hard and strange and vibrant and immense, lifting with a great undulous stride firmly into immortal sunlight. . . .

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  • Posted March 5, 2012

    This is one of the most remarkable books that I've ever read - a

    This is one of the most remarkable books that I've ever read - and I first flipped these pages 30+ years ago during my last year of college; the memories of this text stay with me still. How could anyone give these piece of writing less than '5' stars I'll never comprehend.

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