Name a famous artist who shattered conventions, and you’re likely to find a strict parent that inspired the rebellion. That was the case, at least in part, with E.E. Cummings.
Born in Cambridge, Mass., in 1894 to a minister father with a “deeply authoritarian streak” and a mother who adored him so much that “she saved every piece of paper he touched,” he grew up privileged yet insecure, largely due to his father’s imperiousness. Cummings’ feelings of inferiority were so great that as a child he would cry in front of his class when he couldn’t solve math problems at the blackboard.
As historian J. Alison Rosenblitt describes in “The Beauty of Living,” Cummings “would unleash a full-blown rebellion against childhood, Cambridge, and, above all, his father” when he studied at Harvard. This desire manifested itself in many ways, from his fondness for the “luxurious language of the Decadents” to his several girlfriends and visits to burlesque shows.
The focus of this well-researched work is Cummings’ choice to volunteer as an ambulance driver in France during World War I. Three weeks after the United States entered the conflict in 1917, Cummings sailed across the Atlantic and spent five weeks in Paris before being called to the front. He arrived in the town of Noyon in June to join the ambulance corps.
In richly detailed passages, Rosenblitt charts Cummings’ wartime experiences, many of which appear in his autobiographical novel “The Enormous Room.” Among them are his romance with French prostitute Marie Louise Lallemand, “the unconventional muse of some of his best war poetry,” and his friendship with Columbia University student William Slater Brown.
The latter acquaintance had dire consequences. French authorities arrested Brown after discovering “ill-advised letters home” that described rumors of atrocities committed by the Allies. Because he was considered “under the influence of Brown,” Cummings was arrested and incarcerated. Rosenblitt vividly recounts the indignities of Cummings’ three-month internment, from “cold coffee made with reused coffee grinds” to the responsibility of cleaning one’s own toilet bucket.
Rosenblitt occasionally gets bogged down in minor details: the cost of Harvard lab fees, the features of classmate John Dos Passos. But she convincingly argues that, in this period, Cummings “shaped a vision of the world that was both caustic and deeply human” and developed his “radical ideas about the physical presentation of texts.”
She presents one indelible image after another, as when she notes that, long after the war, he would still “light his cigarette by picking up a live coal out of the fireplace grate with his fingertips, as he had learned to do in prison when out of matches.” “The Beauty of Living” is a welcome addition to the field of Cummings scholarship.
Michael Magras is a freelance book critic. His work has appeared in the Economist, Times Literary Supplement, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Kirkus Reviews and BookPage.
The Beauty of Living: E.E. Cummings in the Great War
By: J. Alison Rosenblitt.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 320 pages, $35.