Saturday, February 08, 2014

An Artful Biography, Susan Cheever’s e. e. cummings: a life

An Artful Biography, Susan Cheever’s  e. e. cummings: a life

by Michael Todd Steffen

Princeton poet Richard P. Blackmur called the deliberately humbled language and typographical appearance of E. E. Cummings’s poetry “baby talk,” biographer Susan Cheever tells us in her Preface
to e. e. cummings: a life. One critic simply wondered what was wrong with this poet. Cheever defends:

Nothing was wrong with Cummings—or with Duchamp or Stravinski or Joyce,
for that matter. All were trying to slow down the 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 comes from. Access without
understanding and facts without context have become our daily diet (p. xii).

One of the few excuses Cheever makes for the new biography, other than her convincing admiration, a love that is felt throughout the book, Cheever’s is a powerful argument – “we are all inundated with information and given no time to wonder what it means” – for the timeliness of her book to reconsiderthe life and work of the modernist generation’s “beloved heretic.”

In previous books, Cheever has sketched and traced the lives of such emblematic Americans as Louisa May Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, AA founder Bill Wilson, including a memoir of her father the well-known author John Cheever. The new Cummings biography demonstrates not just a little experience and know-how with the genre, so well digested in its scope of Cummings’s life.

While the book is ample with details and inside looks at the highlights (and shadowy interludes) of the poet’s life (his first encounter with Keats, the tragic drowning of Rex the family dog at Silver Lake, his father’s appeals to the White House to obtain his son’s release from incarceration in France during WWI), Cheever’s narrative avoids getting mired down in itemizations. Sidestepping a tedious linear timeline, the author uses touchstone events and moments, special locales, relationships and inspirations as topical starting points from which to build context and dip into particulars. This orchestration of the biography reads at an informative brisk pace and feeds our curiosity, paragraph by paragraph, chapter to chapter, to want to read on.

His idyllic childhood at 104 Irving Street “separating cerebral Cambridge and orchidaceous Somerville,” the family’s rural summer house at Joy Farm in New Hampshire, Cummings’s rebellious days at Harvard when he took to drinking, frequenting night clubs and began to write poetry, all of these set up the polarities of the poet’s young life between its solid foundation in a family of “Harvard royalty” and the individual notions and pain that drove the young man to rebel against that foundation as he began to make his individual way.

Paris and World War I, Cummings’s apartment at Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, his love affairs including two difficult marriages and a daughter the poet did not raise, interspersed with cameo tete-a-tete’s with many famous writers and intellectuals, and the mellow, introspective last years guide Cheever’s narrative through the mature life of the established poet.

Building background and context to bring out the importance of events nuances Cheever’s narratives with insight. A major shift in attitudes was taking place at Harvard when Cummings enrolled in 1911. This shift was indicative of national as well as international trends.

[T]he old Harvard had been run with the aristocratic liberal rigor of Charles William Eliot…a populist democrat in an elitist world who believed that any man [or woman] could be educated by reading a five-foot shelf of classics…
     When Cummings got to Harvard two years after Eliot stepped down, the institution was slowly and painfully giving way to the…the conservative, anti-Semitic, racist aegis of A. Lawrence Lowell, a Brahmin’s Brahmin [pp. 30 – 1].

As Cheever portrays the external changes of the world around the young Cummings, she deftly traces the poet’s internal labor to find an authentic response, his struggle “to reshape the triangle between the reader, the writer, and the subject of the poem” [p. xi]. Adopting a Keatsian credo “of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination,” the young Cummings developed his odd mixture of individual humility and sarcastic, resentful defiance against the colossal powers (social, financial, military) that dominate and inspire fear.

Cheever draws the illustrative parallels and differences between Ezra Pound and Cummings, kindred spirits in buoyant defiance. Pound’s poetry was to exert profound influences on Cummings’s technical experiments to find his signature, the lower-case i. It is paradoxical that a sensibility so antithetical to the dehumanization of modern technology would come to invent his trademark thanks to the mechanics of type print, then newly available to the individual on the typewriter. One of the legacies Cummings left to poetry has its stamp in typographical idiosyncrasies. Readers cannot help but be reminded of him every time we spot even an ampersand or a phrase or line in the upper case.

It is a stroke of serendipity, in the way of personal observation, that Cheever’s new biography is being released the same month as Joan Houlihan’s Ay, the second book in a narrative sequence that employs a devised English language out of semiotic emphases, creating effects reminiscent of Cummings:

    Us nest a fine weather long
    between the heat of kin
    the least of us in huts built round with stones…    [The Us, p. 3]

40 years ago James Merrill made elaborate use of type on page to mirror his communications via the alphabet on the oui-ja board with the other world in his epic trilogy The Changing Light at Sandover:

    (David’s and mine) ALLOWED ME TO GET THRU
    MAY I SAY WEVE HAD OUR EYES ON U    [Section E, The Book of Ephraim]

Far from being the aim of whaling in a ponderous authoritative biography, the achievement of Susan Cheever in e. e. cummings: a life will be as the best gateway biography, accessible, enlightening and  enjoyable to initiates in Cummings scholarship and lore, fresh with insights and I think appropriate authorial sympathy for her subject, as a witness to the cultivation of humanists and the humanities in our increasingly programmatic culture.
     Vitally, also, Cheever reminds us why it is important for readers of poetry to be familiar with the challenges of a poet’s life and the illumination that life brings to us. Cummings was well aware of the burden and gift of his inspiration, as one of his famous Harvard lectures intimates:

    I am someone who humbly and proudly affirms that love is the mystery-of-mysteries…
    that ‘an artist, a man, a failure’ is no mere whenfully accreting mechanism, but a givingly
    eternal complexity…whose only happiness is to transcend himself, whose every agony
    is to grow.

e. e. cummings: a life
ISBN: 9780307379979
by Susan Cheever
is available through Pantheon Books
February 11, 2014
for $26.95
Contact: Josefine Kals, 212-572-2565,

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:38 PM

    the review by steffen is superb in that he uses his critical thought process to inform the reader without making judgments. this review makes me want to buy the book. irene