Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138
4 Patchin Pl, New York, NY 10011
Forest Hills Cemetery and Crematory Jamaica Plain, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, USA
Edward Estlin "E. E." Cummings (October 14, 1894 – September 3, 1962), often styled as e e cummings, as he is attributed in many of his published works, was an American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright. Identified with the Lost Generation. He wrote approximately 2,900 poems, two autobiographical novels, four plays, and several essays. He is often regarded as one of the most important American poets of the 20th century. Cummings is associated with modernist free-form poetry. Much of his work has idiosyncratic syntax and uses lower case spellings for poetic expression. He was part of the Literary Ambulance Drivers during WWI.
Edward Estlin Cummings was born on October 14, 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Edward Cummings and Rebecca Haswell Clarke, a well-known Unitarian couple in the city. His father was a professor at Harvard University who later became nationally known as the minister of South Congregational Church (Unitarian) in Boston, Massachusetts. His mother, who loved to spend time with her children, played games with Cummings and his sister, Elizabeth. From an early age, Cummings' parents supported his creative gifts. Cummings wrote poems and drew as a child, and he often played outdoors with the many other children who lived in his neighborhood. He grew up in the company of such family friends as the philosophers William James and Josiah Royce. Many of Cummings' summers were spent on Silver Lake in Madison, New Hampshire, where his father had built two houses along the eastern shore. The family ultimately purchased the nearby Joy Farm where Cummings had his primary summer residence. Cummings wanted to be a poet from childhood and wrote poetry daily from age 8 to 22, exploring assorted forms. He graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts degree magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1915 and received a Master of Arts degree from the university in 1916. In his studies at Harvard, he developed an interest in modern poetry, which ignored conventional grammar and syntax, while aiming for a dynamic use of language. Upon graduating, he worked for a book dealer.
At Harvard Stewart Mitchell was described as a “charming witty young man” by Robert S. Kennedy, the biographer of E. E. Cummings, who evoked when describing Mitchell in his undergraduate days. His debut had been rather brilliant: one of the Eight Harvard Poets (Cummings and John Dos Passos and John Wheelwright were three others; “it was the beginning of my style,” Cummings wrote later), Mitchell conceived the idea of publishing that book, to which he was a contributor, as well as a founder of the Harvard Poetry Club. Mitchell’s homosexuality stood out (according to Kennedy) even then: “consider[ing] the sexual coloration of the Harvard Monthly group and the friends they had gathered around them … [also, later, in New York, at] The Dial,” Kennedy concludes that “only one of them, Stewart Mitchell, was an overt homosexual. Nevertheless, an innocent homoeroticism marked their devotion to each other." Mitchell was both creator-editor and contributor to Eight Harvard Poets, his sexuality notwithstanding. It was after Harvard that things changed for Mitchell. He and Cummings, for instance, remained lifelong close friends. Early on Mitchell functioned virtually as Cummings’s agent, was a confidant of the poet in his divorce, and as late as 1949 gave the never-very-prosperous Cummings a thousand dollars, a large sum at the time.
There is the story, fully documented, of the commencement ceremony of 1915: E. E. Cummings, the future poet, then a rising senior, in his student commencement oration, included a reading of Amy Lowell’s “The Letter,” occasioned by the absence of her great love, Ada Dwyer Russell. One lady in Harvard’s Memorial Hall was heard protesting that day that the poem was “lascivious.” (It’s all in the eye of the beholder, of course. Seems mild enough today.) Cummings did not help himself in describing Amy Lowell’s poetry as “a development from the normal to the abnormal,” and this in the very presence of her enthroned and presidential brother. The next day the Boston Transcript trumpeted: “Harvard Orator Calls President Lowell’s Sister Abnormal.”
John Cheever attended bohemian parties on the Hill that were held in small apartments filled with athletic young men and a few older foreign women. There, he befriended older gay men including the poet Jack Wheelwright, and Henry Dana. A friendship with e.e. cummings resulted in the poet telling Cheever to move to New York.
Cummings was married briefly twice, first to Elaine Orr, then to Anne Minnerly Barton. His longest relationship lasted more than three decades, a common-law marriage to Marion Morehouse. In 2020, University of Oxford Senior Lecturer Alison Rosenblitt revealed that in 1917, before his first marriage, Cummings had shared several passionate love letters with a Parisian sex worker, Marie Louise Lallemand. Despite Cummings' efforts, he was unable to find Lallemand upon his return to Paris after the front. Cummings' first marriage, to Elaine Orr, began as a love affair in 1918 while she was still married to Scofield Thayer, one of Cummings' friends from Harvard. During this time he wrote a good deal of his erotic poetry. After divorcing Thayer, Orr married Cummings on March 19, 1924. The couple had a daughter together out of wedlock. However, the couple separated after two months of marriage and divorced less than nine months later. Cummings married his second wife Anne Minnerly Barton on May 1, 1929. They separated three years later in 1932. That same year, Minnerly obtained a Mexican divorce; it was not officially recognized in the United States until August 1934. Anne died in 1970 aged 72. In 1934, after his separation from his second wife, Cummings met Marion Morehouse, a fashion model and photographer. Although it is not clear whether the two were ever formally married, Morehouse lived with Cummings in a common-law marriage until his death in 1962. She died on May 18, 1969, while living at 4 Patchin Place, Greenwich Village, New York City, where Cummings had resided since September 1924.
In 1917, with the First World War ongoing in Europe, Cummings enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. On the boat to France, he met William Slater Brown and they would become friends. Due to an administrative error, Cummings and Brown did not receive an assignment for five weeks, a period they spent exploring Paris. Cummings fell in love with the city, to which he would return throughout his life. During their service in the ambulance corps, the two young writers sent letters home that drew the attention of the military censors. They were known to prefer the company of French soldiers over fellow ambulance drivers. The two openly expressed anti-war views; Cummings spoke of his lack of hatred for the Germans. On September 21, 1917, five months after starting his belated assignment, Cummings and William Slater Brown were arrested by the French military on suspicion of espionage and undesirable activities. They were held for three and a half months in a military detention camp at the Dépôt de Triage, in La Ferté-Macé, Orne, Normandy. They were imprisoned with other detainees in a large room. Cummings' father failed to obtain his son's release through diplomatic channels, and in December 1917 he wrote a letter to President Woodrow Wilson. Cummings was released on December 19, 1917, and Brown was released two months later. Cummings used his prison experience as the basis for his novel, The Enormous Room (1922), about which F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "Of all the work by young men who have sprung up since 1920 one book survives—The Enormous Room by e e cummings... Those few who cause books to live have not been able to endure the thought of its mortality." Cummings returned to the United States on New Year's Day 1918. Later in 1918 he was drafted into the army. He served in the 12th Division at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, until November 1918.
Cummings returned to Paris in 1921 and lived there for two years before returning to New York. His collection Tulips and Chimneys was published in 1923 and his inventive use of grammar and syntax is evident. The book was heavily cut by his editor. XLI Poems was published in 1925. With these collections, Cummings made his reputation as an avant garde poet. During the rest of the 1920s and 1930s, Cummings returned to Paris a number of times, and traveled throughout Europe, meeting, among others, artist Pablo Picasso. In 1931 Cummings traveled to the Soviet Union, recounting his experiences in Eimi, published two years later. During these years Cummings also traveled to Northern Africa and Mexico. He worked as an essayist and portrait artist for Vanity Fair magazine (1924–1927). In 1926, Cummings' parents were in a car crash; only his mother survived, although she was severely injured. His father's death had a profound effect on Cummings, who entered a new period in his artistic life. He began to focus on more important aspects of life in his poetry. He started this new period by paying homage to his father in the poem "my father moved through dooms of love". In the 1930s Samuel Aiwaz Jacobs was Cummings' publisher; he had started the Golden Eagle Press after working as a typographer and publisher.
In 1952, his alma mater, Harvard University, awarded Cummings an honorary seat as a guest professor. The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he gave in 1952 and 1955 were later collected as i: six nonlectures. Cummings spent the last decade of his life traveling, fulfilling speaking engagements, and spending time at his summer home, Joy Farm, in Silver Lake, New Hampshire. He died of a stroke on September 3, 1962, at the age of 67 at Memorial Hospital in North Conway, New Hampshire. Cummings was buried at Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts. At the time of his death, Cummings was recognized as the "second most widely read poet in the United States, after Robert Frost". Cummings' papers are held at the Houghton Library at Harvard University and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
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