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E. E. Cummings: A Life [Hardcover]

Susan Cheever
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

11 Feb 2014

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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Product details

  • Hardcover: 213 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon Books; 1 edition (11 Feb 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307379973
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307379979
  • Product Dimensions: 24.1 x 16.5 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 387,841 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A quiet biography... 18 Feb 2014
By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
The cover photo on Susan Cheever's new biography of E.E.Cummings shows an incredibly handsome man, sitting in a chair, seemingly at complete ease with himself and his world. That picture of that man - Edward Estlin Cummings - was at odds with the real life of the real man. He was a complicated man who lived a complicated life. And his poetry is the result of that life.

Cummings - who went by the name Estlin to separate him from his father who was named Edward - was born into a long line of Boston Brahmins on both branches of his family tree. His father, a Unitarian minister, was a Harvard alum, as were most male members of his family. He was born and grew up in a large house just blocks from the Harvard campus. Estlin followed the family line to Harvard but was usually at odds with his WASP background as he aged. He began writing poetry as a teenager, but was also a painter. He seemed to disregard his upbringing but - at the same time - cling to the very beliefs that he was born with. He was married unsuccessfully twice, but he had a relationship with a woman - a companion - for the last thirty years or so of this life. He fathered a daughter with his first wife, but had no relationship with the child after he and his wife divorced. It was only in the last 20 years or so of his life that Estlin reunited with his daughter and they had a fitful relationship ever after. He was, also, maybe, bi-sexual but seemed more bi-confused than actively bi-sexual.

But what of his poetry? He was skilled and inventive at catching the nuances of the times and most of his work is quite enchanting. But some of it is also venal and anti-Semitic. His work came and went and came again into fashion during his life.
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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars BOOK REVIEW: 'E.E. Cummings: A Life': Susan Cheever Revisits a Controversial Figure in American Literature 19 Feb 2014
By David Kinchen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 15:12
REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN

The case could be made that Susan Cheever was fated to write about poet, artist, novelist and playwright E. E. Cummings (1894-1962), if only because of her meeting Cummings when she was 17 and unhappy in the private school she was attending.

She writes about meeting the older friend of her novelist father John Cheever in 1960 in "E.E. Cummings: A Life" (Pantheon, 240 pages, 18 pages of black and white images, notes, bibliography, index, $26.95).

In a relatively short book that should be read by everyone interested in not only poetry but the arts scene in the first half of the 20th Century, she writes that Edward Estlin Cummings had been relegated to make "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.”

Fashions impact on the arts as well as everything else in a society, but when he died at age 68 in 1962 Cummings was, after Robert Frost, the most widely read poet in the U.S., writes Cheever. To a large extent, his fan base was young girls like Susan Cheever. He was the poetry equivalent of a rock star to them, thanks to his playful use of the language and his beautiful love poems like:

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).

He was also a rebel against authority, which resonated during those pre-Hippie years when "beatniks" ruled. You might even make the case that he was a living, breathing grown-up Holden Caulfield. He was also a conservative, an anti-communist, a fan of Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-WI), perhaps influenced by his early 1930s visit to the Soviet Union where he saw a police state first hand. Cheever delves into astrology, noting that Cummings was a Libra, born Oct. 14. As a Libra myself, I understand what she's attempting to state: We Libras are a complicated mass of contradictions!

In a relatively short book -- about 190 pages if you don't count the bibliography, notes, acknowledgement and index -- Cheever also provides the skeleton of a book that examines the American literary scene in the first half of the 20th Century -- in essence a book I'd like to see her write that does for this period what her "American Bloomsbury" did for the 19th Century.

That book, subtitled "Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau" succeeded in fleshing out the authors most of us laboriously plowed through in high school and college. In "American Bloomsbury" she points out that these authors -- now considered secure in the literary canon -- were once considered avant-garde types at odds with the establishment.

In the same way, in the early 20th Century, Cummings, a product of a nineteenth-century New England childhood, was, in contrast to his "man's man" minister father, a slight, non-athletic youth who loved nature and had a sense of fun that went against the dour New England grain. He grew up in Cambridge, Mass., only a few blocks from Harvard, but he grew to hate the city for its self-assured intellectualism and prejudices.

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.

Lowell was the Harvard president who instituted a quota system that aimed at keeping Jewish students a small minority. He didn't care much for black students either at America's most prestigious university. Cheever also points out that women were not welcome at Harvard and were forbidden until well into the 20th Century from taking classes there. They had they own ghetto in Radcliffe.

While Cummings raged against the anti-Semitism of Lowell and others, he wasn't free from it himself, as Cheever clearly states. Among the many poems, or parts of poems by Cummings that she reproduces is one that most people would consider anti-Semitic. She calls his anti-semitism "indefensible."

To explain How to deal with the often vicious anti-Semitism of Cummings, Cheever muses on page 176: "Trying to re-create another time and place is difficult; trying not to let our own modern knowledge and understanding bleed into those descriptions of the past is almost impossible. On the one hand, a biographer's responsibility is to bring the past to life on the page in all its details -- including the relative knowledge and ignorance of the community described. On the other hand, shouldn't the biographer give the reader and the subject the benefit of everything known at the time of writing? Should poems and books be understood in a vacuum -- in the historical silence in which a writer connects viscerally and spiritually with a reader? Or should they be understood as pieces of the web of their own time and ours?"

Cheever also describes Cummings' complicated relationship with women and the beyond horrible estrangement engineered by his ex-wife Elaine from his only child, Nancy. I marvel at how Susan Cheever managed to get so much material in a very accessible, relatively short book. Please forgive me for harping on the length of the book, but so many biographies these days are gigantic doorstops that intimidate most readers! Even professional reviewers!
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A quiet biography... 18 Feb 2014
By Jill Meyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The cover photo on Susan Cheever's new biography of E.E.Cummings shows an incredibly handsome man, sitting in a chair, seemingly at complete ease with himself and his world. That picture of that man - Edward Estlin Cummings - was at odds with the real life of the real man. He was a complicated man who lived a complicated life. And his poetry is the result of that life.

Cummings - who went by the name Estlin to separate him from his father who was named Edward - was born into a long line of Boston Brahmins on both branches of his family tree. His father, a Unitarian minister, was a Harvard alum, as were most male members of his family. He was born and grew up in a large house just blocks from the Harvard campus. Estlin followed the family line to Harvard but was usually at odds with his WASP background as he aged. He began writing poetry as a teenager, but was also a painter. He seemed to disregard his upbringing but - at the same time - cling to the very beliefs that he was born with. He was married unsuccessfully twice, but he had a relationship with a woman - a companion - for the last thirty years or so of this life. He fathered a daughter with his first wife, but had no relationship with the child after he and his wife divorced. It was only in the last 20 years or so of his life that Estlin reunited with his daughter and they had a fitful relationship ever after. He was, also, maybe, bi-sexual but seemed more bi-confused than actively bi-sexual.

But what of his poetry? He was skilled and inventive at catching the nuances of the times and most of his work is quite enchanting. But some of it is also venal and anti-Semitic. His work came and went and came again into fashion during his life. He made money during the last years of his life by giving lectures, at which he was mostly successful.

Everything I've written above are facts I learned from Cheever's biography of e.e. cummings. But his personality remains a cipher; I just couldn't grasp it. Cheever doesn't seem to dig below the surface in most of the book. Now, I wasn't looking for a mean-spirited biography, but I was looking for one a bit more critical. In the first paragraph I wrote that Cummings led a "complicated life" But maybe there wasn't much below the surface to Edward Estlin Cummings. Maybe what you saw was what was there. I just don't know. To me Cummings life seemed complicated and messy but while I saw evidence of it in Cheever's biography, I couldn't grasp the man himself.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a true genius 24 Feb 2014
By Mark R. Burton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The author's genuine affection for her subject does not cloud her ability to see E. E. Cummings in all of his fallible glory. He was a true genius who also had more than his share of self-inflicted challenges in his personal life. Susan Cheever beautifully knits the personal and the artistic lives together to paint a wonderful picture of an American treasure
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Some biographies are ponderous...not this one 27 April 2014
By Bill Richards - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
More like 4 1/2 stars. This biography begins with a recap of Cummings' first "nonlecture" at Harvard and proceeds to give us a tidy, but thorough, look at a complex, brilliant man. Through her father, the novelist John Cheever, the author had the opportunity to meet Cummings and the positive impact was significant. Still, she's able to objectively and concisely (less than 200 pages) evaluate the life and work of the man. It is the immediacy of Cummings' relationships (parents, wives, child, friends and critics) that formed him and Cheever concentrates on that; so many biographies tend to fill space with expansive and irrelevant expositions on a family backround that veers from the subject at hand.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars E.E. Cummings, in short. 20 May 2014
By Evelyn Bodek Rosen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A very engaging biography, chatty and informative. Cheever knows how to tell a story and tells the story of E.E. Cummings with dash and brio. Cummings comes alive through her storytelling and her analysis of his poetry. An excellent introduction to the poet and his craft.
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