Cummings is a wonderful poet and three cheers for C. Sawyer-Laucanno for attempting to give us a full-scale new reading of the complete works, while trying to clear a space so we can understand his complicated life a bit better.
I wound up seeing the life clearly, and noticing for the first time the extreme high reaches of class privilege that made Cummings' poetry possible. I suppose I had been reading this through the screen of Cummings' novel, THE ENORMOUS ROOM, with its bleak descriptions of prison poverty and deprivation, so without really thinking about it I just assumed that EE Cummings was sort of our American Genet, born of poverty, a hero of the underclass, an outsider artist who just scraped by, like Darger. Far from it, Sawyer-Laucanno reveals. Everything he did seems to have been paid for by generous friends or family, and even in the French jail he was able to buy cartons of cigarettes, razors, books, and fruit from the concierge, because he had a huge trust fund.
Later, during the 1920s when he was writing all his masterpieces, the discerning Scofield Thayer became his patron. Thayer was a complicated case; as editor of THE DIAL his taste helped usher in a new American modernism. He married a beautiful and refined heiress, Elaine, and when Cummings fathered her daughter through an adulterous union, he assumed paternity of little "Mopsy" in a an act of upper-class generosity. A few years later, he granted Elaine a divorce and she married Cummings, although only for two months. Thayer began a descent into madness that lasted until his death in 1982. He had apparently been gay the entire time and nurtured a secret passion for underage boys which got him in hot water from time to time, and perhaps he was in love with Cummings himself. Why not, everyone else was. Cummings must have had something, erotically speaking, for many women were drawn to him and not a few men. In any case we can see, bleakly, how spoiled and privileged Cummings was. No matter what harm he did to others, or to himself, someone would come along with a large checkbook and clean up after him. It's appalling the selfishness, and yet if great poems come in the wake of such self-love, what real harm and what real benefit? It's a stumper.
Sawyer-Laucanno argues that Cummings' play, HIM, is a major ignored work of the American theater. Such is his conviction that it fairly sweeps the reader into feeling the same way, or at any rate wanting to see a first rate production. My idea is that HIM might make a really good movie--by Lars Von Trier perhaps. I can see it on the screen of my imagination, thanks to Sawyer-Laucanno's persuasive, always elegant argumentation.
As for the reviewer in the Washington Post Book World, I honestly don't know what to make of someone whose idea of the three great American poets is Whitman, Frost and Cummings. What kind of mind comes up with that combo? It's like the boys who formed the "Troika" in the later episodes of BUFFY.