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.