E.E. Cummings: “The Enormous Room”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

While in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, I was fortunate enough to take a class on literature of the 1920s. Taught by Professor Walter Rideout, the seminar featured both classics from the decade – such as Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – as well as lesser-known works such as Gertrude Stein’s The Great Gatsby and Elizabeth Madox Roberts’s The Time of Man.

I was captivated by the many literary works we studied throughout the course of the semester. One piece that completely captured my attention was E.E. Cummings’s autobiographical 1922 book, The Enormous Room. Before this time, e e cummings (with lower-case letters) had been to me “merely” a poet. As lovely and brilliant as his poetry is, I am a lover of prose, of story. (Why else would there be StoryWeb?!)

The Enormous Room fit the bill for me. Whether you classify it as a memoir or as an autobiographical novel, it is beautifully written and magnificently illustrated with Cummings’s pen-and-ink drawings. The book tells of Cummings’s experiences as an American prisoner in a French detention camp during World War I.

After having delivered a “daring commencement address on modernist artistic innovations” at Harvard University and having thus declared the trajectory of his creative career, Cummings left for France with his college friend John Dos Passos and enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. Though he had been raised in a pacifist family (his father, Edward Cummings, was perhaps the best-known Unitarian minister in Boston), Cummings wanted the excitement of being near the front.

But things did not play out exactly as Cummings had planned. Through an administrative mix-up, he was not assigned to an ambulance unit for five weeks. Based in Paris while he awaited his assignment, he fell in love with the city and its women and, from all accounts, whiled away his time quite delightfully.

Eventually, he did get attached to an ambulance unit, where he befriended another American, William Slater Brown. Known as B. in The Enormous Room, Brown was a pacifist, and in letters back home, both he and Cummings wrote about their pacifist leanings. Both were arrested by the French military “on suspicion of espionage and undesirable activities.”

Cummings and Brown ended up at the Dépôt de Triage in La Ferté-Macé in Orne, Normandy. They were imprisoned with other detainees in a large room – which Cummings dubbed “the enormous room.” In the resulting book, Cummings sketches characters, describes the prison barracks and the prison yard, and ultimately details his spiritual triumph over adversity, using John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress as his literary model. He does all this with his trademark quirky use of language, enriched here by his liberal use of French phrases, which he intersperses freely into the text. Woven throughout the text are Cummings’s pen-and-ink sketches of prison life and those other prisoners whose quirks and eccentricities he brings to life in words – and images.

Cummings ended up spending just three-and-a-half months at the prison camp, and he went on to become a great poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright. In addition to his prose books, plays, and essays, he wrote approximately 2,900 poems and created numerous paintings and drawings.

The Library of American website has an insightful essay on The Enormous Room. Kelsey Osgood’s article on the creation of Cummings’s signature style in The Enormous Room is also helpful.

To learn more about Cummings and the rest of his literary career, visit the Poetry Foundation website. A wide variety of resources related to Cummings and his literary creations can be found at the Modern American Poetry website. An excellent article on Cummings and his rebellious legacy can be found at the alumni magazine for his alma mater, Harvard. His biographer, Susan Cheever, describes Cummings and his literary reputation in “The Prince of Patchin Place,” published in Vanity Fair. Poet Billy Collins contributed an article to Slate: “Is That a Poem? The Case for E.E. Cummings.”

If you’re interested in Cummings’s impressive output as a cubist painter, visit the E.E. Cummings Art Gallery. You can learn more about his work as an artist at ArtFixx. A full roster of Cummings links – from literature to art – is available at the E.E. Cummings Society website.

Ready to add some of Cummings’s work to your library? Of course, you’ll want to have a copy of The Enormous Room (and you’ll want to make sure it’s the version Cummings intended, complete with his illustrations). If you just can’t wait for your hard copy to arrive, you can read the book online (but you won’t have the images!). If you want to delve into Cummings’s poetry, look no further than e. e. cummings: Complete Poems, 1904-1962 or, if you want something a bit more abbreviated, check out 100 Selected Poems

Some have said that The Enormous Room is a sophomoric work, not reflective of the mature Cummings. But for me, The Enormous Room is vastly underrated: it is a sheer pleasure to read that most people miss. Yes, it is grim in places – but in its expression of spiritual joy, joy gained after much suffering, and struggle, it is exquisite. In his expression of boundless joy in the very midst of human suffering, Cummings reminds me of Ludwig van Beethoven and his composing of The Ninth Symphony, especially “Ode to Joy.” (See my post on Immortal Beloved, a biopic on Beethoven, to learn more about the transcendent “Ode to Joy” scene.)

It has been more than thirty years since I’ve read The Enormous Room, but I still remember the sorrow and the joy Cummings expressed in its pages. I’m so glad Professor Rideout included The Enormous Room in his course on the 1920s. F. Scott Fitzgerald – another American writer who was enamored of Paris – said, “Of all the work by young men who have sprung up since 1920 one book survives – The Enormous Room by e e cummings.” Unfortunately, the book has not survived in the way Fitzgerald thought that it would, but it’s very much a book worth reading. Cummings emerges as a person of great sensitivity: a poet of spiritual wonder shines through.

Listen:Listen as I read an excerpt from Chapter 5, “A Group of Portraits,” from The Enormous Room. You can follow along here. You can also hear Cummings read his poems at the 92nd Street Y in 1949 and at YMHA Poetry Center in New York in 1959.

Image credit: E.E. Cummings U.S. postage stamp, 2012.