A Biography

By Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno. Sourcebooks. 606 pp. $29.95More than four decades after his death, Edward Estlin Cummings remains one of the most beloved American poets, as well as one of the most misunderstood and underrated. As Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno suggests in this massive biography, Cummings probably is the victim of his popularity (which "at least in the academic mind . . . is a curse"), his failure to write "a book-length poem or a poetic sequence," and his strong opposition to the Soviet Union, which "lost him a good many supporters among the left-leaning critics." To that list should be added his penchant for sentimentality, which never wins any writer friends among the literati, who fancy themselves (against a great deal of evidence) clear-eyed and hard-bitten.

All of which serves as a useful reminder that scholars and critics are wrong at least as often as they are right. As one who writes exceedingly rarely about poetry, I would not presume to step forward as an authority, but in my view -- or, perhaps more accurately, to my taste -- the three great American poets are Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and Cummings. Put American in italics, for apart from the beauty and power of their words, it is their Americanness that sets them apart. Each in his own way is what Sawyer-Laucanno calls Cummings, "an American original" who speaks in a distinctly American voice and who addresses the American experience in ways that reflect deep roots in American soil and history.

It is true that all three men were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a breed that long since passed out of fashion (if not entirely out of power), and that poetry of a more recent vintage necessarily and properly reflects different experiences of America. Yet each of these three men deals with themes that are deeply and eternally American, some of which Sawyer-Laucanno finds specifically in Cummings's work: "He consistently celebrated the ordinary, reviled pretentiousness, scourged conformity, ardently championed the individual (and nature) against the machine." Even in the age of mass society and mass culture, those are themes that have powerful meaning for and appeal to countless millions of Americans.

There has not been a full biography of Cummings for a quarter-century: not since Dreams in the Mirror, by Richard S. Kennedy (1980), a solidly workmanlike book that is stronger on the life story than on criticism but that remains useful and is still in print, which probably is in itself evidence of Cummings's continuing popularity. Sawyer-Laucanno's new biography does not supplant Kennedy's -- indeed relies rather too heavily on it -- but is written with deep affection for the poet and his work. If the author's enthusiasm for Cummings helps bring a few new readers to his work, that will be all to the good, for it offers immense pleasure and satisfaction.

Cummings was born in Massachusetts in 1894 and died at his family's farm in New Hampshire in 1962. He was (like Frost) New England Yankee to the core. Both his parents' families had settled in the colonies long before the Revolution, Harvard was the family school, and Cummings was immersed in and faithful to Yankee tradition, as his poetry ("the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls") often reminds us. His father, a sociology instructor at Harvard who went on to become a prominent Unitarian minister in Cambridge, was a formidable presence whose "controlling behavior" made his only son uncomfortable but who inspired, at his death, what may be his son's greatest poem. It begins:

my father moved through dooms of love

through sames of am through haves of give,

singing each morning out of each night

my father moved through depths of height

Cummings went to Harvard, served as an ambulance driver in World War I -- he was briefly and unjustifiably imprisoned at a French "detention center for 'undesirables' and 'spies,' " the inspiration for his splendid work of prose, The Enormous Room (1922) -- and then settled in New York, eventually in a tiny apartment on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village. There he lived the literary and artistic life (he was a skilled, productive painter), not as a Village phony but as the real thing, a man whose life was totally given over to his art. The literary and artistic revolution sweeping through Europe had not yet reached the United States, so Cummings went to Paris to participate in it; like so many American intellectuals of his generation, he fell in love with the city and returned to it over and over. With steadfast concentration and total commitment, he developed a unique style -- often imitated, never matched -- that Sawyer-Laucanno succinctly describes in analyzing one of his less-known poems:

"What is identifiably Cummings style is all here: the uncapitalized 'i'; the use of parentheses and the ampersand; the spacing for visual and aural purposes; the punctuation for effect; the running of words together to create a wholeness out of separateness; the unique imagery ('hair-thin tints,' 'women coloured twilight'); the syntactical interruptions; and the creation of an adverb -- 'sayingly' out of another part of speech. And yet these are not just tricks for the sake of a unique semantic; the saying is integral to the meaning."

Not until the 1950s did Cummings become a Famous Poet, with the publication of his Poems 1923-1954 and his emergence as a star on the college lecture circuit. His revolutionary style put off many readers for years, and his fierce individualism separated him from the literary crowd, though he had many friends in it. Money was a never-ending preoccupation, and there rarely was enough of it. His "extreme self-centeredness" led, not surprisingly, to a powerful sense of entitlement, so he took as a matter of course the support he received from his parents, his wives (there were three of them) and various benefactors, some of whom were astonishingly generous.

He was in many ways a perpetual child, a point made more forcefully by Kennedy than by Sawyer-Laucanno. He had a sublimely happy boyhood, surrounded by love and immersed in nature, and he always approached the world with innocence, even in poems sharply critical of war ("i sing of Olaf glad and big"), of humankind ("pity this busy monster,manunkind") or of his country ("next to of course god America i"). He was also a deeply sensual man who gradually overcame youthful "ambivalence as to whether sex was, as he had been taught throughout his childhood and adolescence, 'dirty' and forbidden," and had for much of his adulthood a lively, fulfilling sex life. He wrote many deliciously and somewhat sophomorically naughty poems ("may i feel said he"), and he wrote what may well be the greatest American love poem. It begins:

somewhere i have never traveled,gladly beyond

any experience,your eyes have their silence:

in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,

or which i cannot touch because they are too near

On the whole Cummings is well-served by Sawyer-Laucanno, who treats his many eccentricities and self-indulgences kindly and who reads his work with care and understanding. What he says about Cummings's first book of poems, Tulips and Chimneys (1923) applies to all of his work: "Even when Cummings falters, he is still interesting, worth reading, and always has something to say. But perhaps, most important, his voice is always his own: genuine, unique, and resonant." He is not an especially graceful writer, but he gets the job done.

It should be noted that this biography is based, apart from Cummings's work, almost entirely on secondary sources; Sawyer-Laucanno insists that it is "largely the result of archival research," but there can be no question that he relies heavily on Kennedy's biography. As a case in point, I was stopped cold by Sawyer-Laucanno's account of an important event in Cummings's life of which I have personal knowledge. In the spring of 1935 he gave his first public reading, at Bennington College in Vermont. My mother, who was then 20 years old and an ardent reader of Cummings's poetry (she remained one all her life), was in the audience, which received him with wild enthusiasm. It was an occasion she never forgot and loved to talk about, so I read Sawyer-Laucanno's account of it with particular interest. Since his Notes make no reference to anything in his two-paragraph account, I referred to Kennedy to see if he'd gotten it right.

A little too right, it seems. Here the two authors describe Cummings's response to the students' lavish, noisy welcome, in which they recited en masse his famous poem about the death of Buffalo Bill. Kennedy: "He was so overcome by the whole display that he did not know what to say. Flustered, he took the handkerchief from his breast pocket and waved it at them." Sawyer-Laucanno: "Flummoxed, he simply stood in the wings. . . . Finally, after the third complete recitation of the poem he walked onto the stage, plucked a handkerchief from his breast pocket and waved at the adoring crowd."

There are, of course, only so many ways to tell the same story, and each account supplies details that the other does not. But Sawyer-Laucanno's failure to identify his sources for this specific incident left me wondering about his sources elsewhere. No doubt a more thorough Notes section would have cleared up the mystery, and his editor and publisher are to be faulted for not insisting on one. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

E.E. Cummings, ca. 1939