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Thursday, October 14, 2010

E. E. Cummings and The Enormous Room: making jail literature modernist

Born 116 years ago today, E. E. Cummings’s first major book was not poetry but the autobiographical novel The Enormous Room, first published in 1922, the annus mirabilis that also saw the publication of Ulysses and The Waste Land.

The Enormous Room took its name from the large barracks in France where Cummings slept with thirty other Allied prisoners for two months in 1917. Cummings had arrived in France in August, a year out of Harvard, to drive ambulances for the Red Cross. But the fellow ambulance driver he befriended on the voyage over, William Slater Brown, turned out to be an outspoken pacifist. When the French censors found mentions of “war weariness” and Emma Goldman in Brown’s letters home they recommended both be arrested. Cummings would probably have been released but out of loyalty to his friend he refused to profess hatred for all Germans. In October the two were shipped off to La Ferté-Macé, the detention barracks.

Cummings's first letters home painted a reassuring picture of life in internment. On October 24 he wrote: “days spent with an inimitable friend in soul stretching probings of aesthetics, 10 hour nights (9 P.M.-6:45 A.M.) and fine folk to converse in five or six language beside you—perfection attained at last.” But the high spirits didn’t last. The food was inadequate, Brown contracted scurvy, the two friends were separated in November, and Cummings came down with a rash and an infection.

Luckily for Cummings, his father had connections. He had been Harvard’s first instructor in sociology and in 1917 was perhaps the most famous Unitarian minister in Boston. His plaintive letters, reprinted as the introduction to The Enormous Room, finally succeeded in securing his son’s release on December 19. Worried about his son’s seeming lack of direction, Edward Cummings offered to finance a trip abroad for his son if he would write up his “French Notes.” And in July 1920 Cummings retired to a tent on Silver Lake in New Hampshire to spend the next five months doing just that.

Most publishers did not know what make of the manuscript. It wasn’t really a novel or an autobiography and what was with all the French phrases and odd typography? After half a dozen rejections, Cummings left the task of finding a publisher to his father who succeeded in placing it with Boni & Liveright.

While it was not a commercial success—it had already been remaindered by the time Cummings won the prestigious Dial Poetry Award in 1925—most critics greeted it as something unique. In a roundup review of World War I novels in 1926 F. Scott Fitzgerald singled it out: “Of all the work by young men who have sprung up since 1920 one book survives—The Enormous Room by E. E. Cummings. Those few who cause books to live have not been able to endure the thought of its immortality.”

Reviewing a reissue of the book in 1995, Samuel Hynes wrote:
. . . as jail literature it is moving, funny, endlessly interesting. But it is as an early American modernist text that it is most touching. It is our modernism when young: lively, energetic, playful, both overwritten and underwritten, endlessly confident in what a new art of prose could do, at that point in history when our brash nation thrust itself forward into the great confusion of the world after the war.
Of related interest:
  • Daily Art Fixx has an appreciation of E. E. Cummings the artist
  • Zoe in Wonderland also posted an appreciation of The Enormous Room
  • The entry on Cummings on poets.org includes links to several of his best-known poems and to an essay for readers new to poetry from his era, “A Brief Guide to Modernism”
  • Notable American Unitarians has posted Malcolm Cowley's profile of Cummings
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume two: E.E. Cummings to May Swenson; Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology (includes Vive la Folie!, Cummings’s 1926 account of a performance by Josephine Baker)


  1. No plans for the Library of America to publish The Enormous room?

  2. Pierre:

    About two months ago this very topic came up among LOA editors. We are considering the possibility of collecting important texts about World War I (much like we did for World War II and Vietnam, and as we are currently doing for the Civil War).

    "The Enormous Room" is very near the top of the list for such a collection. We don't have a final plan or schedule yet, since we are still surveying the literature. But are actively pursuing this idea.

  3. Just FYI: Above you wrote:

    "The entry on Cummings on poets.org includes links to several of his best-known poems and his essay 'A Brief Guide to Modernism.'"

    Cummings did not write "A Brief Guide to Modernism." This seems to have been written by the editors at poets.org. It references cummings in the third person.

  4. Thanks for pointing out this error. We've corrected the entry.


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