Biography of the irreverent modernist poet, who was apparently a sad, troubled man.
Cheever (Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography, 2010, etc.) met E.E. Cummings (1894–1962) when she was a junior at the Masters School in Westchester, where he had come to give a reading. After his “electrifying and acrobatic” performance, the author and her father drove Cummings back to his home in Greenwich Village, regaled all the way by the poet’s mockery of the school, teachers and stultifying pedagogy. John Cheever, who had known Cummings in the 1930s, was as enchanted as his daughter. “Cummings,” she writes, “was our generation’s beloved heretic, a Henry David Thoreau for the twentieth century.” Drawing on letters, archival material and several more comprehensive biographies, Cheever distills the major events of Cummings’ life along with reflections on the challenge of interpreting her subject’s self-destructive behavior, anti-Semitism, sexuality and egotism. Throughout his life, Cummings berated himself for not being manly enough. Slight, delicate, almost feminine in physique, he felt “overwhelmed,” Cheever writes, “by his father’s great, masculine bulk.” Edward Cummings, besides being large, was authoritarian, prudish and demanding, and his son rebelled messily and noisily. From the time he was a disgruntled undergraduate at Harvard until his death, the poet who exalted spring and flowers and balloons and clowns was an angry man, “an anger that became more of an irritation with the entire world when he drank and as he aged.” He hated phonies, politicians and anyone in authority, and he loved children and nature: “The young were wiser and purer, more innocent and more beautiful than the self-appointed elders of the world. Nature with its indecipherable glories was where true enlightenment could be found.” Cummings’ literary innovations elicited both adulation and disdain. After a dip in his reputation in the 1940s and ’50s, “the poet of chaos, playfulness, and topsy-turvy rule breaking” was celebrated again in the ’60s.
This sympathetic life may win Cummings a new generation of readers.