A major new biography of the poet known for his fondness for the lower-case, the fractured word (and line), the idiosyncratic spelling, the prefix un-, the arresting phrase, and—later on—anti-Semitism.
Sawyer-Lauçanno (Writer-in-Residence/M.I.T.; The Continual Pilgrimage: American Writers in Paris, 1992, etc.) here takes on a most compelling subject. Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) was the son of a powerful father—a Harvard professor, a Congregationalist minister, a man so handy he built houses—and an unfailingly supportive mother. He crafted careers in both poetry and painting, neither lucrative until near the end, and led a life with some moments so truly bizarre that they could have sated even today’s voracious tabloid-TV news. Cummings’s father was killed in a snowstorm when a train cut his car in half moments after he’d stopped to clear the windshield. Cummings had sexual relations and a child with a good friend’s wife, whom he subsequently married, then divorced. His daughter grew up not knowing the identity of her father, and when she met him years later, she felt an attraction . . . then learned the news. Traditional in design, the biography begins with the poet’s death, retreats to his birth, advances toward his death, ends with some paragraphs about his legacy. The volume, featuring as much praise as analysis, reads at times almost like a 19th-century “life.” Cummings was, declares the author, “a masterful lyric poet, and, quite simply, the master of the love poem.” Similar encomiums appear just about anytime Sawyer-Lauçanno discusses Cummings’s work. Moreover, until near the end, when he finally chides the poet, he suggests others were to blame for Cummings’s personal failings. When he abandons his role as apologist, however, the author has many bright things to say about the poems and their gifted creator.
Well-researched, comprehensive, and essential to understanding the artist and the artistry. (31 b&w photos, not seen)