The Author Would Go On To Repeat Herself

Susan Cheever
E.E. Cummings: A Life
(Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2014)

The preface to Susan Cheever’s biography of Edward Estlin Cummings made me want to read the whole book. She begins by describing the time the poet came to speak at her school, where Cheever was “a miserable 14-year-old sophomore with failing grades.” She and her dad, John Cheever, drove Cummings home that night, and when they stopped at a restaurant, the visiting poet made fun of her English teacher while her father added liquor to the coffee. As Cheever explains it, she was “drunk on a different kind of substance—inspiration.” By the end of the preface, I, too, was enthralled by Cummings: his dogged playfulness in the face of the adult world, his confidence, his personality and charm—all characteristics reflected in his famously lowercased, irreverent poetry. Unfortunately, this is the best part of the book. 

Cheever tells the story of a man who grew up within the Cambridge academic and social establishment, rejected it, and returned as an esteemed poet, his irreverence now revered. She also makes the case that Cummings’s work deserves more attention than it currently receives. Cummings’s character is intriguing and his poetry, delightful, but Cheever’s repetitive prose and thin poetic analysis fall short of the book’s worthy aims.

A second-generation Harvard man, Cummings was born into privilege and tradition. Ironically enough, his Harvard education and connections gave him the means to rebel and be noticed. Cummings “played with form as only a formalist could,” as Cheever says. Cummings’s Ivy League pedigree also played a crucial role in his earliest published work. In his poems, he set out to expose the dangers of conformity, which Harvard and, as Cummings wrote, “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls,” represented. Eventually, the establishment turned toward him. Emblematic of this shift was a 1952 invitation from the school asking Cummings to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures in poetry. True to form (or to anti-form), he called them nonlectures and refused to “pose” as a lecturer, explaining that, “while a genuine lecturer must obey the rules…an authentic ignoramus remains quite indecently free to speak as he feels.…I value freedom; and have never expected freedom to be anything less than indecent.”

Cummings’s devotion to liberty serves as a second theme for Cheever, along with the prodigal son narrative. Quite consciously, the poet maintained a child-like wonder at the world, sketching in Washington Square Park every morning and paying attention to birds. Cheever points out Cummings’s respect for the unblemished spirit of childhood, which he captured in poems like “[in Just-],” which begins, “in Just- / spring when the world is mud- / luscious the little / lame balloonman / whistles far and wee.” Cummings managed to articulate things that children can’t put into words and many adults forget. He only ever had one job, at a publisher, which he found so boring that he read “dense Icelandic prose and poetry sagas” to divert himself at work, and eventually quit. He lived the way he wanted to live. 

He also wrote the way he wanted to write. Cummings’s work was often published as written (he hated to be edited), and his editors were often his friends. When all the major publishers rejected a particular manuscript, Cummings borrowed money from his mother to self-publish it, called it No Thanks, and dedicated it to the publishers who had refused it. (His freedom often came at a cost to his mother’s bank account, which Cheever makes clear, though without seeming to judge.)

Cheever feels that the world has again cooled toward Cummings, a modernist poet who is “too popular for the academy and often too sassy to be taught in high school.” Part of her aim in writing this biography seems to be to point out how the poet is still relevant. Since Richard Kennedy’s seminal biography of Cummings first came out more than 30 years ago, the idea of a contemporary take makes sense. In this age of information overload, Cheever argues, modernist writers, who made their writing difficult in part to slow people down, are needed now more than ever. Yet Cheever doesn’t back up her thesis, regardless of its truth, because she doesn’t analyze Cummings’s poetry. She reprints several of his poems in full, with a few notes before or after, but there is very little line-by-line analysis or even reference to analysis by others. 

While Cummings’s character and life are intriguing, Cheever’s prose is repetitive to the point of frustration. The phrase “beloved dog” appears far too many times in the account of Cummings’s childhood; Cummings was also a “beloved boy” with a “beloved” uncle at home. How many times must Cheever tell us that Cummings’s childhood home at 104 Irving Street, in Cambridge, is just a “few blocks” from Harvard? The narrative itself also has a repetitive, heavy-handed quality, with every future conflict conspicuously and frequently foreshadowed with phrases like, “For a moment though, the façade of principle was intact. Soon enough it would come dreadfully undone.” By the time Cheever gets to that dreadful undoing in the chronology of Cummings’s life, she has already alluded to it so often that we hardly care. I could go on, but not without committing the same sins as Cheever.

The biography does, however, have a bright spot in the relationship between Cummings and his only daughter, Nancy Thayer Andrews. Having returned to Greenwich Village after World War I, Cummings became involved with Elaine Thayer, the wife of his friend and editor, Scofield Thayer. Cummings’s only child was born to Elaine in 1919, and her marriage to Scofield ended the next year. A mess of marriages, including a failed union between Cummings and Elaine, followed. In the end, she remarried, moved to Ireland, made sure that Cummings saw very little of Nancy, and never told her daughter that Cummings was her father. Meanwhile Cummings also married again, divorced again, and began a relationship with the model Marion Morehouse, with whom he lived, unmarried, for the rest of his life. The scenes in which Cummings and Nancy try to develop a relationship later in life strain with tension and delicious complexity. Cummings finally reunites with Nancy, who also writes poetry and admires his work, when she is in her late twenties. They begin to meet regularly so that Cummings can paint her portrait. Still unaware that he is her father, she begins to fall in love. At one portrait session, while Marion, who is a little jealous of Nancy, is out of earshot, Nancy confesses her love. Cummings reveals his secret: “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that I was your father?” These awkward interactions are interesting because they reflect Cummings’s whole life: both his rollercoaster past and his stature later in life as a major American poet who succeeded and settled down. I can imagine a book beginning with those scenes of Cummings and Nancy getting to know each other and spinning out Cummings’s early life as reflected in that complicated relationship. Cheever, in fact, says something similar: “Cummings’s connection to his only child is one of the most illuminating, heartbreaking, and startling passages in his life. It is worth a book on its own.”

Maybe someone else, a modern-day Truman Capote, will write that book, a “nonfiction novel,” as Capote called them. Or perhaps Cummings’s poems, though not equivalent to biography, nonetheless say the important things better than a biographer can.


Ashley P. Taylor

ASHLEY P. TAYLOR lives in Brooklyn and writes about both science and the arts. View more of her work at ashleyptaylor.com.