What I’m Reading: e. e. cummings: a life by Susan Cheever

I unfortunately just finished this e. e. cummings biography by Susan Cheever, which is “unfortunate” because it was so good. Written by the accomplished daughter of a famous novelist who also met e. e. cummings as a young girl, it is full-bodied with the color of events and with the twists and turns of this author’s life, and well paced at about 300 pages. It’s further imbued with Cheever’s touching, yet never uncritical, admiration for the cummings. She sprinkles in a few poems into this biography, so I read his poetry again in this more personal context, including the sense that Susan Cheever selected some of her favorites.

Cheever tells the tale of a Harvard educated, turn-of-the 20th Century young man, who had a close-knit understanding family, financial support, and set out to be utterly free without any sense of needing to compromise. He lived most of his life in Patchin Place, in Greenwich Village of NYC, and lived hand-to-mouth fairly often too, so he could live, socialize, and write. Cummings met and knew many of the American and European modernist writers. He wrote his poems in that idiosyncratic style we know him for from the outset. He published his first book of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys, in 1923 at around age twenty nine, which I have just started re-reading after finishing this biography.

After two bad marriages, cummings found the right life’s partner, according to Cheever. He had a daughter from one of his marriages to whom he was estranged for much of his life, as the mother remarried, moved to England, and kept them apart. Cummings, from his end, kept his distance, maybe out of being hurt in part, and maybe out of being a self-absorbed artist in part, according to Cheever. As adults, they did get to know each other, and his daughter published at least one book of poetry too. Beneath cummings’ idiosyncrasy was a sort of anger, a sort of total individuality and refusal to conform, beneath the humor, reports Cheever. There is more here and I’m thrilled to dive back into his poems.

This biography has a personal atmosphere. In that way it lives up to Rilke’s dictum to read literature with loving eyes. Cheever brings a considerate care and careful parsing even to the hurt and hurtful places in the story of this poet’s life.

While I did not exactly get a sense of being in the room with e. e. cummings from this biography, and I bet there is room for a longer more detailed treatment, I did leave with an atmosphere and arc of cummings that will provide new pleasure and insight as I revisit his poetry.

G. H. Mosson