Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Book Review: e. e. cummings: a life by Susan Cheever

e.e. cummings: a life
Susan Cheever

Susan Cheever begins this most recent exploration into Edward Estlin Cumming's life with a first-hand account of meeting the poet as a young student, successfully introducing and shaping the biography with her heart-felt and intimate view. The author is inspired by E.E., he gives her advice, and ultimately this interaction helps shape a small part of her life. That slightly-biased view of the verbally-acrobatic poet is a running thread throughout Cheever's new title. She handles Cummings' life and its relationships with deft, surgical sweetness, allowing the reader to delve quickly and easily into the read without being bogged down with scholastic prose.

The idyllic childhood which begat E.E. Cummings is fairly well-known. He was the eldest son of affluent and supportive parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, growing up surrounded by books and in contact with the intellectuals in his neighborhood. The family split their time outside of the Boston professorial circle by staying on a farm in New Hampshire called Joy Farm, where the children were free to roam through nature with their family and beloved pets.

Harvard taught Cummings all the rules of prose and verse, which is an important point for a man who spent so much time breaking traditional poetic norm. He found his inspiration for bucking the system there at Harvard, a bastion of conservatism which fueled his aggression for large, rule-making bodies. This rebellion, and some would say anger, was as much a part of him as was his playful, childish side, both of which appear in his work. The early days of restriction, within the ivy-league system and from his tee-totaling minister father, gave the young Cummings something to rally against, and like a jazz improvisational musician, he learned the rules to gladly break them, creating his own brand of Modernist verse.

This fascinating literary figure finds himself in the heart of Greenwich Village dealing with his difficult life: his doomed two marriages, his ex-wife's abduction of his dear and only child Nancy Thayer, and his short but avant-garde stint in the military during WWI. E.E. Cummings's personal life would fall to pieces while he was critically acclaimed by the public. He turned his riotous life into verse and prose, and did so while creating what he hoped would be considered "New Art."

E.E. Cummings became notorious for lack of punctuation, verbs as nouns, sexual innuendos, and even anti-semitic commentary, and all of this history is examined in Cheever's newest biographical endeavor. e.e. cummings: a life is neither weighty nor outlandishly scholarly, but it is a wonderful, confidential take on a man misjudged for his childish and crazily-punctuated poetry.

Rachel Joiner
Central Library

1 comment:

John Thursday said...

Great post! Looking forward to checking it out!