Many school kids have a special affinity for e.e. cummings, who wrote about the circus and got away with funky punctuation, made-up words and no capitalization in his poetry. Young ladies, too, are drawn to his lyrical love poems, some of the best in the English language.
He loved to mangle that language like the cartoon character Krazy Kat. He even wrote an introduction to the first collection of the Krazy Kat comic strips.
Yet Cummings’ experimental poems weren’t just kid stuff.
When he died in 1962, critics acknowledged him as an important 20th century poet. “No one else has ever made avant-garde, experimental poems so attractive to the general and the special reader,” wrote critic Randall Jarrell.
He was born into a prosperous, intellectual Unitarian family in Cambridge, Mass. Like another New England poet, Robert Frost, he had a farm in New Hampshire. Throughout his life he found refuge at Joy Farm in Madison, near Mount Chocorua.
He earned a B.A. and an M.A. from Harvard, signed up to drive an ambulance during World War I and then wrote a critically acclaimed novel.
In 1923 his first book of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys, came out. He wrote more books of poetry in the 20s that established his reputation as an avant-garde poet. Over his lifetime he also wrote 2,900 poems, four plays, two novels and essays. He also painted and drew.
For most of his life he lived in a small apartment at 4 Patchin Place in Greenwich Village. “the topfloorback room at 4 Patchin Place … meant Safety & Peace & the truth of Dreaming & the bliss of Work.”
He had two short marriages as a young man, then fell in love with a model, Marion Morehouse. They lived together for 30 years, until his death.
He died on Sept. 3, 1962 and is buried at the Forest Hills Cemetery in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston.
Here are seven fun facts about e.e. cummings, or E.E. Cummings, if you prefer. He used both.
1. Cambridge Roots
His childhood home in Cambridge at 104 Irving Street was across the street from the house Julia Child would later live in. Cummings’ home was the first in Cambridge to have a telephone (a hand-cranked version, that is).
He was born Edward Estlin Cummings, named after his father, on Oct. 14, 1894. Everyone called him Estlin. His loving, well-to-do family encouraged his creativity as a child and supported him financially as an adult. He had a happy childhood, capturing its essence in his most famous poem, [in Just-].
When the world is puddle-wonderful
The little lame baloon-man whistles
Far and wee,
And Betty and Is’bel come dancing…
And the goat-footed baloon-man
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell, two Fireside poets, had also lived in the city and died within a decade of Cummings’ birth. Before TV and radio, people read poetry for entertainment in family settings – hence “fireside.” – and schoolchildren memorized poems in school.
Poets were celebrities, rock stars even, back then. Estlin Cummings wanted to be one from his early childhood.
2. He had a beloved African-American teacher
He attended the Agassiz School, a public school run by Maria Baldwin, the African American principal and early civil rights leader. The school now bears her name. About Baldwin, he wrote, “From her I marvelingly learned that the truest power is gentleness.” She called him a most loveable little boy.
As a boy, E.E. Cummings wrote a poem every day. His trademark: no space after a comma, began at the age of 14.
His first published poem appeared in 1910 in the Cambridge Review, a monthly magazine by the city’s high school students. The last line, about the retirement of his teacher, read,
“Than that which fits you best–our faithful friend.” But the printer left off ‘you.’ From then on, Cummings had an inordinate distrust of typesetters. “Later in his life he would become the bane of printers, insisting on galley after galley that he would examine with extreme care, correcting the most minute mistakes,” wrote his biographer, Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno.
3. He spent time in a French military prison
E.E. Cummings spent 3-1/2 months in a French military prison. He had joined the French ambulance corps during World War I. A bureaucratic mix-up left him in Paris for five weeks, and he fell in love with a French prostitute.
Cummings and his friend, William Slater Brown, wrote letters home that included comments opposing the war. The French military arrested him in 1917 and incarcerated him in a large room. His father protested vigorously and got him out of prison.
From that experience he wrote a novel, The Enormous Room, published in 1922, to critical acclaim.
4. He had Daddy issues
His father worked as the pastor of the South Congregational Church and as a lecturer at Harvard. He also served as secretary of the Boston Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Penal Aspects of Drunkenness and a supporter of the Watch and Ward Society.
His father was a large, powerful man, athletic and aggressive. Estlin, on the other hand, was small, uncoordinated and as a teenager had bad acne. His father often said, “I’d never give a penny to a son of mine who drank.” Estlin drank, but he got more than a penny over the years.
His daddy issues caused him to start rebelling against his father while at Harvard. He drank whiskey sours, visited burlesque shows and wrote erotic love poems. Once he parked his father’s car in front of a bordello.
5. Cummings was a Republican
Though he wrote avant-garde poetry and lived a Bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village, he registered as a Republican and supported the anti-Communist U.S. senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy.
He visited the Soviet Union in 1931, and criticized the poverty and squalor under Stalin. Susan Cheever wrote, “He lost friends, and people crossed the street to avoid him. Malcolm Cowley and Edmund Wilson were horrified at what seemed to them, accurately, to be a sudden veering into right-wing conservatism…” He hated the Kennedys and refused an invitation to the White House from First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
6. Estranged from Daughter
His first wife, Elaine Orr, abducted their daughter and he didn’t see her for more than 20 years. Cummings had an affair with Elaine while she was married to Scofield Thayer. She had Cummings’ child, Nancy, in 1919, but her husband was okay with it. Thayer gave Nancy his name and supported her.
Elaine divorced Thayer to marry Cummings in 1924. They stayed together all of two months and divorced after nine.
Elaine told Nancy that Thayer was her father, that he was dead (he wasn’t), that he was crazy (he was).
Elaine shuttled Nancy across the Atlantic and around Europe, putting her in the care of nurses, governesses and boarding schools. Nancy on her own she discovered the poetry of E.E. Cummings. During World War II she worked in Washington, D.C., as a typist and a linguist, and met and married Willard Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson.
Nancy’s mother-in-law invited her to stay during the summer at her summer home near Mount Chocorua. Cummings, nearby at Joy Farm, invited her for tea but didn’t disclose their relationship. She agreed to meet him again in Greenwich Village to have her portrait painted, and felt herself falling in love with him. Finally he told her the truth.
7. Dirty Dancing
He admitted his addiction to striptease and burlesque while delivering the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. When living in Greenwich Village he frequented the burlesque show at Minsky’s National Winter Garden to see his favorite stripper, Cleo. As a Harvard undergraduate, he went to the burlesque show at the Old Howard Theater in Boston’s Scollay Square. In Paris, he dated a prostitute named Marie-Louise. He wrote articles for Vanity Fair in 1925 and 1926 defending burlesque as “art which is alive.”
We relied on several fine biographies of E.E. Cummings, including E.E. Cummings A Biography By Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno; E.E. Cummings By Catherine Reef; Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E.E. Cummings By Richard S. Kennedy; e.e. cummings: a life by Susan Cheever.
Image: e.e. cummings house in Cambridge By User:Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22922253. This story was updated in 2021.