Susan Cheever’s new biography of E.E. Cummings opens with an arresting anecdote:
“During the last years of his life Cummings made a modest living on the high-school lecture circuit. In the winter of 1960 his schedule brought him to read his adventurous poems at an uptight girls’ school in Westchester where I was a miserable 17-year-old junior with failing grades.’’
Cummings had been a “beloved friend and adviser’’ to Susan’s father, the writer John Cheever, who along with his wayward daughter drove the poet home the night of the reading. Cheever ends her book’s opening section by describing her recent visit to the street in Greenwich Village where Cummings once lived and where she and her father, owing to the hour, declined his offer to come in for a chat that winter’s night in 1960. “Now, in this book,” Cheever says, “I would like to take him up on that invitation.”
But the book that follows isn’t conversational, intimate, or idiosyncratic. In fact, it devolves rather quickly into a surprisingly conventional biography, albeit one with some distinctive strengths.
Over and against the view of Cummings as a sentimental and simplistic poet for adolescents and saps, Cheever forcefully establishes him as a “true intellectual.” With “two degrees from Harvard” and William James for an “unofficial godfather,” Cummings was genuinely erudite. In his “fury against all rules and authority,” Cummings rebelled with what Cheever calls an “educated antiformalism” against both “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls” and the male academics who drained the life out of literature with dry, arcane analyses.
In addition to underscoring his intellectual and academic credentials, Cheever effectively situates Cummings within a larger literary and cultural movement, whose work was “a wildly ambitious attempt at creating a new way of seeing the world through language.” For Cheever, Cummings is an avant-garde modernist, “[p]art of a powerful group of writers and artists” including James Joyce, Marianne Moore, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse.
Cummings’s life is inherently interesting, dramatic, and sad, and Cheever highlights its colorful and tragic aspects: “two of the most disastrous marriages imaginable — marriages that featured adultery, lies, deceit, the loss of a child, and constant heartbreak,” his father’s death in a violent car accident. She deftly covers the major stages of Cummings’s life and career: his “idyllic childhood,” much of it spent on his family’s aptly named Joy Farm, his shift “from being the good boy [of his family] . . . to being the bad boy of his Harvard class and later the bad boy of the national consciousness,” his misguided romantic entanglements and eventual happy relationship with a model/actress who “provoked some of . . . [his] most beautiful and intelligent love poems,” his genteel bohemian poverty, and later success as a public speaker.
Despite her skill at summary and obvious love for her subject, however, much seems sketchy and underdeveloped in Cheever’s account. She proclaims Cummings “a sweetheart in person . . . an unusually understanding and generous man” but doesn’t give us enough personal stories to back up her pronouncement. She acknowledges that the complicated relationship between Cummings and his daughter, Nancy, is ”worth a book on its own.” She offers relatively facile psychological explanations for some of the more difficult features of his personality, attributing his insecurity and anger to “his slight, feminine body” in comparison to “his father’s great, masculine bulk.’’ Although poetic excerpts are sprinkled liberally throughout, the notable lack of sustained poetic interpretation makes the book less rich than it might have been.
And if underdevelopment is a problem, so is redundancy. By the 20th variant of Cummings “was an angry man and an angry poet,” I must confess I was feeling a little irritated myself.
The repetitiveness detracts from the argument’s overall effect, as does the book’s piece-meal feel. There is no consistent point of view, and transitions are choppy, unmotivated, even nonexistent.
But one has to admire the spirit of acceptance that Cheever breathes into her book. Even as she celebrates Cummings’s rebelliousness, bravado, and “irrepressible” nature, she emphasizes, with compassion and tenderness, his frailty, anxiety, vulnerability.
“[F]or all his playfulness and rule breaking, Cummings wanted his word taken seriously.” Cheever’s main achievement is to have accorded him that seriousness of purpose. “These days he is too popular for the academy and often too sassy to be taught in high school,” Cheever laments. Her book is a poignant and honorable attempt to restore to Cummings a proper prominence.
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale and Vassar and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’