Susan Cheever’s recently published biography, E. E. Cummings: A Life, is like the poet himself: playful, trim, and meticulous. Cheever, the author of more than a dozen books including American Bloomsbury, presents the major events of the poet’s life with a sympathetic eye. At times, Cheever’s work reads like an ode to a childhood hero—appropriately enough: Cheever’s father, the short-story author and novelist John Cheever, was a friend of Cummings, and Cheever’s memories of the poet have fueled what she now calls something of “an obsession.” The biography switches gears readily between modes of historical factuality and modern contextualization, and Cheever focuses on Cummings’s life as a man rather than his work as a gifted nonconformist poet. Such was her goal: to “bring him to life.”
Cheever spoke with the Poetry Foundation on the phone from her home in New York City about Cummings’s presence in her childhood, the evolution of biography as a genre, lower- versus uppercaseness, and why biography is essentially a marriage. The following is an edited, condensed version of that conversation.
How did this book come about?
Well, there’s a long story and a short story. The long story is I was very lucky to grow up in one of the most literary households I can imagine. It was a household where people cared about books, cared about poetry, cared about these things desperately. My father was always giving me books, and then he wanted to talk to me about books. And my mother as well. One of my father’s heroes was E. E. Cummings, so of course, fairly early on I read The Enormous Room [Cummings’s memoir about his incarceration in France]. I heard all my father’s stories about Cummings. He was one of the characters in the house where I grew up.
I also have always felt, since I was 14, that I owed him a huge favor; I tell this story in the preface of the book. I was at this horrible school, and he came to read. He saw at once that the school was like a prison for me, and he persuaded my father to let me go to a different kind of school—something I had not been able to persuade my parents of. When I told them it was the wrong kind of school, they pooh-poohed me. But when Cummings told them it was the wrong kind of school, I got to switch schools. Cummings showed me that education could be wonderful, and [he] inspired me. It was an amazing thing, that switch of schools. So I owed him that favor.
The shorter version is: I’m always looking for books I might want to write, and thinking about—why one writes changes, or, changes for me. At the moment I write as a kind of attempt to add to the historical records. It’s the same instinct as why I teach. I write because I hope I can bring some enlightenment into somebody’s life. I’m always looking for something to write about. [At the time] I was going downtown to have tea with my old friend Lisa; I was teaching at the New School then. After I would have tea with Lisa, I would wander past Patchin Place [the street in Greenwich Village where Cummings lived for many years]. Of course, I remembered Patchin Place from 50 years ago, so I started wandering in there. Once a month I’d wander in there and think about Cummings. I started rereading the poems, and I just started thinking about him—not as a book, just the way one does. Most books start for me as some kind of obsession. Something will catch my interest—something I’ve read or something I’ve seen—and then I’ll start thinking about it. That happens about 50 times a day, and then I’ve forgotten the next morning. That’s how the human mind works! But then sometimes my mind will sort of catch on something. I just start building, and then I get obsessed.
Was it a struggle to stay objective while writing this?
I have so much to say about biography and objectivity. I mean, biography is not objective. One of the things that’s changing about biography is that biography pretended to be objective. But of course, each biography is written by an individual. That individual brings his point of view, his experiences, gender, political opinions to bear. There’s no objectivity. In other words, a biographer uses the facts to shape the story they want to tell. There’s no inaccuracy, but it’s completely subjective. You can say a man was tall, dark, and handsome, and that can be true, but then you can say he was wearing a purple sweater dress and burped every three minutes. It all depends on which details you give. So it’s never been objective, in any real way, but we pretend it is.
Were there other conventions of the biographical form that you tried to avoid?
Sometimes when I read a biography I feel that the facts have more control than the writer. I try to avoid hiding behind facts. Just because I discover an interesting fact doesn’t mean I have to use it. That’s the painful part. You discover something fabulous, and yet you don’t have to put it in the book. I try very much to be a storyteller, so if a fact doesn’t help me tell a story, I don’t use it. Writing a biography is essentially a marriage. You can love the subject, you can hate the subject, but you certainly have passionate feelings about the subject, or else you’re not going to write the book. Since you have these passionate feelings about the subject, you’re not going to be objective. You’re going to be factual, but not objective. Your passionate feelings about the subject are going to come through; there’s no way around it. When I read a biography and have no sense of who the writer is, I am very impatient. I want to know who the writer is and how they feel.
Can you give me an example of facts you found interesting but chose not to include?
I was less interested in his marriages than I might have been. They seemed so sad and disastrous. I couldn’t leave them out, but there was a lot more to say about his marriage to Elaine and his marriage to Anne and I couldn’t put everything in. It was a disheartening mess, and it didn’t seem to have a lot of bearing on what interested me. I don’t understand, to this day, how it happened that he had two disastrous marriages and then found the love of his life. A whole other book could be written about Cummings and his connections to women, and how that shifted. I didn’t want to write that book.
On the subject of women: Some of Cummings’s poems are sweet and endearing [like “i carry your heart with me”]. But in others, the voice of “i” has little regard for the female. In “may i feel said he,” the “i” is so aggressive.
But she’s answering. It’s a dialogue.
Right, but she doesn’t consent. There is a lot of pressure from the “i.”
Really? I mean, she has half the lines. Do you want to look at it together? I don’t see the poem that way at all. I mean, for one thing, it’s a joke. It’s an extended joke. It’s meant to be playful more than anything else. She’s got every other line, and she’s certainly not fighting him.
But then: “(let’s go said he / not too far said she / what’s too far said he / where you are said she)”
Right: “may I move said he / is it love said she / if you’re willing said he / but you’re killing said she.” Hmm, don’t know what that means. “now said he / ow said she.” Okay, that’s not good.
How do you interpret it?
It’s two people making love. And the part that isn’t quite as playful as I wish it were is the last two lines, which suggest that women are more possessive than men. But surely there’s no crime there. I don’t agree with him, but he is suggesting that.
I don’t see the coercion. She says, “It’s fun… why not…” I don’t see any lack of consent on her part. I don’t see disregard for the “she.” For one thing, there was not a coercive bone in Cummings’s body. If anything, he was terrified that he wasn’t sufficiently masculine. He was slight and feminine even, physically, whereas his father was this big, burly guy. Cummings was more of a “stand on your head and jump around until you laughed so much you’d sleep with him” kind of guy.
Can you think of a poem where that insecurity comes out?
No. But in the journals, there’s a lot of “Am I a real man?” And when he goes through that terrible thing where Elaine takes his daughter, he’s constantly comparing himself to Frank McDermott, the guy that she had fallen in love with. And he said, “If I were a man I’d challenge him to a duel, but I’m just not like that.” He just wasn’t that masculine. He was much more playful.
About the lowercase “ee” and “i”—do you think this is a move of humility? It makes Cummings stand out; it’s very distinctive.
I’m not sure I can make a sweeping statement about lowercaseness. With Cummings, the lowercase “i” is partly because it looks Greek, it’s partly what he got from Sam Ward [a handyman who worked for the Cummings family and who used the lower-case “i” in letters]. We have to assume that Sam Ward used the lowercase “i” because he felt somehow that he was the handyman. I think also Cummings felt that he, Cummings, had to make up in energy and liveliness what he lacked in bulk and sportsmanship and all these masculine attributes that he just didn’t have. I think what he meant by the lowercase “i” was a sort of humble playfulness.
I don’t want to say he was a humble guy. Obviously, no poet is a humble guy. I mean, one of the big questions in his life is why did he leave Harvard so angrily. “The Cambridge Ladies” is an angry poem about Cambridge, where he grew up and where he stayed until he was 23. So when he left Cambridge, it was a real breakup. One of the reasons he left is that uppercaseness of Cambridge. I think the uppercaseness of Cambridge, especially when Cummings was there as a sentient adult in 1916 and 1917, was really harsh. The president, Lowell, was a guy who had secret tribunals to kick out homosexuals and who made sure the Jewish quota was maintained. He was very much an uppercase guy—a big, burly, masculine guy. The uppercaseness of the Cambridge world became repulsive to Cummings.
You refer to Greenwich Village, where Cummings went in 1923, as “a state of mind than an urban neighborhood.” What kind of state of mind is it?
In the 1920s, certainly, Greenwich Village was an old neighborhood settled by immigrants, which was moved into by a lot of very marginal literary people, many of them left-wing. What you got was a culture—a society—of unprecedented freedom and, as it turns out, unprecedented creativity. In other words, Edna St. Vincent Millay and William Carlos Williams didn’t have signs on them saying, “I am a famous writer.” It turned out to be a wonderful germinator of great writing and poetry and photography. It was tremendously free. And he was always a man who wanted to be free.
I had gone into the book with an understanding that Cummings was anti-Semitic, and then was surprised to learn that he was at times embarrassed by Ezra Pound’s anti-Semitism.
I think this whole thing about anti-Semitism has been blown out of proportion. He wrote one poem that was interpreted as anti-Semitic, although he said it was the opposite, which is arguable. I feel that Cummings was less anti-Semitic than certainly anyone in his family and most people in Greenwich Village—certainly less anti-Semitic than Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound—all these people whose anti-Semitism has been entirely forgotten.
One of the great problems of biography is figuring out how much modern context you’re going to allow yourself. You’re always balancing context. You’ve got Cummings in 1935, where his career is going badly and he can’t get published. How much do you stay in 1935, and how much do you give the reader the benefit of 2012? You can’t really pretend that we don’t know what we know. On the other hand, you can’t hold people of 1935 to the standards of 2012.
In fact, Cummings didn’t really care who you were. He cared about playfulness, he cared about sexuality, he cared about whether you’d have a drink with him, he cared about could you string a line together.
As a biographer, you’re trying to bring the person to life on the page as they were. I hope I did that.
What lingering questions about Cummings do you still ask?
I still wonder: he so magnificently rejected everything we care about today: money, status, prestige, Harvard. And I’m just in awe of how he managed to do that. I think it was easier to do that then than it is now. He lived a really 19th-century life in the 20th century—I mean that in a good way.
But if I could sit down with him and he could answer any question I wanted, I’d want to know how he put those lines together. The poems are so incredible. That poem “Me up at does / out of the floor / quietly Stare / a poisoned mouse”—I mean, what? How did he do that? Did he start with the poisoned mouse that stares up at me from the floor and then ask himself, how can I subvert this syntax? Or did he start with “Me up at does”?
I know he was very secretive about his process. There’s a story where his daughter Nancy is sleeping in the room where he works, and she looks at some of the poems, and Marion [his third wife] gets furious. I would love to know [how he chose to set] those poems in the book. In many places, each space is important. It’s not just upper- and lowercase [characters], or using different parts of speech differently, it’s “Is it three spaces or five spaces?” And that makes a huge difference in how the poem looks on the page. I would love to know how that came to him. But he probably wouldn’t tell me anyway, so there we are. He’d probably just want to talk about the dogs.
What are your favorites of his poems?
So many. I think the last four lines of “Cambridge Ladies”—“… the Cambridge ladies do not care, above / Cambridge if sometimes in its box of / sky lavender and cornerless, the / moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy”]—I think those are some of the most incredibly descriptive lines in the English language.
I love “me up at does.” I don’t even know why. It’s very late; most of the poems I like are the early ones. “Buffalo Bill’s”—what a great poem. I love “the boys i mean are not refined,” but you can’t read it out loud if there are children in the audience.
One of the things that happened to his reputation which wasn’t so good was that they published the Complete Poems. He published so many poems, and maybe 20 of them were brilliant. And that’s a lot, but when you have a book with 3,000 poems, people just get lost. It’s stupid. You need to publish selected poems, which he did soon after, and that’s how you build an audience as a poet.
A lot of the early poems are just spectacular. I don’t like the idea that people do their best work before they’re 30, because I am over 30 [laughs]. But a lot of his most wonderful poems are early.
But “me up at does” is late, “purple finch” is late, “my father moved through dooms of love” is late. The [Harvard] lectures were late too, obviously. It isn’t as if he stopped doing brilliant work.
You start the book with these late-career lectures. Why start there?
Old-timey biographies always started with the birth of the subject’s parents or with the birth of the subject. In the last 10 years, biographers realized you don’t have to start with the birth of the subject’s parents. Some start with the funniest story they have; some start with the lowest moment in the subject’s life; and I thought, why not start at the moment of triumph? He’s coming back to Harvard, the lectures are a huge hit, and he loves giving them. It’s the beginning of a new career for him. It’s 1952—the moment where, to my mind, it all comes together for him. Why not start there?