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Strange Interlude: E. E. Cummings & The Enormous Room



E. E. Cummings. The Enormous Room. New York: NYRB Classics, 2022. 288 pages.  




            "Some people wanted a war book; they were disappointed.” [1] So wrote E.E. Cummings recalling the reception of The Enormous Room. It is easy to imagine the disappointment of these readers; The Enormous Room is, of course, a war book, but it is a war book of an unusual kind. Although the narrative unfolds in France in 1917, it deals neither with the mire and blood of the trenches, nor the hardships suffered by the general civilian population. It focuses instead on life in a temporary prison camp far from the front, populated mostly by foreign nationals rounded up by the police on dubious grounds. Beyond its unusual focus on bit players in the great historical drama,The Enormous Room raises basic questions of genre. What sort of book is it? Frequently treated as a kind of bildungsroman, The Enormous Room is also a memoir of Cummings’s own internment at Camp de Triage de La Ferté Macé, in Orne, Normandy, for three months. The main character, "C," is indistinguishable from the author, and is even identified as Cummings in the text by other characters (including via humorous mispronunciation: “Alors, vous vous ap-el-lez KEW-MANGZ, n’est-ce pas? Edouard KEW-MANGZ.” [2]) But, in addition to being a lightly fictionalized memoir, the book is also an allegory, modeled half-seriously on John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. This allegory lends the book a shape and a tone unlike other memoirs or novels of the Great War. Rather than an account of something lost, a chronicle of disillusionment, we get something gained, even if only fleetingly, in an unlikely place among unlikely companions. As we move with him from the Slough of Despond to the Celestial City by way of the Delectable Mountains, “C” claims to have been happier in confinement “than the very keenest words can pretend to express.” [3]

The strangeness of The Enormous Room lessens somewhat if we recall the year of its publication: 1922. That year (as you may have recently heard) was a significant one for literary modernism in English, bracketed by the publication of Ulysses in January and The Waste Land in December, with Jacob’s Room also appearing in October. Cummings was no Joyce or Eliot or Woolf (nor was he Pound, Frost, Stevens, Moore, Williams, or Stein, either). But, in addition to talent, he had good instincts and his finger in the air at the right time. He was an appreciative reader of Pound early on, especially “The Return” (1912). And Cubism was an inspiration to him. Susan Cheever tells us in her recent biography that the young Cummings had seen the Armory Show when it came to Boston in 1913, and been wowed in particular by Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.” [4] He understood, in other words, that art was remaking itself in the new century and took part in this remaking. His main contribution was in his verse, where he joined the battle to create a new poetic idiom that would enliven the language of poetry (and clear space for a generation of poets). Here he went a half-step further than many of his contemporaries, engaging in gymnastic experimentation with punctuation and typography; these moves foregrounded the textual condition of poems even as they were also meant to effectively score them for voice:


Buffalo Bill ’s
defunct
            who used to
            ride a watersmooth-silver
                                                         stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive  pigeonsjustlikethat
                                                                                  Jesus

he was a handsome man
                                         and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death [5]


Combining the work of ear and eye this way produces an illusion of presence, but one that also presents itself as an illusion. This is a quality that Cummings’s lasting poems—his most “modernist” poems, say—possess, and it’s also present in The Enormous Room. Built on the creaky frame of Christian allegory, but retrofitted with picaresque, passages of stream of consciousness narration, and a visual artist’s sense for detail—Cummings sketched and painted throughout his life, including while he was interned—all rendered in a diction and syntax that range from the demotic to the baroque (and with plenty of untranslated French thrown in), the book produces an uncanny sense of reality in its stylistic and generic restlessness. Naturally, it was a commercial failure. But it had occasional, influential champions (John Dos Passos, who was Cummings’s friend, helped to get it published, and T.E. Lawrence, Robert Graves, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Malcolm Cowley all praised it). Reprinted in the 30s by The Modern Library, it survived the 20th century as an oft-neglected minor classic, occasionally admired by critics and scholars of the period, and has now been admitted into literary heaven by The New York Review of Books.


***


            Andrew Delbanco sketches the events that would inspire The Enormous Room in his introduction to this new edition (Cheever’s biography fills in some of the gaps). Cummings was a recent graduate from Harvard when the United States entered the War in the spring of 1917. Like many of his peers, he volunteered to drive an ambulance, which allowed young men to reconcile pacifist inclinations with patriotic duty while largely avoiding the immediate risks of combat. On the ship to France, he fell in with another young New Englander, William Slater Brown (referred to as “B” in the text). The two became drinking buddies and fast friends. Arriving in Paris, the pair was separated from their group. The offices of the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps were closed when they arrived, and, when the two Americans came back the next day, no one knew exactly what to do with them. Told to remain in the city, they passed several springtime weeks enjoying the Ballets Russes, Satie’s Parade, and the attentions of two beautiful escorts, Marie Louise and Mimi. Eventually, Cummings and Brown were summoned by irate superiors to report for duty in Ham, near the Somme. Their tardiness was not appreciated; neither was their facility with the French language or their interest in speaking with French soldiers, whom their superior, a “Mr. A” holds in jingoistic contempt:


…to use the vulgar American idiom, B and I and Mr. A didn’t get along well. We were in fundamental disagreement as to the attitude which we, Americans, should uphold toward the poilus in whose behalf we had volunteered assistance, Mr. A maintaining ‘you boys want to keep away from those dirty Frenchmen,’ and ‘we’re here to show those bastards how they do things in America,’ to which we seized every opportunity for fraternization. [6]

The French soldiers with whom Cummings and Brown chatted probably gave them an accurate, and less than heroic, picture of the ongoing war effort. Details of mutinies in the army may have filtered into Brown’s letters home; or been read into them by military censors. In any case, the police arrested him on suspicion of espionage, and, thinking Cummings guilty by association, detained him as well.

            The book begins more or less at the moment of their arrest. C, who has ample opportunity to avoid imprisonment, worries about being permanently separated from B, whom he knows to have been unjustly accused. Thus, when floated softball questions in order to prove his loyalty to the Allied cause, he is deliberately evasive and vague, ensuring that he, too, will be locked up. (An example: “Est-ce que vous détestez les boches?” “No. J’aime beaucoup les français.”) [7] The first few chapters follow C as he is escorted by gendarmes from Ham to nearby Noyon for interrogation; then to Paris and finally on to Orne, La Ferté Macé and the titular room. There he reunites with B, to await the judgment of a commission that would determine their fate. B is eventually moved to another prison; C is released just before Christmas and makes it back to the United States on New Year's Day, 1918. (Brown would return to the U.S. a few months later, after the action of the book concludes.)

            Life in the enormous room—“It was in shape oblong, about 80 feet by 40” [8]—was outwardly inhospitable. A booth that serves as a cabinet d'aisance is carved out of one corner, where the floor is constantly "a dark color" from overflow. The official meal is soup, twice a day, which C describes as "a faintly-smoking urine colored circular broth, in which soggingly hung half-suspended slabs of raw potato." [9] Windows reveal "a bleak, lifeless, abject landscape of scrubby woods." [10] Besides cleaning the room, removing waste, peeling potatoes, and daily promenades in the courtyard under guard, the main activity for most of the men is attempting to snatch a glimpse of the female prisoners, especially the assortment of spirited prostitutes. (These last made an especially vivid impression on Cummings, who devotes some funny and hair-raising pages to their antics and fortitude.) However enticing, unauthorized communication with prisoners of the opposite sex resulted in the most severe punishment at La Ferté — cabinot, i.e. solitary confinement.

            Such circumstances would hardly appear to be conducive to happiness. But the protagonists of The Enormous Room not only discover it; the book’s very sentences ring out with enthusiasm, openness, what Dos Passos called a “mood of reckless adventure.” [11] Here Cummings describes waking up in the room for the first time:

The darkness was rapidly going out of the sluggish, stinking air. I was sitting on my mattress at one end of a sort of room, filled with pillars; ecclesiastical in feeling. I already perceived it to be of enormous length. My mattress resembled an island: all around it, at distances varying from a quarter of an inch to ten feet (which constituted the length of distinct vision) reposed startling identities. There was blood in some of them. Others consisted of a rind of bluish matter sustaining a core of yellowish froth. From behind me, a chunk of hurtling spittle joined its fellows. I decided to stand up. [12]

“There was blood in some of them.” This cavalier attitude in the face of bleak circumstances is clearly part of the book’s charm. So, too, is the delight that the pair take in their fellow prisoners (and in caricaturing the hapless guards and their bosses). In fact, the whole second portion of the book is an extended series of portraits, lasting all the way until C is released. This focus on persons rather than events — there is little in the way of traditional plot — results from the flattening of time (and constriction of space) produced by imprisonment. And yet it’s also clear that C is plainly impressed with the characters he meets in the room, whom he sees as not only the victims of a government that cannot accommodate “little annoying habits of independent thought or action,” but practically heroes for saints for enduring their punishment. Here, for instance, is his wonderful description of Joseph Demestre, one of “The Delectable Mountains,” also known as “The Wanderer”:

B. called my attention to a figure squatting in the middle of the cour with his broad back against one of the more miserable trees. This figure was clothed in a remarkably picturesque manner: it wore a dark sombrero-like hat with a large drooping brim, a bright red gipsy shirt of some remarkably fine material with huge sleeves loosely falling, and baggy corduroy trousers whence escaped two brown, shapely, naked feet. On moving a little I discovered a face—perhaps the handsomest face that I have ever seen, of a gold brown color, framed in an amazingly large and beautiful black beard. The features were finely formed and almost fluent, the eyes soft and extraordinarily sensitive, the mouth delicate and firm beneath a black moustache which fused with the silky and wonderful darkness falling upon the breast. The face contained a beauty and dignity which, as I first saw it, annihilated the surrounding tumult without an effort. Around the carefully formed nostrils there was something almost of contempt. The cheeks had known suns of which I might not think. The feet had travelled nakedly in countries not easily imagined. Seated gravely in the mud and noise of the cour, under the pitiful and scraggly pommier... behind the eyes lived a world of complete strangeness and silence. The composure of the body was graceful and Jovelike. This being might have been a prophet come out of a country nearer to the sun. Perhaps a god who had lost his road and allowed himself to be taken prisoner by le gouvernement francais. [13]
 

Ecstatic, celebratory moments cohabitate in the narrative with general bemusement at the circumstances that slips frequently into satire (these would become the two dominant modes of Cummings’s poetry). Looking at Monsieur le Gestionnaire, who administers the accounts of the prisoners with money, C remarks: “Such an animal! A content animal, a bulbous animal; the only living hippopotamus in captivity, fresh from the Nile.” [14]

            The mixture is basically playful; Delbanco remarks that the book “reports on that rare thing: fun.” [15] And it is fun to consider the fact that the international mélange in The Enormous Room—mostly Belgians, Poles, Hollanders, Russians, as well as one forlorn English painter who improbably produces a visiting card from Cornelius Vanderbilt—could live together in such circumstances without slaughtering each other (there is some fighting, of course, in between spitting, playing cards, insulting the guards, and writing love notes to the prostitutes); that the men in the enormous room could, in such circumstances, form something like a community, albeit one in which you have to cram your francs deep into your trousers to keep them. Such gently ironic counterpoints to the war unfolding a few hundred miles to the east are as charming as the attitude in which they are presented. Falling asleep after his first day of confinement, having met “half a dozen of as fine companions as it has ever been my luck to meet,” C says to B, “By God, this is the finest place I have ever been in my life!” [16]

            Much of Cummings’s poetry is of course charming (“since feeling is first / who pays any attention /to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you”). [17] But plenty of critics have felt that this comes at the expense of depth. R.P. Blackmur famously compared the verse to “baby talk” [18]; Helen Vender later repeated the charge, claiming that, compared to his distinguished contemporaries, Cummings’s poetry was “abysmally short on ideas.” [19] Spending time with the oeuvre as a whole doesn’t exactly dispel this notion. Mindful of this, the charm of The Enormous Room does make one wonder what the book might be offering besides artfully drawn surface pleasures. The fact that the book is plausibly an allegory only raises the stakes—for what is it an allegory of, exactly? C may be supposed to be a secular version of Bunyan’s Everyman, but his class position is also an obstacle to his representativeness. Jail could have been a “fine” place for C and B because it was so different than the privilege and comfort to which they could assume they would soon return. This concern is even more urgent for readers who might be tempted to think that C and B are presented as maybe little too unflappable throughout. Why should B and C have found life in the enormous room so fine? What reason, other than the likelihood of their own eventual restoration—other than slumming it among an exotic roster of unfortunates—would they have had?


***


            Two possibilities come to mind. The first is rooted in Cummings’s own family romance. After all, it was his father, Edward, a prominent Unitarian minister and social reformer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who had pushed his son to write the book and paid him for doing so. The Rev. Cummings was angered by his son’s treatment, and by the lethargy with which the U.S. government had responded to his imprisonment in Macé. He anticipated using the book to expose official corruption, and would append an overwrought preface to the manuscript, complete with his own letter to President Wilson. (The NYRB edition wisely omits this preface.) Cummings procrastinated for a few years before finally buckling down, with Brown at his side, to write The Enormous Room, largely from memory, in 1921. What resulted was obviously much more interesting than an exposé of mistreatment. With its esteem for the experience of imprisonment and his fellow prisoners, and its irreverence toward authority, the book mocked and rejected not only the hypocrisy of the French state’s commitment to Liberté, but the gentility of the environment in which Cummings had been raised. This was a world whose stodginess, rules, and conformity, particularly around sexual matters, Cummings found repressive, and which he would satirize in his first book of poems, Tulips & Chimneys, published the year after The Enormous Room:


the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the Church’s protestant blessings
daughters, unscented shapeless spiritual)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,
are invariably interested in so many things—
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps.    While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
. . . . 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 [20]


The Cambridge ladies themselves might have been too polite to return the favor, at least in public. But the general reception of the book ranged from cool to indignant. “Filthy” was a word used to describe The Enormous Room in newspaper reviews, and the shock registered by those readers at the frankness with which Cummings describes the conditions of internment—a frankness which seems altogether quaint to us now—reveals the degree to which it was written against the inertia of Victorian social morality. Although Cummings, Sr., was pleased with the book, it is difficult to avoid how much The Enormous Room—and here it does share a characteristic with other war books—repudiates the older generation’s values (though one value Cummings did not wholly repudiate was his elders’ anti-Semitism, which, while muted in 1922, would metastasize in a notably ugly way in 1950’s Xaipe).

            Beyond negating old values, the book also promotes new ones. Some readers, seeing that the The Enormous Room focused largely men and women who are effectively at the mercy of the police state, and mindful of contemporaneous events, assumed the values were political. Cummings himself had radical sympathies at the time of writing it, and, safely repatriated to Greenwich Village, taunted his father in letters with news of Bolshevik success in the Russian Civil War. However, he quickly came to loathe Soviet Communism, which he attacked in EIMI (1933), his anti-Stalinist memoir of a trip to Russia. And he marked his opposition to social democracy and the New Deal with poems mocking FDR. What motivated Cummings’s rejection of gentility, and what would link these to his later mature politics, which drifted increasingly far enough to the right to embrace Senator Joseph McCarthy, was what he described retrospectively as The Enormous Room's true subject: not war, but “something more unimaginably huge than the most prodigious of all universes— … the individual.” [21]

            In an obvious way, The Enormous Room is a defense of individual freedom against the power of the state and the police; C doesn’t believe anyone in the Camp de Triage should be there, and, at one point, he implies the same thing of Fort Leavenworth (then as now a federal prison in Kansas). But the book takes its defense of the individual even more seriously than this. Because, while there are many individuals mentioned in The Enormous Room—the Schoolmaster from Alsace; Emile the Bum; The Little Man with the Orange Cap; The Turk, The Machine Fixer, The Fighting Sheeney, and so on—there is a melancholy pathos that underlies their celebration, as they inevitably collapse into types (as an allegory might preordain). Those who stand out the most stand out because they cannot fully be encompassed in language. This includes, beside the big baddie, Appolyon (aka Monsieur le Directeur, “a Satan whose word is dreadful not because it is painstakingly unjust but because it is incomprehensibly omnipotent”), and Jean le Nègre, who cuts a dashing Jack Johnson-esque figure, resisting the guards, impressing the girls, and protesting prejudice, the Delectable Mountains: The Wanderer, Zulu, and Surplice. Each of these men is impressive to C in their own way: the Wanderer, for the intensity of his dedication to his family (who eventually come to the prison to be near him); Zulu (or “Zoo-Loo,” a Pole), for his generosity and steadfast friendship; Surplice, for his innocence and simplicity. But they are most impressive because, as individuals, they are more prodigious than “all universes.” Even as they are absorbed into C’s narrative, he tempers his descriptions of them. Of Zulu, for instance, the writes:


His angular anatomy expended and collected itself with an effortless spontaneity which is the prerogative of perhaps fairies, or at any rate of those things in which we no longer believe. But he was more. There are certain things in which one is unable to believe for the simple reason that one never ceases to feel them. Things of this sort—things which are always inside of us and in fact are us and which consequently will not be pushed off or away where we can begin thinking about them—are no longer things; they, and the us which they are, equals A Verb; an IS. [22]


Cummings might have been a little in love with Zulu—and with a few of the other prisoners, besides—but that’s just another way of describing the circumstances that give birth to the insight he makes: the generalizing tendency of concepts and language moves us away from the particularity of our individuality (things which are “inside of us and in fact are us”). Indeed, from Cummings’s Romantic point of view, the individual is always and ultimately a mystery, because, while obviously manifest—as obviously manifest as being (which is, of course, another mystery)—the individual is untranslatable. This passage on Zulu became a kind of manifesto for Cummings. And it shows us the latent tension between his values and the radical politics of his Bohemian milieu, a tension that went deep into his writing. Any political or social project built on a collective, rational vision would, for him, fail to do justice to the recognition of “what one never ceases to feel” and would be seen as a deadening proposition. To begin thinking is already to have lost: “life is more true than reason will deceive”. [23]  


***


            The Enormous Room, then, offers its readers more than a proving ground of modernist technique, and more than the pleasures of a good romp; it’s a protest against authority, snobbery and social conformity, and a pilgrimage toward a Romantic philosophy of life, one that underwrote Cummings’s long career as a poet. Remarkably, the book is not just an odd prose footnote to this career, but a distinct peak in it. Why? The enforced gentility Cummings loathed is mostly a thing of the past—and Holocaust narratives, let alone other prison literature, make life in La Ferté Macé look like a pleasure cruise. Here I think the book’s discovery of its philosophy of life takes on an added significance for contemporary readers. The Enormous Room still has something to show us now, a century after it appeared, although it is not exactly what Cummings thought he was showing when he claimed that the book concerned “the individual.”

            As he made plain in 1952, when he delivered what would become i: six nonlectures at Harvard, Cummings’s allegiances were with the Romantic poets. He quotes copiously from Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley in the lectures without much in the way of interpretation. This romanticism became a kind of shield that Cummings’s admirers used against the New Critics who disparaged it. But the shield was never fully effective because Cummings’s mature romanticism was flimsy (unlike that of, say, Stevens). He treats the poets as spokesmen for “[e]cstasy and anguish, being and becoming; the immortality of the creative imagination and the indomitability of the human spirit,” [24] rather than as complicated artists negotiating, in addition to their own anxieties of influence, the collapse of Revolutionary hopes. A similar thing might be said about his attitude toward Emerson. Though he claimed that “Self-Reliance” was his “Bible,” Cummings ignores the contradictions of that essay or of Emerson’s thought more broadly. And when he admonished the young students listening to his lectures to “remember one thing only: that it’s you — nobody else — who determine your destiny,” [25] he seems to have forgotten his experiences in The Enormous Room. It was there, after all, where other people really did determine his destiny, and where, more suggestively, they might have become an integral part of his own sense of himself. As in the passage on Zulu: the deeper we go into the individual, the less individuated the person becomes. 

            Cummings’s mature position was to take this fact as testimony to the self’s mystery:

so many selves(so many fiends and gods
each greedier than every)is a man
(so easily one in another hides;
Yet man can,being all,escape from none

so huge a tumult is the simplest wish:
so pitiless a massacre the hope
most innocent(so deep’s the mind of flesh
and so awake what waking calls asleep)

so never is most lonely man alone
(his briefest breathing lives some planet’s year,
his longest life’s a heartbeat of some sun;
his least unmotion roams the youngest star)

how should a fool that calls him “I” presume —
to comprehend not numerable whom? [26]


Evoking Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes,” Cummings lacks Whitman’s great confidence in reciprocity. What justifies this lack of confidence is a kind of radical skepticism about our unknowability, even to ourselves. But: by implying the individual is something so complicated that we cannot, at the risk of being fools, presume to comprehend it, Cummings glosses over something we cancomprehend: those conditions of the individual which are inevitably social and shared. Life in prison would not let Cummings ignore this sociality, or the others whose presence testified to it (“There was blood in some of them.”) Ultimately, it’s this awareness of the social, in addition to its documentary and aesthetic virtues, that allows The Enormous Room to continue to engage its readers in a way that much of Cummings’s poetry does not. The book is a memoir peopled with the voices and stories of others, and an allegory that draws on this inner cacophony to increase its representativeness. These projects may be quixotic but they illuminate the limits of what a romantic-individualist art can do. The book remains vital, not only because it full of the joie de vivre of the young man who made it, but because it is altogether wiser than the old man he would become.







See here for a complete list of notes and sources.

 




V. Joshua Adams is a poet, scholar, translator, and critic. Work of his has appeared or is forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail, Bennington Review, Posit, Chicago Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Imagination, and elsewhere. His first book of poems, Past Lives, is forthcoming in 2024 from JackLeg Press. He teaches literature and writing at the University of Louisville.