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E. E. Cummings: A Life
E. E. Cummings: A Life
Susan Cheever
Pantheon, 2014
240 pp., $26.95

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Micah Mattix


The Kid

A revealing biography of E. E. Cummings.

E.E. Cummings was a Harvard man from a prestigious Cambridge family who lived a mostly bohemian life in Greenwich until his death in 1962. His big idea was freedom—both in art and life—yet for all his experiments with typography and punctuation, he was deeply indebted to traditional poetic forms, particularly the sonnet. He believed in a divine power but had no time for religion. He hated communism and the New Deal, loved sex and Paris, and was a staunch supporter of McCarthyism.

Susan Cheever's new biography, E. E. Cummings: A Poet's Life, gets off to an unpromising start. She opens with the day Cummings read at her secondary school and caught up with her father, the short story writer John Cheever, afterwards: "Cummings bellowed 'JOEY!'—my father's boyhood nickname. The two men heartily embraced as the school's sour founders and headmistresses glared down from their gold-framed portraits on the paneled walls."

On the drive home, Cummings and Cheever, with daughter in tow, stopped for dinner:

When we stopped for burgers at a White Castle in the Bronx, heads turned at Cummings's uncanny, hilarious imitation of the head of the Masters School English Department. In that well-lighted place, late at night, my father produced a flask and spiked the coffee. I was already drunk on a different kind of substance—inspiration. It wasn't those in authority who were always right; it was the opposite. I saw that being right was a petty goal—being free was the thing to aim for.

What's the problem with such passages? They raise the question of objectivity, for one. They also show a penchant for false distinctions and overstatement. Are those against authority always right? Aren't both truth and freedom important? Was Cummings—to take another example—really "this country's only true modernist poet"? Is it accurate to say, categorically, as Cheever does, that Cummings "despised fear" and that "his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by ...

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