Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) was brought up in a conservative Cambridge,
Massachusetts home. His father, with degrees in both philosophy and divinity,
at Harvard University until 1900 when he received ordination by the Unitarian
and became a pastor at the South Congregational Church of Boston.
According to family diaries, Cummings wanted to be a poet from an early age. He was
supported in this ambition by his mother who made up word games and other activities
to encourage his creativity. Cummings also drew prolifically, and his childhood
drawings were often inspired by literature; his drawings included storyboards.
Cummings attended public schools, including the Cambridge High and Latin School,
prior to entering Harvard in 1911. While there, he concentrated in the classics,
including Latin, Greek, and literature, and he mastered the various forms of poetry,
gaining the foundation he needed in order to begin the experimentation with poetic
form and shape that became his trademark.
While at Harvard, Cummings published poetry in the Harvard
Monthly and the Harvard Advocate. Through
these organizations he became acquainted with S. Foster Damon, Stewart Mitchell,
John Dos Passos, Scofield Thayer, and J. Sibley Watson. These friends would
encourage and support Cummings through much of his artistic career; many of them
also shared his interest in the visual arts as well as poetry and literature.
a music student, introduced Cummings to the works of El Greco, William Blake,
Cézanne, James McNeill Whistler, the French Impressionists, and the
Fauves. He took Cummings to the Armory Show of 1913 when it was in Boston, and
Cummings became excited by the Brancusi sculptures. Through Thayer, Cummings became
acquainted with the works of Picasso, Toulouse Lautrec, Beardsley, the Post
Impressionists, and the Cubists. While still in school, Thayer gave Cummings a
of Willard Huntington Wright's Modern Painting, which
Cummings annotated extensively. John Dos Passos also painted and drew. Cummings
never had formal art lessons, but he learned new oil painting techniques from
Harvard group of friends.
Cummings earned his B.A. from Harvard in 1915, magna cum laude, like his father
before him, and was invited to speak at the commencement ceremony. He presented
term paper on "The New Art." This paper
demonstrated Cummings' affinity with the modern artistic sensibility, especially
interest in the overlap between the visual arts and literature, a keystone in
distinctive typographical style.
After finishing his Master's degree in 1916, also from Harvard, Cummings moved to
York City in January of 1917. He worked at P. F. Collier for a few weeks, but
bored and quit, deciding instead to pursue the freedom of life as a full-time
and poet. At this time he was painting in a cubist style. In April, he volunteered
for the Norton-Hajes Ambulance Service and shipped out for France. On the trip
met William Slater Brown and their friendship was cemented by an unexpected five
weeks of free time in Paris awaiting the rest of their ambulance unit.
Several months later, events took a defining turn for Cummings when he and Brown were
detained by the French military on suspicion of espionage and undesirable
activities. As a result of censor-provoking letters home by Brown and a preference
for the company of French soldiers over their fellow American ambulance drivers,
two young men were held for three months in a concentration camp at La
Ferté Mace. They were kept, along with their fellow detainees, in a large
room which was represented in the title of Cummings' book about this experience,
The Enormous Room (1922). Cummings' father worked
through diplomatic channels and finally wrote a letter to President Wilson to
Cummings' release in December 1917. Brown was released two months later. Cummings
returned to the United States, first to his parents' home in Massachusetts and
to New York, where he was joined by Brown.
For the next several years, Cummings painted and wrote. His paintings were now
inspired by what he had seen in Paris, and a futurist influence started to appear.
In 1919, he entered two paintings in the spring show of the New York Society of
Independent Artists, and Gaston Lachaise (whom Cummings had met through Lachaise's
stepson, Edward Pierce Nagle) reported to Cummings that Albert Gleizes had expressed
enthusiasm about Cummings' paintings. In 1920, he again entered two large paintings
in the society of Independent Artists exhibition, which were mentioned favorably
S. Jay Kaufman in the New York Globe and Advertiser.
In 1921, he entered his painting Noise Number 10 in
the Independent exhibition, but this painting was attacked in a New York newspaper
review of the show.
In 1924, he married Elaine Orr Thayer, the mother of his daughter Nancy. They
divorced after two months and in 1929, Cummings married Anne Minnerly Barton.
spent much of the next two years living and traveling in Europe.
In May 1931, Cummings left Barton and traveled to the Soviet Union. Pre-disposed to
enjoy the trip, Cummings found his personal sense of individualism disturbed by
lack of intellectual and artistic freedom that he found. He published his diary
the trip under the Greek title Eimi (1933), which
translates to "I am."
In August 1931, Cummings exhibited 162 works at a show arranged by Philip Kaplan at
the Kokoon Arts Club in Cleveland, Ohio. His book CIOPW, a collection of works in charcoal, ink, oil, pastel, and
watercolors, was published in 1931.
In 1932, while his divorce from Barton was being settled, Cummings met Marion
Morehouse, who was to be his companion and common-law wife for the rest of his
In 1933, Cummings received the Guggenheim Fellowship for the purpose of writing
"book of poems." In 1935, unable to find a
publisher for his book, he published No Thanks (1935)
with the help of his mother. It was dedicated to the fourteen publishing houses
had turned him down.
E. E. Cummings continued to produce a steady stream of poems and publications
throughout the forties and fifties. In 1952, Harvard offered him the Charles Eliot
Norton Professorship for the 1952-53 school year. Also during the fifties, Cummings
began to tour, reading his poetry across America. In 1958, he won the Bollingen
Prize for Poetry from Yale University and published his final volume of new poems,
He died at his family farm on September 3, 1962.
Critics have generally divided Cummings' career as a painter into two stylistic
phases. The first phase, about 1915-1928, was represented by his experimental
large-scale abstracts and his drawings and caricatures published in The Dial. During the 1920s, Cummings started to drop out
of the gallery scene, and he came to view the art establishment as
anti-intellectual. The second phase of his art was from about 1928 until his death;
this phase was characterized by representational works: still lifes, landscapes,
nudes, and portraits.