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A Major Biography of A Major (?) Poet

ISSUE:  Spring 1981
Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. By Richard S. Kennedy. Liveright. $19.95.

It is important, in writing a biography, to remember that you are telling a story and that the problems of presenting the material are in many ways just the same as those of presenting a subject of fiction,” Edmund Wilson in 1950 counseled Arthur Mizener, who was completing his biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The subject, Wilson continued, has to be introduced so that the reader can “understand it every step of the way,” and the biographer must “create [his] characters and background and situations just as [he] would those of fiction.” But any biographer is restricted by the mass of details and legends from which he must build his narrative. Too few facts, moreover, and the work lacks the substance that readers seek in biography; heavily laden with details, the book suffers a loss of narrative flow and evinces a lack of discrimination because the biographer became too fascinated by facts. Then also legends present a problem. The more colorful the figure, the more he or she is liable to be surrounded by tales, most of them containing some truth, but much fiction as well. Certainly the biographer must sort out fact, but he cannot discount entirely even the outlandish legends, because often these say more about what his subject seemed to others— and was—than do a veritable heap of facts that remain inert. Yet another obstacle to successful biography is the author’s subjectivity. Almost always he has a particular point of view toward his figure—it is his special perspective, in fact, which gives any biography its vividness, for the book is never the story of a person’s life, but is rather the biographer’s own narrative about his subject, who is created in the biography by everything from what facts the author selects for inclusion to the book’s tone. Nevertheless, if the author lets his point of view or some theme dominate the narrative, and if these do not jibe with the facts as presented, then, of course, the biography simply does not ring true.

Such pitfalls are obvious enough, but repeatedly biographers fall victim to one or more of them. Richard S. Kennedy, in Dreams in the Mirror, a major biography of E.E. Cummings, manages by and large to avoid them, although his efforts to convince his readers that Cummings is a first-rank poet may not entirely succeed. I happen to believe that Kennedy’s judgment is fair. Cummings was very much a poet of the era when he grew to maturity—the second and third decades of the 20th century—and so he rebelled against the old. He was fascinated by innovative, painterly techniques and equally enthralled by the city and its varied types of characters. He had a romantic attraction toward low-life figures who to his mind had more of the shapes, colors, scents (and sense) that made them “is,” alive as contrasted to the “Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls” or to salesmen or politicians or anyone, for that matter, who fitted his very broad definition of the stultifying Establishment. Despite being a product of his time and lacking the sort of development in his work that one expects in the finest artists, Cummings was a master at what he did, and his accomplishments are more varied than readers, sometimes put off by his visual games, may give him credit for. He wrote movingly about love, childhood and old age, life and death, nature and the seasons, the city and its characters, as about the country and its types, and he wrote scathing satires as well as lyrics, all the while moving easily between conventional forms such as the sonnet and idiosyncratic ones such as his word painting of a grasshopper in motion, or his prose poem about New York City “at the ferocious phenomenon of 5 o’clock.”

While Kennedy’s point of view toward his subject may be challenged, it does not overly intrude on the characterization which develops. Leading poet or not quite so, Cummings was an intriguing figure who according to friends could be vastly entertaining, brilliant, and witty with a linguistic ability few could match. But his friends could also see that he was “a dreadful show-off” who was always on stage for his audience, and his first wife, Elaine, thought him utterly conventional beneath a veneer of rebellion and nonconformity. He played numerous roles—Kennedy catalogues them as “petit garçon [the gamin who is adorable but irresponsible], idealizing lover, scourge of conformity, worshipper of nature, judicious elder, or irascible old crank.”

A problem with Dreams is that it is hard to see Cummings as the likeable figure his biographer would have him be. The poet made life difficult for others; still, that is hardly an unusual trait for writers. What Kennedy brings out and what seems to me unquestionable is Cummings’ intriguing, complex personality and his talent, even genius, for poetry. His was not an especially eventful career—as, for example, Hemingway’s was—except for incidents such as his incarceration at La Ferté-Macé during World War I; his high jinks during the 1920’s; or his love affair and brief marriage with Elaine Thayer and the later acrimony between them as well as the touching relationship with Nancy, his daughter by Elaine.

Cummings’ life was in his work, and to demonstrate that Kennedy draws on extensive material to reveal how the poet developed. Sometimes the inclusion of detail is excessive, as when Kennedy describes, with an obvious fascination for what he has discovered, the details of the house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Cummings grew up. But these occasions are infrequent, especially in the pages dealing with the life subsequent to Cummings’ Harvard years, and to show us the poet Kennedy has sorted out the legends as well, a welcome correction of the too adulatory partial biography, E.E. Cummings: The Magic Maker, in which Charles Norman uncritically included the legends told him both by the poet and his friends. In sum, Kennedy has introduced Cummings, as Edmund Wilson would have every biographer do, so that readers can understand the subject, although they may disagree with Kennedy’s assessment.

Dreams in the Mirror could be criticized for its sometimes elaborate explications of individual poems. These are difficult to integrate into a narrative about a life but essential in a literary biography, or so it seems to me, especially when, as in the case of Cummings, the poems are central to the life. Kennedy explicates them effectively and, having had available Cummings’ notes and early drafts, is able to demonstrate how the poems developed, hence what were the poet’s intentions. This is particularly helpful with some of the poems that are most obscure because of their overall patterns and the way Cummings broke up words. Statements emerge from these patterns; understanding these, a reader comprehends that Cummings’ poetry is more than a visual/verbal display. One of Richard Kennedy’s greatest contributions in this biography is to aid us to comprehend the ideas and emotions behind the poems. Dreams in the Mirror enhances Cummings’ reputation as a poet of substance.


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