cover image E.E. Cummings: A Life

E.E. Cummings: A Life

Susan Cheever. Pantheon, $26.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-307-37997-9

“[T]oo popular for the academy and often too sassy to be taught in high school,” Cummings today is frequently overlooked in the canon of great 20th-century American poets. Born in 1894, Cummings left blueblood New England for Greenwich Village, where his peers would include Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Djuna Barnes, and others. Cummings’s innovations in poetic form and syntax made him a true original, and his kinship to Ezra Pound placed him in league with a variety of modernists. However, his career moved in fits and starts, ultimately succeeding late in life with the 1938 publication of his Collected Poems, and as a touring reader and lecturer in the ’50s and ’60s. Though Cummings’s poems enliven the narrative, Cheever (Home Before Dark) rarely provides any analysis to help unfamiliar readers. Instead, the book focuses on his romantic relationships and his eventual reunion with his estranged daughter. Cheever rends excellent dramatic scenes out of climactic personal moments, but elsewhere the narrative sags. The biography returns frequently to the poet’s crotchety conservatism and troubling antisemitism, acknowledging how he “was suffused by rage and delight at the same time,” but the explanations thereof are mostly boilerplate. Cheever draws upon biographies by Charles Norman and Richard Kennedy and to good effect, but her own stance, beyond giving a psychological reading, remains unclear. 28 pages of b&w images. Agent: Gail Hochman, Brandt & Hochman Literary Agency. (Feb.)