Cummings and Goings

Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings

edited by F.W. Dupee, edited by George Stade
Harcourt, Brace & World, 296 pp., $8.95

Singing birds shouldn’t talk,” E. E. Cummings told Hildegarde Watson, evading the requirement of making a speech at Rochester. But there was no law against writing letters. The editors of the Selected Letters have chosen 265 specimens from an available correspondence which runs to a thousand letters. There are bound to be more, hoarded for years, then lost, or gathering dust somewhere in vacant lots. Cummings did not hold to the principle that a letter a day keeps the doctor away, but he must have enjoyed typing these prose poems, using the whole Corona, commas, parentheses, capitals, numerals, spaces, 2 for two, 4 for for. The first letter is a pen-and-ink promise to his grandmother: “I am sorry dear Nana but I will be a good boy”; the aspirant to virtue was five years old, November 27, 1899. The last letter was written a few months before his death in 1962.

The selection is admirable. The letters give a lively impression of Cummings’s work and play over the whole range of his prolific years. The editors have given us a clean text, beautifully printed, little or no comment, very few notes. Perhaps they have been too abstemious. The book is addressed to “the common reader, especially the reader who is familiar with Cummings’s poems, plays, and prose narratives.” But editorial tact often gives the reader a headache. In 1919 Cummings wrote to his father, telling him in block capitals to read The Nation, May 3, pages 682 and 684, apparently an article on Russia. But it would be useful to know who wrote the article and, roughly, what he said. In many cases the common reader is likely to be puzzled by private detail; though there is pleasure in working things out. “Your excoed Billy the Medico made a far from noncelike W.C. of himself”; meaning, William Carlos Williams made a fool of himself. I suppose this is easy, but some of the conundrums are likely to keep the common reader busy.

Even Ezra Pound had trouble with Cummings’s letters. In 1950 he received a short epistle which referred to “Mr.Best” and “the Broad.” Confused, he asked the writer to explain himself. Mr.Best turned out to be Aristotle, the Broad became Plato, one up for Cummings in the etymological game.

The first letters are precocious works, young Estlin displaying his plumes for the approval of Mother and Dad. Toward his experience he adopted a stance of condescension, represented by inverted commas qualifying common nouns. His sensibility was already bending the language. In 1917 he reported to his mother from France:

At 11, 12 or 1 the next day they are “relieved” by their “comrades,” and go “home.” “My” conducteur is the most despicable, perhaps, “fellow” in the “camp.” He’s a tight-fisted, pull-for-special-privilege, turd, about 5 feet high, with a voice in b natural upper.

The same attitude persisted when he joined the Norton-Harjes American Ambulance Corps to serve with the French army …

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