Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E.E. Cummings
Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters
The indisputable relation between writers’ works and their lives becomes disputable as soon as it is enunciated. The “pure” biography which mentions works in chronological order but makes no attempt at criticism is restful and serene; at its best, it creates no powerful myth of explanation, but arranges a responsible and persuasive and unobtrusively well written narrative out of the facts that are known. But something in us revolts against such a biography of “our” author; we hanker after more intimacy, or more speculation, or more criticism. We crave bias. And so the critical biography, the psychological biography, the psycho-critical biography arise to tease and to disappoint us. The only form inherently more unsatisfying than literary biography is its macroform, literary history.
The complications of literary biography (and of literary criticism) are increased when the writer under discussion veers in some interesting way toward one of the other arts. Richard Kennedy’s biography of E. E. Cummings and Marjorie Perloff’s book on Frank O’Hara (which combines some biographical material with its criticism) concern poets who were interested in, and influenced by, the visual arts: each book brings poetry into uneasy relation with painting. Each is, in its way, valuable in the information it provides; each is theoretically assailable.
Richard Kennedy is an Americanist who teaches at Temple University; his biography of Cummings, using “the voluminous Cummings papers” at Harvard, was intended, he tells us, to run to two volumes, but was reduced by “the exigencies of present-day publishing” and consequently “contains less information and less discussion of Cummings’s poetry” than he had intended. Kennedy’s good-natured preface (“This project was given a great boost by…I propose a toast of thanks to…I have to thank…that ballerina of the typewriter keys, Nadia Kravachenko”) gives an idea of the level of writing which is to follow—helplessly conventional, needlessly “lively,” at its best serviceable, at its worst pretentious. Kennedy tells a somewhat defensive story; he wants Cummings to be a better writer than he is, and he wants to see things through Cummings’s eyes, rather than to see the phenomenon of Cummings.
And Cummings was a phenomenon—an interesting writer, a bad writer, a popular writer, a self-deceiving writer, a rebel turned reactionary, a New Englander turned New Yorker, a frightened blusterer, a spectacular entertainer, a martyr to psychosomatic troubles, a pitiably incompetent father, a thrice-married husband, an example of the cultural strain undergone by talented American men. We could not see Cummings’s life without the materials made available by Kennedy, but the analysis accompanying the narrative falls far short, in interest, of what could be made of this strange life, and Kennedy’s literary criticism is both innocent and misconceived.
Cummings’s minister-father seems to have been pompous and self-satisfied, perhaps because he did extremely well in both his early academic life (he was the first instructor in sociology at Harvard) and in his subsequent pastoral work (he replaced Edward Everett Hale at the South Congregational Church of Boston and became a powerful man in the larger world of American religion). He appears to have combined pride in his son’s early precocity with contempt for the form it ultimately took. Though Kennedy speaks of his “love and understanding” of his son (relying too uncritically on E.E. Cummings’s late remark in his Harvard Six Nonlectures in 1953 that “no father on this earth ever loved or will love his son more profoundly”) I cannot see in Edward Cummings any real understanding of his son’s impulses or obessions, and consequently no love of any psychologically useful kind. There was uncomprehending support, but behind that support was an ethos eventually intolerable to the son. However, the poet was formed by his father’s overwhelming personality, and seems to have fallen into the child’s inevitable confusion of a father who preaches God’s word with God himself.
The single most important document Kennedy quotes is an excerpt from a notebook Cummings kept at seventeen, just after he had begun Harvard:
I am a young man living in an advanced and cultivated era, surrounded by things lovely and of good report. I have a strong mind, a healthy body, resulting from years of careful and devoted watching by father and mother, and a high reputation, everywhere I go, as a gentleman. My friends are pure, high-minded girls and clean, manly fellows. My father is a man who has worked out his own success by toil and pluck, who has maintained as a lasting gift to his son a noble soul and well-developed body. He is a man who never allowed the faintest suggestions of temptation to grip him, and expects the high and pure of his son. My mother is a woman who has kept herself strong and pure for me alone, who has built upon me, her first child, a wonderful frame of utter love and endless aspiration, whole [sic] lives only as I live, hopes as I hope, and falls only when I fall. I worship a God unutterably merciful and vitally human, and who embodies all the good that I have not won and all the vast strength I have not attained.
This nonsense seems to be a direct echo of the pieties of Edward Cummings. (Cummings’s mother did not offer orations in this vein.) The pitiful lack of preparation for life evident in the document is embarrassing. The document continues with a tribute to Cummings’s instructor in Greek, an apparent homosexual, seven years older than Cummings, who inscribed a book to Cummings for Cummings’s nineteenth birthday “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,” etc.
One friend have I of whom I speak out lovingly from my heart at all times. He is a man at college with me, older, wiser, and of perfect chivalry toward woman and man. I love him as I love no other friend; I worship him for good, and imitate him for worthiness. His life, also, has grown into mine. The honor of his friendship he has placed with perfect confidence in my trembling hands; if I do wrong, I commit an unfaithfulness to him who [sic] I admire most of my friends. If I do right, his the glory equally with the deed’s.
“By the time he was five years older,” Kennedy tells us, “Cummings was in full rebellion,” and he sees Cummings’s story as in part one which shows “the ordinary pattern of a young man’s rejection of his father’s dominance.” No doubt that is true, but there was something so corrupting in the senior Cummings’s gigantic falsification of life, or something so defective in the son’s intelligence, that in rejecting (though only temporarily) his father’s platitudes, the son also permanently rejected mind, intellectual patience, learning, meditative persistence, and profundity of soul, producing in his turn platitudes as offensive (if in a different direction) as his father’s, and of comparable sentimentality. Cummings hysterically hated, and fled, his father’s Cambridge (that very Cambridge where Eliot and Stevens, for instance, found an intellectual base which Cummings, for all his four years at Harvard, never trusted). The confusions of rebelling against a father so apparently unindictable pervade Cummings’s life (until he apparently received psychoanalytic absolution, much too late). Kennedy is far too easy on the elder Cummings.
E.E. Cummings’s life (aside from the brief imprisonment in France that produced The Enormous Room) is not a very interesting one. Most of Kennedy’s purely biographical writing is expended on Cummings’s three marriages (all to women who were good-looking but not interesting) and on his peculiar (out-rageous or cowardly, it is hard to tell) treatment of his daughter Nancy, who was led to believe, till she was an adult, that she was the daughter of Scofield Thayer (to whom her mother, Elaine, who was to become Cummings’s first wife, was still married when Nancy was born). Cummings and Elaine Thayer married when Nancy was four, and Cummings legally adopted the child, but the social pretense that she was Thayer’s daughter was continued, even though Cummings’s family and friends knew Nancy was his child. Nancy kept the Thayer name. Almost immediately after her marriage to Cummings, Elaine fell in love with another man, divorced Cummings, remarried, removed Nancy from any further continued communication with her father, and in fact never mentioned to Nancy that she had ever been married to Cummings until Nancy’s adolescence.
Nancy eventually came back to America, married, and had children; Cummings, after knowing for several years that she was in the country, arranged to meet her, invited her to visit, and even painted her portrait, but did not, for some time, tell her that he was her father. After that revelation, he tended more to rebuff her interest than to enjoy it. This pathetic tale (earlier retold by Nancy, after her fashion, in Charon’s Daughter) provides, in addition to the marriages, the narrative interest of this biography. Though Cummings knew various interesting people, from Hart Crane through Marianne Moore, and kept up both personal and professional relations with painters and sculptors, Kennedy’s account of these relations (perhaps from an insufficiency of data) remains superficial. The literary commentary on Cummings’s poetry which fills out the rest of Kennedy’s book, and which attempts some relation of the poetry to Cummings’s talent as a painter, springs from certain preconceptions to which I shall return.
Marjorie Perloff’s book on Frank O’Hara has, in Perloff’s words, a focus that is “critical rather than biographical,” but, she adds, “Whenever it seems useful, I relate the poetry to the life.” Perloff’s subtitle, Poet Among Painters, announces what it is about the life that will be related to the poetry. We learn from Perloff invaluable things about O’Hara’s early reading (chiefly in French poetry) and about his friendships with painters, especially Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, and Willem de Kooning. Perloff shows us an O’Hara who is literary, well-read, and fully aware of his own techniques of writing, a poet in an improvisatory tradition but not for that reason a naïf. The book reminds us how much work O’Hara did as an art critic and arranger of exhibitions, and ought to put to rest forever any notion of O’Hara as a part-time or careless writer. On the other hand, Perloff, like Kennedy, wants to make her writer better than he is, to claim a cumulative effect for the Collected Poems greater than the effect of its parts, and to defend, as successful, writing too often dubious.
At first, disappointed with the critical writing in both of these books, one is inclined to blame the authors, and to think (what is in part true) that a different author would have done better, critically, by his subject. An after-thought makes me more inclined to think that the criticism in each of these volumes arises from a misconception of the nature of criticism itself. It was never claimed by the founders of the so-called “New Criticism” that any text, no matter how trivial, could be usefully considered in painstaking detail. Only texts of a certain sort can bear that sort of inquiry; for others, ‘twere to consider too curiously so to consider them. There are authors—even great authors—in whose work one simply cannot find the freighted detail, polyphony of voices, ambiguity of intent, and so on: Burns comes to mind at once. It is no service to any writer to subject him to a criticism he is not equipped to bear. If poets create the taste by which they are enjoyed, so poetry should create the criticism by which it is to be discussed. Both of these books impose a belated, and uncritical, form of “New Criticism”—that is, a labored scrutiny of parts quite unlike what the original New Critics did—on authors little suited for such examination.