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 …