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Estlin Cummings, “Animal Emperor” and Wild West Impresario

Cummings_wildwest_detail_lgIn the News, Notes, & Correspondence section of Spring 19 (2012), we reported the recent discovery of a number of Cummings’ childhood drawings and letters, which are part of the Cummings-Clarke Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. We quoted a portion of a news release from the Historical Society:

Among the writings found is a story about life on Joy Farm, his family’s retreat in New Hampshire, a 1907 report on “Our Visit to the Public Library,” and the 1914 poem “From a Newspaper.”  A sketch of a rhinoceros and soldier drawn about 1902 also includes several lines of text. Cummings writes, “THIS. RHINOCEROUS. IS. YOUNG. MARCHING BY. A. SOLDIER. He TELLS-TALES TO-HIM”. Keepsakes include a self-portrait entitled “Edward E. Cummings, the animal emperor, famous importer, trainer, and exhibitor of wild animals” and three penmanship exercise books from about 1902.  Other drawings and paintings include ink blots, watercolors, and sketches in pen and pencil of cowboys and Indians, boats, the “world’s tallest tower,” wild west shows, hunting expeditions, locomotives, zoos, circuses, elephants, and house plans. (165)

In his account of his trip to the Soviet Union, EIMI (1933), Cummings looks back with amusement at his childhood fantasy of being an “Animal Emperor.” The passage begins with a reminiscence about visiting the show of Frank Bostock, “The Animal / King” [note: WordPress allows for an approximation of the typography printed in EIMI. Please see printed publication of EIMI for more accurate quotation]:

. . . . My miracleprodigy father toted me there & we spent a stupendous day(tiny I rode an elephant)when we came home the family smelled us and wept . . . Then during years I was–not The Animal King,O no;that didn’t satisfy me:
The Animal Emperor
& I drew and drew pictures(& hundreds of pictures)and thousands & millions(of me)pictures,of myself(of 1 tall big high strong man with a mighty cap which always said(that. Which never said anything during years but that,just(during years)that only)” (EIMI 429/410)

Since the Historical Society news release mentions only one “Emperor” drawing, we may speculate that Cummings’ claim that he drew “thousands & millions” portraits of himself as an Animal Emperor is somewhat exaggerated. Indeed, a subsequent MHS blog post prints a photo of the soldier and rhinoceros drawing that makes no imperial claims. This post pointed me to a brief announcement of an exhibition of Cummings’ childhood creations with the curious title of “Estlin Cummings Wild West Show.” This page reproduces a poster in which the young Estlin Cummings portrays himself playing the role of a “tall big high strong” rifle-toting Buffalo Bill. The drawing on this page is of more than usual interest to those of us who are fans of one of Cummings’ most famous poems, “Buffalo Bill ’s” (CP 90). (For a larger photo of Cummings’ childhood “Wild West” poster, see Rebecca Onion’s post on, “E. E. Cummings’ Colorful Imaginative Childhood Drawings.” The poem may also be found online here.)

In her account of her early childhood (called When I Was a Little Girl) Cummings’ sister Elizabeth told how her brother conceived of his childhood art as play and performance:

[He] used to make different kinds of drawings, too, sometimes ones (a little like the ones in the funny papers) that he mounted on strips of cardboard to use with the “Magic Lantern.” They told stories about us, our animals, and all sorts of other things. (23)

An early sort of document or slide projector, the Magic Lantern allowed Cummings to make slide shows of his art and literally project his imaginative appropriation of the wild west show. His wild west poster seems clearly influenced by at least two other posters, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, Col. W.F. Cody (1890), by British artist Alick P. F. Ritchie, and I Am Coming (Courier Lithography, 1900). Ritchie’s composite portrait, with its hat made of a lariat and a teepee, eyebrows of belts, snowshoe moustaches, and buffalo head goatee, is clearly echoed in Cummings’ poster, especially the buffalo head at the bottom of the golden circle drawn around Estlin/Bill. (Notice that the “T” in “ESTLIN” pierces the buffalo’s goatee.)

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While it may seem unlikely that the young Cummings, born in 1894, would have seen a British poster from 1890, we should remember that in the years 1888-1890, Cummings’ father Edward was abroad finishing his graduate work in sociology, “making a comparative study of the social and economic conditions of workers in Italy, Germany, France, and Great Britain” (Kennedy, “Father” 440). In addition, Cummings’ godfather, J. Estlin Carpenter, a British Unitarian minister and theologian, corresponded extensively with Edward Cummings from 1889 to 1925), and easily could have sent the poster as a present to his godson. (See the Guide to the Collection to the Cummings-Clarke Family Papers.)

Although the golden circle enclosing the presence of the hero/saint may ultimately derive from Christian iconography, the young Cummings probably filched it from the many depictions of Buffalo Bill’s determined and beatific head inside a circle-halo, a motif that appears most prominently in the I Am Coming poster. The religious connotations of the second coming of Christ cannot be ignored in this poster, though young Estlin may have been unaware of them. (We should remember, however, that Cummings went every Sunday to hear his Unitarian minister father preach.) Certainly the I Am Coming poster helps us see that the word “Jesus” in the poem is more than an exclamation of astonishment—it also points to the sainted nature of Cummings’ hero, who, aside from the cowboy hat, mustache, and goatee, looks quite like conventional representations of Christ. In contrast, the halo in Cummings’ childhood drawing, surrounds a manly hero at ease with his rifle, confident in his abilities as marksman and emperor of animals and men. (This pose derives from depictions of Buffalo Bill’s early life as a scout and buffalo hunter like this one from 1870.)

With its depiction of the gun and animal heads, Cummings’ childhood poster emphasizes (perhaps unconsciously) Estlin/Bill’s power of life and death over animals, while the poem emphasizes Buffalo Bill’s incredible marksmanship (despite the reader’s initial uncertainty as to whether the “pigeons” are animals or clay targets). But the childhood poster exists in the realm of play—for example, while Cummings’ father hunted and mounted trophies of his kills, young Estlin never seems to have participated in these hunting expeditions. [Kennedy reports that even the father ceased his killing at some point when Cummings’ mother made him “exchange his gun for a camera” (Dreams 21).] B_Bill_horse_3_pigeon_1907a higher resolutionThough the young Estlin admired the power of someone who could tame and kill animals, the speaker of the poem admires skill and showmanship rather than power. We can see evidence of that skill in an extraordinary publicity photo that shows Buffalo Bill shooting a clay pigeon out of the air while riding his “watersmooth-silver/ stallion.” If we look closely at the Native American riding beside Buffalo Bill, we can see a bag on the pommel of his horse’s saddle. The draft of the poem tells us that this bag held the “pidgens / one two / three four five / tossed by / an indian”—or alternatively, “by a Comanche brave” (see Kidder 378, 382-83). (The white horse’s name, the New York Times obituary tells us, was Isham, “which the Colonel always rode at the exhibition of his rough riders.”)

Cummings never wrote an essay on Buffalo Bill, but in the mid-twenties, he did write two humorous pieces for Vanity Fair on closely-related popular entertainments, the circus and Coney Island. [In fact from 1913 to 1916, the cash-strapped Buffalo Bill did perform “as an attraction with other shows” (Fees). Cummings’ sister Elizabeth ends her account of childhood visits to the circus by telling how Buffalo Bill rode into the tent and “did amazing shooting tricks” (39).] In both “The Adult, the Artist and the Circus” and “Coney Island,” visiting these popular spectacles is seen in Freudian terms as a return to what might be termed the childhood unconscious—and as a clear threat to the adult personality. Indeed, Cummings writes that “at the very thought of ‘circus,’ a swarm of long-imprisoned desires breaks jail. Armed with beauty and demanding justice and everywhere threatening us with curiosity and Spring and childhood, this mob of forgotten wishes begins to storm the supposedly impregnable fortifications of our Present” (“Adult” 109). This restorative childhood id is presented as a panacea for modern anxieties, a sure bet to lessen the crime rate and to keep the artistic class from committing suicide (“Coney” 149). The circus essay even contends that “a periodic and highly concentrated dose of wild animals . . . is indispensable to the happiness of all mature civilized human beings.” Requiring adults to visit the animals at the circus would close down insane asylums, heal the “lame, halt and blind,” and put “millions of psychoanalysts” out of work (111).

If the childhood poster shows young Estlin identifying with a hero and master showman, in the 1917 poem their relationship is more fraught with Freudian contention. Critics like Thomas Dilworth have seen the poem as depicting childhood hero-worship being supplanted by rhetorical mastery over a symbolic father figure. Dilworth writes that “the question ‘how do you like your blueeyed boy’ sarcastically belittles Buffalo Bill and conveys the speaker’s sense of superiority over him” (174). Furthermore, “Buffalo Bill once rode a silver stallion, and his supremacy over the impressive animal signified his stature. Now the speaker rhetorically rides Buffalo Bill, verbally elevating himself and performing at Buffalo Bill’s expense” (175). Etienne Terblanche sees the stallion somewhat differently. While he agrees with Dilworth that the poem severely diminishes Buffalo Bill’s hero status, Terblanche argues that far from riding Buffalo Bill, the speaker identifies with the real hero of the poem, the lower-case stallion, who “is lyrical, flowing, and aquatic . . . unlike the clipped and mechanistic features associated with the three apparent heroes,” the capitalized Buffalo Bill, Jesus and Mister Death (306). Surely the lower case i speaker, Terblanche argues, would identify “with this lowercase protagonist . . . who is a hero precisely by being a nonhero” (306).

We know from quite a few other Cummings poems that he identified strongly with animals. [For two examples, see “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” (CP 396) and “i / never” (CP 820).] And it is not only animals that the poet identifies with. As I wrote in a recent paper, “the lower case ‘i’ persona finds . . . its selves in and through the many selves . . . of animals (a grasshopper, a hummingbird), trees, leaves, twilight, stars, the moon, and even certain buildings” (“Cummings” 499). It would seem from this reading that Cummings’ childhood fantasies of becoming a Buffalo Bill-like “Animal Emperor” gave way to a more modest lower-case urge to identify with nature and deprecate the upper-case buffalo hunter. However, readers of the poem know that the mocking of Buffalo Bill exists side by side with admiration for his skill. And even in his “Animal Emperor” phase, the young Estlin could identify with the animal while at the same time asserting supremacy over his “miracleprodigy” father. Kennedy relates an anecdote in which the young blue-eyed boy took on the father role by identifying with the animal:

Estlin had a singular liking for elephants, which he came to associate with his father (who carried him about, who had big ears). Drawing pictures of elephants became a repeated pastime. At length, the situation became reversed in the role-playing with his father, so that Estlin became in imagination Kipling’s elephant Kala Nag, and his father became little Tomai, the elephant boy who took care of him. “Take me with you, O Kala Nag,” his father would say at bedtime. (Dreams 32)

After the passage in EIMI in which Cummings remembers his “Animal Emperor” phase, he goes on to reminisce about the “Death Defying” dangers faced by loop-the-loop cyclist Diavolo, and even mentions Buffalo Bill. His interior monologue turns towards death: “(a graveyard ‘New York’ &)what fire-flies among such gravestones(afterwards mai and the chevaux de bois & death)” (430/411). I will skip over some coded references here to Cummings’ divorce from his first wife so as not to stray from the point. Which is: the passage immediately turns from death to rebirth:

we have arisen,who were dead ; having died we are as only Animal Emperors of the imagination shall be(and as only poets arise : again possibly to die,impossibly again & even out of hell ascending who shall keep our circus hearts against all fear). (EIMI 430/411)

The “hell” mentioned here is the Soviet Union, governed by fear. In this passage, I think “Animal Emperors” are not human emperors of animals, but rather, childlike humans who, in becoming one with animals, become emperors of the imagination. The poetic imagination and the authentic self are reborn through the childhood unconscious of the “circus heart.”[1]



Michael Webster

Grand Valley State University



Works Cited

Col. Wm. F. Cody, ‘Buffalo Bill,’ Dead.” New York Times (11 Jan. 1917). Web.

Cummings-Clarke Family Papers, 1793-1949: Guide to the Collection.” Massachusetts Historical Society Call Number Ms. N-1058. Web.

The Cummings-Clarke Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.” Spring 19 (2012): 164-165. Print and Web.

Cummings, E. E. “The Adult, the Artist and the Circus.” Vanity Fair (October 1925). Rpt. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. 109-114.

—. “Coney Island.” Vanity Fair (June 1926). Rpt. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. 149-153.

—. EIMI. New York: Covici, Friede, 1933. Reprinted. New York: William Sloane, 1949. Reprinted with an introduction by EEC, New York: Grove Press, 1958.

—. EIMI: A Journey Through Soviet Russia. 1933. Ed. George James Firmage. New York: Liveright, 2007.

Dilworth, Thomas. “Cummings’s ‘Buffalo Bill ’s’.” Explicator 53.3 (Spring 1995): 174-175.

Discovery of Early E. E. Cummings Works at the Massachusetts Historical Society.” MHS News Massachusetts Historical Society, 8 November, 2012. Web.

Estlin Cummings Wild West Show.” Massachusetts Historical Society July 2013. Web.   (with photo of drawing of same)

Fees, Paul. “William Frederick Cody.” Buffalo Bill Center of the West 2015. Web. Accessed 29 July 2015.

Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1980.

—. “Edward Cummings, the Father of the Poet.” Bulletin of the New York Public Library 70 (1966): 437-449.

Kidder, Rushworth M. “ ‘Buffalo Bill ‘s’: An Early E. E. Cummings Manuscript” Harvard Library Bulletin 24.4 (October 1976): 373-383.

Lowell, Laura. “A Rhinoceros Tells Tales to a Soldier: The Childhood Imaginings of E. E. Cummings.” Object of the Month Massachusetts Historical Society, July 2013. Web.   (with photo of drawing of a soldier and a rhino)

Onion, Rebecca. “E. E. Cummings’ Colorful, Imaginative Childhood Drawings.” The Vault: Historical Treasures, Oddities, and Delights, 17 June 2013. Web.

Qualey, Elizabeth Cummings. When I Was a Little Girl. Ed. Carlton C. Qualey. Center Ossipee, NH: Carroll County Independent, 1981.

Ray, David. “The Irony of E. E. Cummings.” College English 23.4 (Jan. 1962): 282, 287-290. [Ray sees “Buffalo Bill ’s” as “an assault on everything held dear by a sentimentalist or a hero-worshipper” (289).]

Terblanche, Etienne. “Is There a Hero in this Poem? E. E. Cummings’s ‘Buffalo Bill ’s / defunct’.” The Explicator 70.4 (Dec. 2012): 304-307.

Webster, Michael. “Lugete: The Divine Lost and Found Child in Cummings.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 19 (2012): 37-49.

—. “E. E. Cummings.” A Companion to Modernist Poetry. Ed. David Chinitz and Gail McDonald. Chichester, U.K. / Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014. 494-504.



[1] For more on Cummings’ view of the child as the source of rebirth and creativity, see my “Lugete: The Divine Lost and Found Child in Cummings.”

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  1. Fantastic article, Mike.
    Thanks so much,
    Millie Kidd

  2. Love this post. I have been revisiting “Buffalo Bill’s” lately, especially how Cummings reads the “onetwothreefourfive” much differently than what the page suggestions. A blog post on this is forthcoming . . . .

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