for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

E. E. Cummings at Camp Devens: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918

On January 1, 1918, E. E. Cummings arrived at the port of New York, thin and a bit dispirited from his experience of imprisonment in the French detention camp at La Ferté Macé (Kennedy, Dreams 159).

E. E. Cummings’ “emergency passport photograph taken in December 1917, so that Cummings could obtain the papers he needed to sail back to America on the Espagne, departing on Dec. 22, 1917.” From Alison Rosenblitt’s “Photo Gallery” of Cummings photos related to WWI. [E. E. Cummings Additional Papers, 1870-1969, Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1892.11 (92).]

After recuperating at home in Cambridge, Mass., Cummings left for New York in late February. His fellow-prisoner at La Ferté Macé, William Slater Brown, soon joined him and some other friends from his days at Harvard, as well as one new friend, the sculptor Gaston Lachaise. [In February 1920, Cummings would publish an essay on Lachaise in The Dial.] In New York, Cummings wrote and painted, dined at Khoury’s restaurant and at a place called the Romanian Hall, and frequented Minsky’s National Winter Garden, which featured burlesque shows and comedians, particularly Jack Shargel, “whom Cummings ranked above Chaplin” (Kennedy, Dreams 163-164). Although the possibility of being drafted loomed in the background, the freedoms of a bohemian painter and poet very much occupied the foreground of Cummings’ life.

The Epidemic Begins

In early March, the first wave of the great influenza epidemic of 1918 began in rural Kansas, quickly spread to nearby Camp Funston, and from there through army camps across the country that were full of men training to fight in WWI. American soldiers carried the flu to Europe, and by the end of April it had spread throughout the Western Front. Barry reports that this first wave “set off few alarms, chiefly because in most places it rarely killed, despite the enormous numbers of people infected” (“Horrific”). Also, because of wartime censorship, few realized the extent of the outbreak. Indeed, the disease was called the “Spanish flu” because in non-combatant Spain, the infection was widely reported.

On May 6, 1918, Cummings received a draft notice “that he was placed in Class 1, ‘Subject to call for service’ ” (Kennedy 170). By the end of July 1918, when he left for basic training at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, the influenza epidemic seemed to be over.

“Physical drill at Camp Devens,” 1917. [U. S. Army Center for Military History, The WWI Era, Training at Camp Devens, MA]
Camp Devens after Completion (1918-1919) [U. S. Army Center for Military History, The WWI Era, Camp Devens, MA]

However, in late August, a secret naval intelligence memo reported that influenza had re-emerged in Switzerland in a more virulent and deadly form (Barry, “Horrific”). According to the CDC’s “1918 Pandemic Influenza Historic Timeline,” this second wave of the virus first appeared in the United States “at Camp Devens, a United States Army training camp just outside of Boston, and at a naval facility in Boston.” In the third week of August, about a month after Cummings arrived at the camp, an increase in pneumonia cases was noticed at Camp Devens. In his book, The Great Influenza, Barry reports that

on September 1, four more soldiers were diagnosed with pneumonia and admitted to the hospital. In the next six days, twenty-two more new cases of pneumonia were diagnosed. None of these, however, were considered to be influenza. (Great 186)

At first, the doctors at the camp diagnosed all of these pneumonia cases as meningitis. According to Alfred W. Crosby, “a definite diagnosis of influenza was made” only on September 12. Daily hospital admissions grew throughout the month, reaching “a peak of 1,176 on the eighteenth” (Crosby 5). Barry gives an even higher number: “At the outbreak’s peak, 1,543 soldiers reported ill with influenza in a single day.” The peak admissions statistics do not tell the whole story, however, since the “overwhelmed” hospital “ceased accepting patients, no matter how ill, leaving thousands more sick and dying in barracks” (Barry, “Horrific”). The CDC’s timeline page on the epidemic reports that “by the end of September, more than 14,000 flu cases are reported at Camp Devens—equaling about one-quarter of the total camp, resulting in 757 deaths.”

On September 23, a delegation of distinguished medical professionals sent by the Surgeon General arrived at Camp Devens to investigate the extent and severity of the outbreak (Crosby 4). On September 25, they recommended that the number of men at the overcrowded camp be reduced from 45,000 to 35,000 and that each individual be allotted “50 square feet of floor space” (Crosby 10). Needless to say, these recommendations were not followed. While the delegation visited, Cummings was reading Scofield Thayer’s recently published Dial article on James Joyce. On the same day the delegation’s recommendations were made, Cummings wrote a letter to Thayer, critiquing the style of his article and appending at the end the following comment on the pandemic:

The Spanish Flu has claimed so many that there is some talk of one’s being introduced to the hook-worm and Dixie. Je m’en fous, comme toujours [“As always, I don’t give a crap”] – feeling well enough to die anytime
À toi,
E. E.

To Scofield Thayer, MS 1918 September 25, Beinecke Library, Yale University (YCAL MSS 34 Series IV, Box 30, folder 787)

The talk of moving troops south—or, as Richard S. Kennedy writes, “closing [the camp] down altogether” (174)—came to nothing, possibly because the delegation recommended sending no more troops from Devens to other camps—or more probably because other Army camps were soon swept with the disease. The bravado in Cummings’ comment that “as always, I don’t give a crap” is leavened by the reality that lurks in the second half of the sentence: “feeling well enough to die anytime.” Four days after Cummings’ letter to Thayer, Roy Grist, a doctor at the camp, wrote of the mental and physical exhaustion caused by seeing so many deaths:

It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies sort of gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day, and still keeping it up. (“Letter”)

N. roy Grist, “A Letter from Camp Devens.” (29 Sept. 1918) Influenza 1918. American Experience [PBS].
Treating a flu patient at Camp Devens, 1918 [Photo from “Influenza 1918 Timeline: Influenza Across America in 1918” (American Experience, PBS)]

Social Distancing

Even though, as Kennedy writes, “In Cummings’ company, a large number of men were stricken and six of them died” (174), somehow Cummings remained healthy. We cannot be sure why he did not get sick. He may have avoided infection because he practiced social distancing, spending a great deal of time reading in the surrounding woods. In a letter written in French to John Dos Passos, another of his classmates at Harvard, Cummings describes his life at Camp Devens:

Meanwhile, I share an enclosed and surrounded existence with vengeful troops, escaping sometimes up to the forest (there is a forest; they say before the war there were only forests here) to bathe in the superior blood of Thought. Martyred Goddess! I lose myself so much that way that I find some courage for the following day, it’s only yesterday that I slept; (because my todays are dead.)

[Cependant je partage l’existence enceinte des troupeaux vengeurs, en me sauvant [sautant?], quelques fois, jusceque à la forèt (il y a une forèt ; on dit avant la guerre il n’y avait que des forèts ici) me laver dans le sang supérieur de la Pensée, Déesse martyrisée! Tellement je me perds ainsi, que j’ai du courage pour le lendemain, ce n’est que hier qui m’endorme ; (parceque mes aujourdhuis sont mortes.)]

Undated Letter to John Dos Passos, Camp Devens, Mass, circa September-October 1918 [Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1892.13 (111), folder 3, letter 13 (MS. 2 sheets)]

One reason Cummings felt “enclosed” or “surrounded” was that the influenza epidemic necessitated a lockdown of the camp, taking away even its regimented routine. Dr. Grist notes in his letter that the camp had all but shut down during the epidemic:

This epidemic started about four weeks ago, and has developed so rapidly that the camp is demoralized and all ordinary work is held up till it has passed. All assemblages of soldiers taboo. (“Letter”)

N. roy Grist, “A Letter from Camp Devens.” (29 Sept. 1918) Influenza 1918. American Experience [PBS]

Escaping the “vengeful troops” — most likely those who uncritically accepted “the constant indoctrination of hatred for the Germans” (Kennedy 173) — and seeking a natural antidote to (literally in French, “saving myself [from]”) the camp, Cummings also escaped from his enclosed and surrounded self, one that experienced sleep only in retrospect. He saved himself by retreating to the woods and losing himself in “the superior blood of Thought”–thus salvaging some courage to face the daily waste land of the camp.

But he also needed to face his fears. In the letter to Dos Passos, after the imagery of seeking courage in “Thought,” Cummings confesses that he is experiencing within himself an “an interior struggle, a spiritual combat, an invisible war, enormous and tiny,” that causes “an imperceptible and gigantic misery” that nevertheless is “very good for one’s health.” This misery, Cummings says, is caused by fear: “Listen. It is fear, still and always and every day, fear,” a declaration that sounds even more ominous in French: “Écoutes-moi.  C’est la peur, encore la peur, toujours et tous les jours la peur.”

He makes clear the nature of this fear by quoting two lines from a poem by Alfred de Musset: “Mes chers amis, quand je mourrai, / Plantez un saule au cimetière.” [“My dear friends, when I die / plant a willow in the graveyard.”] The fear of death, whether from influenza or combat at the front, is very real, but as it begins to edge into a bathetic literary fear, Cummings pushes it over the edge into parody. He asks Dos Passos to write a mock epitaph “on my relatively banal tomb”: “ATTENTION PILGRIMS / Not pissing is forbidden!/ I think I’ll rot quickly / He who doesn’t know how to live, / How then will he know how to die?” [“ATTENTION PELERINS / Défense de ne pas pisser! / J’ai l’idée de vite pourrir / Ne pas vivre celui qui sait, / Comment donc saura-t-il mourir?”]

Fear dissipates in a comic rhyme: “pisser / qui sait.” However, the “Thought” that Cummings explored in the woods to overcome his fears is perhaps more lasting, and I will explore that subject in my next post.

Works Cited

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza. The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. London and New York: Penguin, 2004.

—. “How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America.” Smithsonian Magazine (Nov. 2017): Web.

Crosby, Alfred W. America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. 1989. 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Cummings, E. E. Letter to John Dos Passos [Camp Devens, MA: September-October, 1918] [Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1892.13 (111), folder 3, letter 13 (MS. 2 sheets)]

—. Letter to Scofield Thayer, [Camp Devens, MA: 25 September 1918] [MS 1918 Sep 25, Beinecke Library, Yale University (YCAL MSS 34 Series IV, Box 30, folder 787)]

[Grist, N. Roy]. “A Letter from Camp Devens.” (29 Sept. 1918) Influenza 1918. American Experience [PBS]. Web.

Thayer, Scofield. “James Joyce.” The Dial 65 (18 Sept. 1918): 201-203.

1 Comment

  1. Bernard STEHLE

    Thanks so much for this brilliant bit of research, uncovering some extraordinary quotes that reveal Cummings’ mode of thought and attitude in the very grip of the influenza. (I find very convincing your suggestion that it was his time spent alone in the woods that saved him from contagion. Social-distancing indeed!)

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