When the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, many young men chose to volunteer as noncombatant ambulance drivers rather than face military conscription. E. E. Cummings was among them. At the front by June, Cummings and his friend Slater Brown soon alienated their superior with their “insolence” and their “unshaven, unwashed, and generally unkempt” appearance (Kennedy 145). In September, after Brown sent letters home saying that “the French soldiers are all despondent and none of them believe Germany will be defeated” (qtd. in Kennedy 147), both Cummings and Brown were arrested for treason and sent to a “Dépôt de Triage,” a detention camp at La Ferté-Macé, Orne, Normandy, France. In his biography of Cummings, Dreams in the Mirror, Richard S. Kennedy describes the camp as “a kind of waiting station for aliens who were suspected of espionage or whose presence was generally undesirable during time of war” (148). Cummings later chronicled his experience of arrest and imprisonment in his book The Enormous Room (1922). Before this “Dépôt de Triage” was a detention camp, however, it was a “Petit Séminaire,” a “little seminary.” Recently M. Didier Joly, the webmaster of the site “La Ferté-Macé, hier,… par les cartes postales anciennes,” sent me a photo of a lithograph of the Petit Séminaire that dates probably from the late nineteenth century.
The lithograph shows the familiar outlines of the buildings we have come to know chiefly through the aerial view reproduced in Kennedy’s Dreams in the Mirror (150) and on the page “Aerial Views of The Enormous Room.” (Our Enormous Room photo page, “Views of La Ferté-Macé,” reproduces more photos of the buildings, as does M. Joly’s page petit séminaire / lycée des Andaines, which presents some exterior photos, along with recently-discovered views of the interior that date from February 1916.)
The lithograph (fig. 1) shows the three connected buildings of the complex, with the chapel on the right and the building that was to house the Enormous Room on the left. Behind the chapel is an exercise area enclosed by high walls—a space that, with the addition of barbed wire and a sentry post, was to become the men’s cour where the male detainees took their morning and afternoon “promenades” (Enormous Room 63-64). One can just make out in the lithograph a pommel horse and parallel bars, both missing in Cummings’ day. Not visible in the lithograph is the “horizontal iron bar” that “projected from the stone [wall] at a height of seven feet” (57). By 1917, the trees visible at the end of the exercise area had deteriorated to become “a dozen mangy apple trees, fighting for their very lives in the angry soil” (57).
Behind the building on the left is an outdoor pavilion called “le parapluie” [“the umbrella”], which is not mentioned by this name in The Enormous Room. However, this structure certainly should have been visible from the back windows of the Enormous Room (the only ones in the room that were not boarded up). Cummings comments on the rationale for boarding up all but the back windows:
The blocking of all windows on three sides had an obvious significance:les hommes were not supposed to see anything which went on in the world without;les hommes might,however,look their fill on a little washing-shed,on a corner of what seemed to be another wing of the building,and on a bleak lifeless abject landscape of scrubby woods beyond—which constituted the view from the ten windows (51-52).
In Cummings’ drawing of the layout of the buildings (fig. 2), this “washing-shed” is located behind the Enormous Room building on the left (labeled “A”), and is sketched as a simple backwards L-shaped half-rectangle rather than a sixteen-spoked umbrella pavilion.
(For some discussion of this drawing, see “Cummings’ Plan of the Dêpot de Triage” in Spring 16.)] As Cummings indicates, this half-rectangle depicting the “blanchissage [washing] shed” is located in the plan just a bit to the left of “the corner” of the middle building (labeled “C”), precisely where the “parapluie” appears in the lithograph of the seminary. Among the photographs one finds on the “La Ferté-Macé, hier” site’s petit séminaire page are a group of twelve extraordinary photos of the interior and exterior of the detention camp taken on February 20, 1916, some eighteen months before Cummings’ arrival. One photograph clearly shows the “parapluie” right behind the Enormous Room building and just off the corner of the center building where a guard poses watchfully (fig. 3).
The mystery remains why Cummings would draw an L-shaped half-rectangle when the shape of the “washing shed” or “parapluie” was clearly circular. Indeed, as the evidence presented in the 1984 history of the site, “L’Histoire extraordinaire du Lycée des Andaines,” shows, the “parapluie” existed until 1938, when it collapsed after a November snowstorm (40).
Still other photographic evidence (undated, but after Cummings’ detention) shows that the pavilion was probably intact when Cummings was a prisoner at La Ferté. We can only conclude that either this umbrella pavilion was dismantled in 1917 (and later rebuilt), or that “the little washing-shed” that Cummings refers to is the same as the “parapluie.” We must remember that Cummings probably never saw the shed/umbrella from the ground, since the women’s promenade cour behind the middle building was enclosed by some sort of fence.
Cummings, E. E. The Enormous Room: A typescript edition with drawings by the author. 1922. Ed. George James Firmage. New York: Liveright, 1978.
Collin, Jean-Claude, et al. “L’Histoire extraordinaire du Lycée des Andaines: Projet d’Action Educative réalisé par les élèves de Terminale G2’.” La Ferté Macé, Normandy, 1984. [Parc Naturel Régional Normande-Maine, Études et Documents numero 6] Web.
Gill, John M. “The Enormous Room and ‘The Windows of Nowhere’: Reflections on Visiting La Ferté-Macé.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 7 (1998): 94-123.
—. “The Enormous Room Remembered.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 11 (2002): 159-182.
Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1980.
Webster, Michael and Philip Persenaire. “Cummings’ Plan of the Dêpot de Triage at La Ferté Macé.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 16 (2007): 99-102.