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Tag: World War I

Cummings’ Escape to the Woods: Theorizing Modernism during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Grey troops at drill spliced into a colorized field in front of the woods at Camp Devens, Mass., circa 1917.

Much later in his life, when E. E. Cummings was typing up the notebooks that he kept during basic training at Camp Devens, Mass., he wrote that the notes made him feel uneasy: “into me,as I perceive these hieroglyphics,is coming once again whatever it was that drove me almost crazy” (quoted in Rosenblitt 225). My May, 2020 post, “E. E. Cummings at Camp Devens: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” reported how Cummings describes this “almost” craziness in an October 1918 letter to John Dos Passos as “an interior struggle, a spiritual combat, an invisible war, enormous and tiny,” that nevertheless was “very good for one’s health.” Cummings tells his friend and fellow writer that the source of this “interior struggle” is “fear, still, always, and every day, fear.”

The conclusion of the May, 2020 post makes clear that besides experiencing a sort of nameless existential dread, Cummings mainly feared death, whether from combat at the front or from the influenza pandemic. Certainly the more pressing fear was the flu, which “by the end of September [1918]” had infected “about one-quarter of the total camp, resulting in 757 deaths” (CDC timeline). Elizabeth Outka points to a telling difference between the fear of death in a war and a similar fear during a pandemic:

[T]he ideological structures that both the state and its citizens could build around a war corpse— it’s heroic / it’s barbaric / it’s a meaningful sacrifice / it’s a pointless horrific death caused by corrupt governments— were not structures that could typically work when death came from an invading virus rather than an invading army. Flu corpses presented instead a crisis of representation. Difficult to spin politically or narratively, the flu death was more pointless, less understandable, and less preventable than one from the war.

Outka, Viral Modernism 33

On September 29, Doctor Roy N. Grist reported that the draftees were “demoralized and all ordinary work is held up till it [the influenza] has passed. All assemblages of soldiers taboo” (“Letter”). On November 12, Cummings wrote to Scofield Thayer about this period of enforced idleness:

a poker-circle invades my lit [bed–also literature?]. The buttox of a player (who had the politeness to manually remove my leg from a place which impeded his complete comfort as he sits) rubs my upper leg. . . .  The player lays his fuming cigarette with its moist butt on my blanket.  He spits on the floor right at the foot of my bed, for he is emotionally stressed or something.  little buttons of green mucous—.  to sleep in.

Letter to Scofield Thayer, November 12, 1918 [Beinecke Library, Yale University (YCAL MSS 34 Series IV, Box 30, folder 786)]

No wonder Cummings escaped to the surrounding woods in order (as he wrote in the letter to Dos Passos) to “bathe in the superior blood of Thought. Martyred Goddess!” We may assume that the blood of Thought was preferable to possibly infected droplets of green mucus. Also, writing solo in the woods would allow him to escape from the overcrowded camp. (See photo below of the “Writing and Reading Room.”) But during his sojourns in the woods, rather than observing and taking notes on the local flora and fauna like Thoreau, Cummings explored his aesthetic and emotional responses to modernist art and literature. Cummings went to the woods to think about aesthetics.

The “Writing and Reading Room” at Camp Devens, circa 1917 [U. S. Army photo]

Before reporting for duty at the camp on July 24, he had lived in New York for four months, writing sonnets like “my girl’s tall with hard long eyes” (CP 133) and being transfixed by the Cézanne paintings he saw in uptown art galleries (Kennedy 163-171, Cohen 43). While at Camp Devens, Cummings’ reading of the installments of James Joyce’s Ulysses then being published in The Little Review inspired him to draft an essay on modernist art that outlined an aesthetic that envisions artwork, creator, and audience as a living totality. In that same November 12 letter to Scofield Thayer that mentions the smoking, spitting poker player, Cummings singled out for praise a passage from the “Hades” chapter of Ulysses, in which Leopold Bloom meditates on death during the burial of Paddy Dignam:

“Monday he died.  Three days.  Rather long to keep them in the summer.  Just as well to get shut of them as soon as you are sure there’s no.

*The clay fell softer.  Begin to be forgotten.  Out of sight.  The caretaker moved away — –”

E. E. Cummings to Scofield Thayer, November 12, 1918; MS at the Beinecke Library, Yale University (YCAL MSS 34, Series IV, Box 30, folder 787). [Cf. Ulysses, 111; 6.870-73.]

Cummings does not comment directly on Joyce’s depiction of a burial. Rather, he tells Thayer: “Sco, that * [asterisked] line is as good as anything ever done by any body in any world.  Nor am i unsure, by god.   will the Dial print my crit of Joyce?  will it?  if it will, i will write it.” The essay that Cummings drafted actually says rather little about Ulysses, striving instead to place the new prose work into a larger aesthetics of modern artistic production. As in his graduation “part” of three years earlier, “The New Art,” the poet sought to define what was common in his response to the “many branches—painting, sculpture, architecture, the stage, literature, and music” of the new modernist arts (5).

To find connections among the many arts of modernism, Cummings classified them as melodic, harmonic, or orchestral “gestures.” (This sort of synesthetic approach to relating the arts was common at the time–see Cohen, pp. 196-203.) Here is Cummings’ chart of works of modernist art classified as musical “gestures”:

[melodic] Brancusi (especially the polished brass Mlle. [Pogany] at the last Independent)
Ezra Pound (Δώρια) [(Doria)]
[harmonic] Gleizes (skyscraper motifs)
The best of Matisse (before he imitated Matisse)
[orchestral] T. S. Eliot (Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy Night)
Schoenberg (Five Orchestral Pieces)
The Woolworth Building [See “at the ferocious phenomenon of 5 o’clock“]
The Russian Ballet (Parade, Till [Eulenspiegel], L’Après Midi [d’un Faune], and Petrouska [sic]

MS at Houghton Library, Harvard University, bMS Am 1892.7 (70) folder 1, s. 1. (Reproduced also in Kennedy 179)

Although Cummings’ three categories imply a movement from the first to second to third person [I, you, we], unlike Stephen Dedalus’ exclusively literary categories of lyric, epic, and dramatic (Portrait 232-233), any of the seven arts may be placed in any of the categories. For example, sculpture by Brancusi is classified as melodic; the “best of Matisse (before he imitated Matisse)” is harmonic; and T. S. Eliot’s “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” share the crowded orchestral category with Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, the Woolworth Building, and various dances by the Ballets Russes. At the bottom of the chart, Cummings wrote an addendum to the orchestral gestures: “to these the months latterly have added, James Joyce (Ulysses).” Cummings is a bit flippant about why he declines to call these art-gestures “modern,” saying that he prefers “the adjective ‘musical,’ if only because it is a favorite with the many’s mindlessness” (s. 1).

By adding the term “gesture” to his musical metaphor, Cummings shows that the synesthesia of modernist art is more than mere high culture fashion—rather, it engages the body more than the mind. The most complex of Cummings’ orchestral gestures also mix the sensations of various arts in various ways. Both of the Eliot titles are musical metaphors and the ballets Petrushka and Parade are products of choreographers, dancers, musicians, and scene and set designers. Joyce’s Ulysses is of course written in a variety of styles and introduces the stream of consciousness technique that presents how the brain feels and reacts to the five senses.

By invoking synesthesia, gesture, and music, Cummings points not to the totality of the artwork, but to the totality of an aesthetic experience that engulfs the entire being. Combining a military metaphor with his own feelings of “interior struggle, a spiritual combat, an invisible war,” Cummings asserts that aesthetic experience shatters the “shells of identity” [(39), s. 208]; the experience of art knocks him out, like “the contact of a naked fist with the lower jaw” (s. 41). This overwhelming kayo of perception, this identity death, claims much more for poetry and art than the diminished romanticism of a Robert Frost, who says that the poem provides the harried reader with “a momentary stay against confusion” (2). The psychological experience of Cummings’ reader / spectator is far more harrowing than the soothing pop psychology of I. A. Richards, who blandly claims that “poetry balances the warring impulses of the reader” (Tompkins 220). For Cummings, a peak aesthetic experience is disorienting, shattering, and terrifying, and it results in a newer self and greater sense of being.

Cummings’ reading in Willard Huntington Wright’s Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning (1915) gave him a way of understanding Cézanne, who, Wright said, sometimes “deformed nature’s objects . . . in order to make form voluminous” (156), thus creating a kind of sculpture in line and color. Cummings was fascinated by the notion of sculpted, solid form that nevertheless pulses and moves with the light and color of nature. In a 1922 letter to his mother, Cummings wrote of painting “chasms . . . and bumps . . . [and] ‘getting form by colour’ ” (quoted in Cohen 122). But this formal understanding was preceded by the actual experience of seeing Cézanne’s paintings.

Cézanne is not mentioned among the modernist artists and their works classified in Cummings’ three-fold chart of musical gestures, most likely because Cézanne was seen as a precursor, and a misunderstood one at that. Cummings tells us that at first, he “threw his belief” into the “dislocated nature” of Cézanne’s paintings. Wright had taught Cummings to see only the formal, anti-realistic aspects of Cézanne’s dislocations:

Like an excited very little dog I barked furiously at these discomforting still-lives. What apples! they ought to roll and fall off this tilting table, and they don’t. Quelle table! It has legs and doesn’t rest on them. Wonderful. Hooray! What an insult to reality!

Houghton Library, Harvard University, bMS Am 1892.7 (70) folder 5, s. 44

So, when Cummings was in New York in the spring and summer of 1918 before being called up for the draft, he rushed off to a Fifth Avenue gallery to see some Cézannes for himself. There, in “a tastefully upholstered twilight,” he was met by the painting of La Montagne Ste. Victoire “whose reproduction in colours was the frontispiece” to Willard Huntington Wright’s Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning (1915).

Before the painting itself, he was confronted with something he didn’t and couldn’t know: his senses and knowledge obliterated, his being realized a destabilizing sort of enlightenment in one overwhelming aesthetic experience:

As my eyes explored, a curious sensation of fearful nausea came over me.  I felt.  I was being skillfully sucked into the picture’s accuracy!  I stood, perfectly helpless, dead with terror.  Out of this frame a slow swiftness surely was, reaching, for my mind.  The sense of hearing quickly deserted me.  Then sight – – – –  Suddenly: easily splashes of hideous sensual electricity drenched my completely nervous concentration.  Touch.  The sensation that I can only describe by saying that the picture had Touched me.

Houghton Library, Harvard University, bMS Am 1892.7 (70) folder 5, s. 45

At Camp Devens, Cummings began to organize his rather nebulous effusions about Touch into a theory of aesthetic response. He even created a “ladder” that attempts to understand and rank various aesthetic experiences, starting from the photographic Real at the bottom and moving upward to the vital Actual or Tactile:

categoryArtist / examplequalities
Actual, Tactile (art, truth)Cézanne; Joyce, Ulysses; Petrushka (Ballets Russes)vitality, “a new dimension” “instigation of the actual by the real” (ss. 35, 48)
impossibleRedondreams, mysticism
possible (the perhaps)Renoirmusical
probable (normal)Monetnormal (life)
the Real (truthfulness, the subnormal)Rodinphotography (“a positive of the developed negative: life”)
Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1892.7 (70) folder 5, s. 47
and MS Am 1892.7 (69), folder 1, sheet 3.

Cummings states the short form of this chart at the beginning of quite a few drafts of his essay:

It took photography to assert the real, the subnormal. Photography is truthfulness,reality.

Life is normal.

Art is vital.

Houghton Library, Harvard University, [MS Am 1892.7 (69) folder 1, s. 3]

Art exists on a vital plane of being that Cummings called the Actual or the Tactile. The overwhelming aesthetic experience of art reduces the self to Touch and then rebuilds a new self. He describes leaving the gallery in New York like this:

As I staggered from the gallery, there formed in my mouth gradually the terrific syllable: sum [“I am” (Latin)]. As I whispered it to the elevator, I found on my lips an electric taste, as if I were tasting the picture’s Touch. Sum. I went out, very dizzy, into the normal rumpus of the Avenue— .

Houghton Library, Harvard University, bMS Am 1892.7 (70) folder 5, s. 45

In the gallery, Cummings found a confrontation that changed him, that made him an “I am,” a Sum. The process of self-becoming is thus nearly identical with the processes of experiencing and making art. In the woods, Cummings recalled this moment of self-making in New York as a way to defy and confront the “almost” craziness and fear of death (and thus loss of self) that plunged him into an “interior struggle” at Camp Devens.

Works Cited

Cohen, Milton A. PoetandPainter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings’s Early Work. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1987.

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: 12 November 1918] [MS 1918 Nov 12, Beinecke Library, Yale University (YCAL MSS 34 Series IV, Box 30, folder 787)]

—. “The New Art.” The Harvard Advocate 99.10 (24 June 1915): 154-156.
Rpt. E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York:
October House, 1965. 5-11.

—. Drafts of an essay on modern art, Paul Cézanne, Igor Stravinsky, and James Joyce’s Ulysses, ms. and ts. 1918. bMS Am 1892.7: (69) folder 1 and (70) folders 1-5. bMS Am 1823.7 (39), folder 4, sheets 208-210. E. E. Cummings papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

—. “certain vital musical gestures.” MS 1918. E. E. Cummings Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University, bMS Am 1892.7 (70) folder 1, s. 1. (cf. Kennedy 179)

Frost, Robert. “The Figure a Poem Makes.” 1939. Selected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963. 1-4.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916. Ed. Seamus Deane. New York: Penguin, 1993, 2003.

—. Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1934, reset and corrected 1961.

—. Ulysses. The Corrected Text. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. New York: Random-Vintage, 1986.

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

Outka, Elizabeth. Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 2019.

Rosenblitt, J. Alison. The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War. New York: W. W. Norton, 2020.

Tompkins, Jane P. “The Reader in History: The Changing Shape of Literary Response.” Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Ed. Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980. 201-232.

Wright, Willard Huntington. Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning. New York: John Lane, 1915. Rpt. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1922.

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. John M. 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, September 25, 1918, 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.

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

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

Forthcoming: The Beauty of Living: E.E. Cummings in the Great War.

J. Alison Rosenblitt’s new book, The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War, is scheduled to be published by W. W. Norton July 21, 2020. The publisher’s description reads in part:

“In The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War, writer and historian J. Alison Rosenblitt reexamines the formative early years of Cummings’s life, from his idyllic childhood and complex relationship with his father, to his education at Harvard where he began to write poetry, up through his time in France during World War I as an ambulance driver and his subsequent imprisonment in a French camp.”

As Rosenblitt details on her personal page for the book, the title comes from one of the thousands of pages of notes found in the Cummings collection at the Houghton Library at Harvard University:

“When you and I consult these hearts and minds of ours, what do we learn? That there actually exists a deeper beauty even than the beauty of death–the beauty of living.”

from “Armistice,” E. E. Cummings Additional Papers, 1870-1969, MS Am 1892.6 (9), Houghton Library (Harvard)

Rosenblitt notes that even though “Cummings grew up in a world that aestheticized death and glorified war,” his response to a world of war, death, and imprisonment was “to choose to be alive.”

Pre-publication reviews of the book have been positive. Publisher’s Weekly writes that “Rosenblitt argues that Cummings’s exposure in France to a new artistic atmosphere and to wartime brutality indelibly shaped his poetry and pacifism.” In a starred review, the Library Journal states that “with grace and intelligence, Rosenblitt brings the worlds of Harvard, Cambridge, and ‘the Front’ to vivid life.” And in another starred review, Kirkus Reviews says that the book is a “perceptive, captivating portrait. . . . A graceful, sympathetic biography of an innovative
American poet.”

Link: Rosenblitt’s “Photo Gallery” of archival images from the Houghton Library at Harvard University. The Gallery is divided into three sections:

1. E. E. Cummings in France.
2. E. E. Cummings — Sketches, Paintings, and Poetry.
3. E. E. Cummings and Scofield Thayer.

J. Alison Rosenblitt is also the author of Rome after Sulla (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019) and E. E. Cummings’ Modernism and the Classics: Each Imperishable Stanza (Oxford UP, 2016).

The Enormous Room and the Petit Séminaire at La Ferté-Macé

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.

Figure 1: “Petit Séminaire St. Joseph à la Ferté-Macé (Orne)” (lithograph, circa 1880-1900)

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.

Figure 2: Cummings’ plan of the Dêpot de Triage at La Ferté-Macé
Figure 2a: Our modern redrawing of the plan

(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).

Figure 3: Photo of the “parapluie” behind the Enormous Room (1916)

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).

Figure 4: The collapse of the “parapluie” (1938)

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.

Works Cited

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.

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