(Editor's Note: This commentary originally appeared in the December issue of The Freeman, a monthly publication by The Foundation for Economic Education.)
E. E. Cummings is one of the most beloved American poets of the 20th century. He perhaps is best known to contemporary readers for his experimental and playful verse in the Modernist tradition. But he also wrote two important prose works that unfortunately have been relegated to relative obscurity. The first, "The Enormous Room," is a fictionalized retelling of his incarceration in France for alleged treason during World War I. The second, "Eimi," which in 2008 celebrated the 75th anniversary of its first publication, is a reworking of his travel journals to the USSR in 1931.
"Eimi" is a difficult yet rewarding literary exercise, depicting as it does the true nature of collectivist ideology as practiced during the relatively early years of the Stalinist regime. Although Cummings regarded the work as a novel, some critics consider it a travel book, while others consider it a polemic against communism as practiced in the Soviet Union. This reader would argue that Cummings's penchant for coining new words by combining two or more terms — technically referred to as portmanteau words — carried over to his expansion of his coded travel journals for "Eimi," which, like his poetry, is wildly inventive, syntactically jumbled, frequently comic, presented in a fashion that must've given typesetters nightmares, and unmistakably original. In short, "Eimi" is all of the above — a novel, travel journal and polemic. Most of all, however, it is a deeply personal expression of the author's primary thematic concerns of retaining one's individuality in the face of social and political pressures to conform to the collective.
An Unpopular Work
Immensely unpopular with the Western cultural left because of its negative assessment of the restrictive nature and infertile artistic soil inherent under tyrannical rule, "Eimi" burned Cummings's bridges with a host of writers and editors. According to teacher and editor Jenny Penberthy, writing in the "Dictionary of Literary Biography:"
During the writing of "Eimi," Cummings' antagonism to the Soviet Union became an obsession. He grew to despise both Communists and liberals. . . . Before "Eimi" he had been regarded as a voice from the left because of the antiauthoritarian demeanor of his poems and "The Enormous Room." He lost friends and the once unquestioning support of a literary world now increasingly sympathetic to literature fueled by a social conscience.
In fact, the book was briefly out of print after its initial 1933 publication, was reprinted in 1949 and 1958 — the same year Cummings was awarded the Bollingen Prize — then wasn't reprinted again until 2007.
The tenor of the times during which "Eimi" was inspired and written — colored as it was by the remembered horrors of World War I — was rife with leftist political remedies to perceived social ills. Freedom and free markets all took a beating from the New Deal programs of the Roosevelt administration; the rise of Marxist governments in Spain, Eastern Europe, and Asia; fascism in Italy; and national socialism in Germany. The cultural intelligentsia served as useful idiots for centralized governments, from Wyndham Lewis writing of his favorable impressions of early Nazi Germany to Ezra Pound notoriously broadcasting fascist propaganda to Allied troops from Italy during World War II.
The Literati and Marxism
Marxism in general and the Soviet experiment in particular, however, held an even greater appeal for the literary cognoscenti, beginning with playwright George Bernard Shaw's work espousing socialist ideas in the early 20th century and blossoming with the Oxford poets Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden and Cecil Day-Lewis in the 1930s and such American writers disillusioned with capitalism as the Group Theatre playwright, folk singers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and novelist John Steinbeck. Other notable writers immersed in communist folly included Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone, Louis Fischer and André Gide, all of whom repudiated their youthful indiscretions in five individual essays (joined by another essay by Spender) collected in "The God That Failed" (1949). As for Auden, he famously rejected political solutions when he wrote, "[P]oetry makes nothing happen" in his "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," which was written as the world once again prepared for wide-scale war in the late 1930s.
"Eimi" also found disfavor among literary critics and the public at large because of the experimental and sometimes impenetrable nature of Cummings's prose style. Even Pound, not known for writing easily understood poetry, complained that a work exceeding 400 pages could benefit from extended passages of clarity: "BUT, the longer a work is the more and longer shd. be the passages that are perfectly clear and simple to read." Indeed, reading the book does require patience and intense concentration; even then, whole pages can leave even the most dedicated reader scratching his head. Some of this confusion was alleviated by a preface Cummings added for the 1958 edition.
Yet the book's importance as both a literary achievement and exposé of Soviet repression can't be expressed sufficiently. No less a critic than Pound assessed "Eimi" as the final volume of the quintessential Modernist prose trilogy begun with James Joyce's "Ulysses" (1922) and Wyndham Lewis's "The Apes of God" (1930). The poet Marianne Moore declared that "Eimi" wasn't a prose work at all, but "a large poem" in the Modernist tradition of, presumably, T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," Archibald MacLeish's "The Hamlet" and Pound's "The Cantos." Critic Richard Kennedy's close reading of the book contains a fitting depiction of Cummings's attempt to reveal the dehumanizing elements of the Soviet system:
Soviet Russia as pictured in Eimi seems the complete negation of Cummings' philosophy of "Is," that human beings should live so as to express their own individuality — to be "alive"; to place a value on feeling, on growing, on diversity, on "being continually born"; to pursue happiness; to cherish freedom; to rejoice in pleasure; to give and respond to love. Cummings felt that the Soviet system was stifling the life out of its people. Everywhere in Moscow he sensed "nonlife" or mere "undeath." He found fear, guilt, and a dispirited sameness; a "whichness and whatness" instead of a "whoness"; a lack of laughter; a suspicion of pleasure ("in Russia, everybody's leisure is organized," . . .); and emphasis on forced behavior.
The Artist and Individuality
Prompted by fellow writer John Dos Passos, Cummings traveled to Russia via Paris to witness firsthand the presumed artists' paradise. Dos Passos, incidentally, also passionately and famously denounced communism as "groupthink" after his extended stint as a fellow traveler — with the concomitant decline in book sales and popularity all too common for writers who failed to adhere to the Communist Party line.
In "Eimi," as in most of his poetry, Cummings was more interested in the ideal circumstances under which an artist could express his or her individuality rather than aligning with one political solution over another. Nowhere is this theme more apparent than in the title of the book, which is Greek for "I am." For Cummings, to live in the "was" rather than the "is" or "am" is a manner of existence that he perceived as subhuman and lifeless.
Appreciating Cummings's idiosyncratic sensibility is critical to understanding the bulk of his art. Cummings's worldview was shaped by his youth in Cambridge, Mass., where his father was a Unitarian minister and sociology professor at Harvard. As a poet and painter, he fully adopted the tenets stressing the artistic freedom and individuality of the New England Transcendentalist and English Romantic traditions, which he later adapted to the Modernist ambition of capturing a moment or movement as espoused by Pound, Gertrude Stein, and the Cubist painters. He also was an ardent follower of popular culture, especially burlesque theater. He wrote in the preface to his poetry collection "is 5" (1926):
My theory of technique, if I have one, is very far from original; nor is it complicated. I can express it in fifteen words, by quoting the Eternal Question and Immortal Answer of burlesk, viz. 'Would you hit a woman with a child? — No, I'd hit her with a brick.' Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.
Documenting the Effect of Soviet Rule
An adherent of no specific political stripe, but a staunch defender of his own individuality, Cummings documented the grayness of what he called the un-people populating the Russian cities he visited, as well as what he perceived as the sorry state of art in a country that required its poets, filmmakers, dancers and composers to celebrate the proletariat.
Cummings's first experience with the stifling nature of Soviet rule appears in the book's opening chapter. He approaches a half-bald clerk at a Polish railway station, which leads to the following encounter:
- Why do you wish to go to Russia?
-Because I've never been there.
-(He slumps, recovers). You are interested in economic and sociological problems?
-Perhaps you are aware that there has been a change of government in recent years?
-Yes(I say without being able to suppress a smile).
-And your sympathies are not with socialism?
-May I be perfectly frank?
-I know almost nothing about these important matters and care even less.
-(His eyes appreciate my answer). For what do you care?
-Which is writing?
-What kind of writing?
-Chiefly verse; some prose.
-Then you wish to go to Russia as a writer and painter? Is that it?
-No; I wish to go as myself.
-(An almost smile). Do you realize that to go as what you call
-Yourself will cost a great deal?
-I've been told so.
-Let me earnestly warn you (says the sandyhaired spokesman for the Soviet Embassy in Paris) that such is the case. Visiting Russia as you intend would be futile from every point of view. The best way for you to go would be as a member of some organization — but, so far as I know, I'm not a member of any organization.
Much as Joyce borrowed the framework for his Modernist novel "Ulysses" from Homer's "Odyssey," Cummings borrows the schematic for "Eimi" from Dante's "Divine Comedy," with his Soviet experience echoing Dante's descent into Hell. As he clarified in his 1958 preface:
eimi, first published in 1933, is the diary (May 10-June 14 1931) which I kept during most of a trip from Paris to Russia, thence to Turkey,& back to Paris. When my diary opens, I'm on a train bound for the Polish-Russian border. At N(negereloe) I enter a 'world of Was'(p 8) — the subhuman communist superstate, where men are shadows & women are nonmen; the preindividual Marxist unworld. This unworld is Hell. In Hell I visit Moscow, Kiev, Odessa. From Hell an unship takes me to Istanbul (Constantinople) where I reenter the World(pp 393-403) — returning to France by train.
A Modern Inferno
In Cummings's novel, the role of Dante's Underworld guide Virgil is filled by the American theater critic Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana. Dana was a longstanding friend of Cummings's from their days at Cambridge and an ardent communist and promoter of Soviet theater.
After falling out with Dana, whom he eventually finds too ideologically hidebound, Cummings abandons him without leaving so much as a goodbye note. Cummings then takes up with Joan London, daughter of Jack London (another American writer with socialist sympathies), and her husband, Charles Malamuth. Cummings, after Dante, nicknames London "Beatrice." By the time Cummings (referred to as Comrade Kem-min-kz in the book) arrives in Moscow, the couple has reached the end of their patience with the Soviet design, as articulated by Malamuth to a Midwestern American tourist couple the trio encounters:
[N]ot all of these knowing millions can tell you a single god damned thing; because they're Russians. Do you understand? Russians. All of them are inside communism; not outside it, as you are. All of them are actually living (or dying) an unprecedented experiment, not merely observing it with an analytic eye; far less dreaming about it with a sentimental brain. . . . Russians in Russia must suffer and shut up. . . . But correspondents in Russia have special privileges. They can't get a really good story past the Russian censor, of course: but they don't have to swallow their tongues while they're here and they're not obliged to be here forever.
By the time Cummings leaves the USSR, he has seen enough to color his view of the collective spirit and government sponsorship of the arts for the remainder of his life. As his train nears the Turkish border, he seethes:
USSR a USSR a night-USSR a nightmare USSR home for the panacea Negation haven of all (in life's name) Deathworshippers hopper of hate's Becausemachine (U for un- & S for self S for science and R for-reality) how it shrivels: how it dwindles withers; how it wilts diminishes wanes; how it crumbles evaporates collapses disappears — the verily consubstantial cauchemar of premeditated NYET.
Throughout "Eimi" Cummings describes the Soviet Union as a shut window. The book opens: "SHUT seems to be The Verb"; and closes powerfully as Cummings returns to Paris with the lines:
Learning from Eimi
Poetry is seldom taught thoroughly in many schools today, and when it is, the canon has become shockingly slight. If Cummings is taught at all, it is only a few of his thousands of poems that remain anthologized: "next to of course god america i," "Buffalo Bill's," and "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls," or isolated incidences of poetic devices such as "anyone lived in a pretty how town" and "the world is mud-luscious . . . and puddle-wonderful." Even sparser in class curricula is the gravity of Cummings's documentation of his brief but memorable visit to the Soviet Union in 1931, which could serve as a beneficial entrée into the oeuvre of a writer who has for far too long received short shrift by cultural arbiters. More important, however, is the value of "Eimi" as a social studies lesson for students, public policy wonks, government officials and artists willing to endure a first-person account of government oppression of the arts disguised as patronage.
Bruce Edward Walker is communications manager for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and education institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. He also has worked as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at the University of Detroit Mercy, Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.