|The Enormous Room is E. E. Cummings' account
of his detention in 1917 in a French prison camp in the town of La
Ferté-Macé in Orne, Normandy. Two editions of The
Enormous Room are available— and though we prefer Liveright "typescript" edition of 1978, we offer
here a version of The Enormous Room page with notes keyed to
page numbers in the Penguin edition. [Note: a new edition of The Enormous
Room, edited by George James Firmage, with an introduction by Susan
Cheever, was published by Liveright in 2014.]
Notes, chapters I-V
(3) my friend B. —based upon Cummings' friend William Slater Brown.
(3) poilus = "hairy ones" [French]. The (affectionate) slang word for ordinary French foot soldiers in World War I. Most French phrases are translated in a "Glossary" at the back of the book (253-272).
(18) a tall, bearded, horrified man = Robinson Crusoe, hero of Daniel Defoe's famous novel. Of course, C. refers to the scene where Crusoe discovers that he is not alone on the island: "But now I come to a new scene of my life. It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an apparition" (Defoe 152). For a view of both Crusoe and The Enormous Room as spiritual autobiographies, see Boire, "'An Inconceivable Vastness'."
(29) sang La Madelon—Song written in 1914 by Louis Bousquet (lyrics) and Camille Robert (music), it was very popular with French soldiers in WW I. The lyrics tell of a waitress named Madelon who works at a café named Au Vrai Poilu. She only laughs when the troops embrace her: "c'est tout le mal qu'elle sait faire" ["that's as bad as she can be"]. According to Stephen O'Shea, the tune was later adapted to new lyrics about the folly and stupidity of the Nivelle Offensive (April 16-19, 1917; also known as the Chemin des Dames offensive) in which France lost "perhaps 40,000 men" on the first day of battle. J. M. Winter writes:
As on the Somme, the [artillery] barrage failed; the defenders held the initial French advance to a mere 500 m (1600 ft). Repeated French attacks were futile and their repetition, inhuman. The French Army lost over 270,000 men and the will to fight this kind of war. (94)
As Winter indicates, the Chemin des Dames offensive sparked widespread
mutinies in the French army in 1917. The revised Madelon protests
against the pointless loss of life before the village of Craonne:
Adieu la vie, adieu l'amourSo long to life, so long to love
Adieu toutes les femmes
C'est bien fini, c'est pour toujours
De cette guerre infâme
C'est à Craonne, sur le plateau
Qu'on doit laisser sa peau,
Car nous sommes tous condamnés
Nous sommes les sacrifiés. (quoted in O'Shea 127)
So long to all those women;
It's all over, it's done forever,
This shameful war.
At Craonne, on the plateau
That's where we'll leave our skins,
For we've all been sentenced—
We are the sacrificed.
(31) C'est d'la blague . . . les défend. The glossary at
the back has neglected to translate this passage. C'est d'la blague
means something like "That's clap-trap" or as we would say, "b.s."—however,
the expression also implies "nonsense" or a "practical joke." One translation
might be: "It's all a bad joke. Do you know, there are no more trains?
—The conductor is dead, I know his sister. —I'm screwed, old buddy. —Tell
me about it. We're all done for. —What time is it? —My friend, there is no
more time, the French government has forbidden it." See pages 36, 86-87,
||(40) sac full of suspicious letters —Cummings
wrote to his mother that after checking his large sack at the station, "I
[was] carrying this time merely a small bag of letters, n. books, & souvenirs,
which a gendarme had always carried hitherto" (Letters 37).
(41) a little wooden man—This is a roadside crucifix, called a calvaire ("Calvary") in France. Since Cummings never mentions the encounter with the crucifix in any of his letters, it is possible that he invented this episode—and/or he may be remembering one of the medieval sculptures he saw at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. In The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), John Bunyan relates how Christian the pilgrim came to "a place somewhat ascending, and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre where it fell in, and I saw it no more" (41). The "burden" stands for Christian’s guilt and sin, which was lifted from him by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. You might find it interesting to know that Bunyan wrote most of Pilgrim’s Progress in prison.
|(42) the gendarmerie
of the town: Cummings is mistaken, of course. He has arrived at the
Dépôt de Triage at La Ferté-Macé. Formerly a
seminary, the three building complex has become a wartime detention center
for undesirable aliens. The photo at the right shows a view of the buildings
from the front. The Enormous Room was on the top floor of the building at
the left. The building on the right is the "chapel.
More views of La Ferté
View of the Dépôt de Triage at La Ferté-Macé.
(61) "Les pommiers sont pleins de pommes —from a poem titled "Le Verger" ("The Orchard") by Remy de Gourmont (1858-1915). See Thierry Gillyboeuf, "About Two French Verses in The Enormous Room," Spring 8 (1999): 67-69. One stanza reads:
Simone, allons au verger
Avec un panier d'osier.
Nous dirons à nos pommiers,
En entrant dans le verger:
Voici la saison des pommes.
Allons au verger, Simone,
Allons au verger
Simone, let's go to the orchard
Carrying a wicker-basket.
We'll say to our apple-trees
As we enter the orchard:
Apple season is here.
Let's go to the orchard, Simone,
Let's go to the orchard.
(87) the now celebrated formula made famous by the 18th Amendment—probably
the "formula" would be "a snowball's chance in hell," said of the chances
of passing the 18th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution prohibiting "the
manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors."
(90) F. Opper = Frederick Burr Opper (1857-1937), political cartoonist and creator of Alphonse and Gaston and "Happy Hooligan," who is probably the character Cummings had in mind as the image of Emile the Bum.
(98) "Asbestos" = sign on theater curtains notifying the audience that the curtain was at least partially made of asbestos and thus fireproof.
(100) banque = card game similar to baccarat.
(100) mEEt me tonIght in DREAmland, = Song written by Leo Friedman and Beth Slater Whitson for the 1904 opening of Dreamland Park on Coney Island, New York. Link: 1910 recording of the song (performed by Henry Burr).
Questions, chapters I-V
1. Why do you think Cummings answers as does to the question "Est-ce que vous détestez les boches?" [Do you hate the Germans?] (15)? (See p. 64.)
2. In what ways could Cummings’ journey be characterized as a spiritual one?
3. Why do you think C. makes so many references to dirt, filth, and excrement? (For example, how do you account for his change in attitude towards "Ça Pue" [18-22]?) As you read, try to figure out what Cummings values in filth, ignorance, and child-like behavior.
4. What do you think is C.’s attitude towards the war? Towards the French government? Towards any government or authority? Why do you suppose Cummings does not include anything about the five weeks he and Brown spent in Paris before going to the front?
5. What do you think are some of the meanings of C.’s encounter with "a little wooden man" (41)?
6. Notice how C. introduces us to his first hours in the Enormous Room (47-62). How would you characterize his technique and why do you think he tells this portion of the story in this way?
7. Why do you think C. stresses the "timelessness" (87) of his stay in prison?
8. Why do you think B. and C. are so happy to be in the Enormous Room? (See pp. 49-50.) In what ways are they "lucky" (88)?
9. Compare / contrast Count Bragard's attitudes towards filth, his fellow prisoners, and art (55-57) with C.'s attitudes towards these same topics. Why do you think Cummings makes these contrasts?
10. Why are the prisoners in this jail? Why do you think Cummings "draws" portraits of his fellow-prisoners instead of telling the story from beginning to end? (See p. 86.)
(112) Apollyon = a "foul fiend" who dwells in the Valley of Humiliation, described by Bunyan as a "monster hideous to behold; he was clothed in scales like a fish (and they are his pride); he had wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke, and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion" (57—see Revelation 9:11). Apollyon questions Christian ("Whence come you, and whither are you bound?") and tries his faith. Blocking the road, Apollyon threatens to kill Christian, to "spill [his] soul" (58). They fight, and Christian is wounded in the head, hand, and foot (understanding, faith, and conviction), but in return he gives the dragon "a deadly thrust" and the dreaded beast flies away.
(113) Le Sourire and that old stand-by of indecency, La Vie Parisienne = two French humor magazines noted for their slightly risqué drawings.
(134) Delectable Mountains = Christian comes upon them after escaping from "Doubting Castle, the owner whereof was Giant Despair" (105). From their tops, the pilgrim can see those who have fallen in error, those who wander forever in error, and the hypocrites burning in hell. He can also see the Celestial City, goal of his pilgrimage. Shepherds named "Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere" (111) live in these mountains.
(134) "Sunday(says Mr. Pound Cummings mis-remembers an Ezra Pound poem. On August 7, 1954, EEC wrote to his German translators:
I supposed "Sunday is a dreadful day" . . . to be lifted from Ezra Pound's immortal parody of the English poet [A. E.] Houseman;but,finding that the original runsEEC quotes the third and last stanza of "Mr. Houseman's Message." The complete poem can be found on page 42 of Pound's Personae."London is a woeful place,realize that I parodied my old friend the parodist (Letters 234)
Shropshire is much pleasanter
Then let us smile a little space
Upon fond nature's morbid grace.
Oh,Woe,woe,woe,etcetera . . ."
(158) Count Bragard should have spelt his name, not Bra- but with an l = He should have spelled it "Blagard," i.e., "Blackguard."
(175) Zoo-Loo —W. Todd Martin points out that Cummings may be punning on the word "Zoo" here: "In an essay entitled 'The Secret of the Zoo Exposed,' Cummings discusses the significance of the animals in the zoo, but he is careful to point out that most misinterpret the word zoo:"
(175) . . . but I am not free: Cummings was not free to paint the Zulu because he had entered into a contract with his father to write the story. EEC’s father wanted to sue the French government for its poor treatment of his son, but, as Kennedy tells us, he "could not convince Estlin that he should participate in any lawsuit. To satisfy his father . . . Estlin finally entered into a contract with him. He would write out the story of his imprisonment if his father promised not to use it in any legal action. His father agreed to pay him for his time. Although it is not clear what sum of money of money was settled on, there are some indications that it was a $1000 Liberty Bond" (Dreams 160).
(192) Surplice = "A loose-fitting white gown, having full flowing sleeves, worn over a cassock by some clergymen." The French spelling of the word is "surplis."
(198) 606—The placard imitates
advertisements for syphilis treatments using the drug Salvarsan
(Arsphenamine), also called 606 because it was made from the 606th chemical
compound synthesized by German scientist Paul Ehrlich (1854–1915). The drug
was introduced as a syphilis cure in 1910. Although the drug could have potent
side effects if not prepared and administered properly, it was the only
effective treatment for syphilis before the advent of penicillin in 1943.
Kennedy says that Cummings wrote this motto in his notes: “Salvarsan. God
bless that man!” (Dreams 142).
The advertisement reads: SYPHILIS 606 vrai. Applic. 20 fr. de 10h. à 20 h. Notre nouvelle method intensive et rapide, applicable meme chez soi. 606, 102. Nouveaux vaccins des MALADIES INTIMES des deux sexes, avec guerison contrôlée ar [?] analyse est envoyée foo et discrét, INSTITUT URODERMIQUE de PARIS (Salons Réservés), 24 Rue des Halles Châtelet). [Syphilis 606 genuine. Applications [for] 20 francs from 10 a.m. to 8 p. m. Our new intensive and rapid method, applicable even at home, 606, 102. New vaccines for INTIMATE MALADIES of both sexes, with controlled cures—analysis is sent discreetly and at no cost. Urodermic Institute of Paris (Reserved Consulting Rooms), 24 Rue des Halles Châtelet).]
(225-26) 'Eats uh lonje wae to Tee-pear-raer-ee' = "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," popular song on the Western Front. Kennedy reports that Cummings and Brown would improvise bawdy verses when singing the song for their French comrades (146).
(228) "L'automne humide et monotone" —like the verse on p. 61, this one is also from a poem by Remy de Gourmont (1858-1915), titled "Chanson de l'automne." (Thanks to Thierry Gillyboeuf for finding this reference.) Here is the first stanza:
Viens, mon amie, viens, c'est l'automne.The last stanza reads:
L'automne humide et monotone,
Mais les feuilles des cerisiers
Et les fruits mûrs des églantiers
Sont rouges comme des baisers,
Viens, mon amie, viens, c'est l'automne.
Come my love, come, it's autumn.
Monotonous, humid autumn,
But the leaves of the cherry trees
And the ripe berries of the sweet-briar
Are as red as kisses,
Come my love, come, it's autumn.
Viens, mon amie, viens, c'est l'automne,
Tout nus les peupliers frissonnent,
Mais leur feuillage n'est pas mort;
Gonflant sa robe couleur d'or,
Il danse, il danse, il danse encor,
Viens, mon amie, viens, c'est l'automne.
Come my love, come, it's autumn.
Quite naked, the poplars tremble,
But their leaves are not dead yet;
Filling his garment with gold,
He dances, dances, dances still,
Come my love, come, it's autumn.
(233) The Great Mister Harold Bell Wright = Harold Bell Wright (1872-1944),
whose novels sold more copies than any other American writer in the first
quarter of the twentieth century (Chudleigh). He is best known
for The Shepherd of
the Hills (1907) and The Winning of Barbara Worth
(1911). Wright's New
York Times obituary noted that even though he was scorned by critics
"as a purveyor of sweetness and light, . . . he insisted that he was essentially not a novelist but a preacher,
and his proudest boast was that all his books were wholesome and clean, the
kind that anybody's sister could read."
Enormous Room questions, chapters VI-XIII
(273) "FOR THIS MY SON . . ." Cummings' father, the Unitarian minister, quotes a verse from the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:24).
12. What similarities and differences do you see between Bunyan’s episode of Apollyon (described in the notes above) and Cummings’ description of the Directeur?
13. What do you think Cummings means when he says that watching Lena’s punishment taught him "the meaning of civilization" (127)?
14. In what ways can you relate Celina's cry at the le Directeur to "CHIEZ, SI VOUS VOULEZ, CHIEZ" (129) to the other mentions of excrement and filth in the book?
15. Why do you think the three men called "the Delectable Mountains" and Jean le Nègre are so important to Cummings? Why do you think the articulate C. is so drawn to these inarticulate and child-like men?
16. Do you find Cummings’ description of Jean le Nègre stereotypical, sentimental, or even racist? How do you think Cummings would respond to such a charge? (For a discussion of these issues, see Mott's "The Cummings Line on Race.")
17. In his 1934 introduction to the book, Cummings said "Thanks to . . . my art I am able to become myself." In what ways could characters like the Delectable Mountains, Jean le Nègre, the Machine Fixer, Lena, and Celina be described as artists?
18. What do you think Cummings learns about art in the Enormous Room? (See pp. 232-233.) What are some of the functions of the "primitive" in the books and movements we have studied this semester?
19. What do you think C. discovers about himself on this journey? (See pp. 247-248.)
Dougherty, James P. "E.E. Cummings: The Enormous Room." Landmarks of American Writing. Ed. Henning Cohen. New York: Basic Books, 1969. 288-302.
Friedman, Norman. "The Enormous Room (1922)." E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1964. 22-35.
---. "The Meaning of Cummings." E. E. Cummings: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Norman Friedman. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972. 46-59.
Gaull, Marilyn. "Language and Identity: A Study of E.E. Cummings' The Enormous Room." American Quarterly 19 (1967): 645-662.
Kennedy, Richard S. "The Pacifist Warrior, 1917" and "The Great War Seen from the Windows of Nowhere" Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1980. 133-158 and 216-225.
Linehan, Thomas. "Style and Individuality in E. E. Cummings’ The Enormous
Room." Style 13.1 (1979): 45-59.
Martin, W. Todd. "The Enormous Room: Cummings’ Reinterpretation of John Bunyan’s Doubting Castle." Spring 5 (1996): 112-119.
Pickering, Samuel. "E. E. Cummings' Pilgrim's Progress." Christianity and Literature 28.1 (1978): 17-31.
Peek, George S. "The Narrator as Artist and the Artist as Narrator: A Study of E. E. Cummings' The Enormous Room." Forum 17.4 (1976): 50-60.
Pritchard, Stanford. “My Friend B.” Kenyon Review 12.1 (Winter 1990): 128-149. [Article on William Slater Brown containing information about his friendship with Cummings and his views on the reasons for their arrest and detention at La Ferté, as well as accounts of his incarceration at Précigné and his help with the writing of The Enormous Room.]
Rosenfeld, Paul. "E. E. Cummings." Men Seen. New York: The Dial Press, 1925. Rpt. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1967. 191-200. [On The Enormous Room and Tulips and Chimneys]
---. "The Enormous Cummings." Twice A Year 3-4 (Fall / Winter, 1939-Spring / Summer 1940): 271-280. Rpt. in Baum, ed. ESTI:eec: E. E. Cummings and the Critics. 72-80. [On The Enormous Room and Eimi]
Smith, David. "The Enormous Room and The Pilgrim’s Progress." E. E. Cummings: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Norman Friedman. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1972. 121-132.
Smith, James F. "A Stereotyped Archetype: E. E. Cummings' Jean Le Nègre." Studies in American Fiction 1 (1973): 24-34.
Walsh, Jeffrey. "The Painful Process of Unthinking: E. E. Cummings' Social Vision in The Enormous Room." The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Holger Klein. London: Macmillan, 1976. 32-42.
Widmer, Kingsley. "Timeless Prose." Twentieth Century Literature 4. April-July (1958): 3-8
Don’t be afraid.
—But I’ve never seen a picture you painted or read a word you wrote—
So you’re thirty-eight?
And have only just finished your second novel?
Entitled ee-eye-em-eye? [Eimi]
"A" as in a, "me" as in me; accent on the "me".
How does Am compare with The Enormous Room?
They’re not at all similar, are they?
When The Enormous Room was published, some people wanted a war book; they were disappointed. When Eimi was published, some people wanted Another Enormous Room; they were disappointed.
Doesn’t The Enormous Room really concern war?
It actually uses war: to explore an inconceivable vastness which is so unbelievably far away that it appears microscopic.
When you wrote this book, you were looking through war at something very big and very far away? [end p. vii]
When this book wrote itself, I was observing a negligible portion of something incredibly more distant than any sun; something more unimaginably huge than the most prodigious of all universes—
Well! And what about Am?
Some people had decided that The Enormous Room wasn’t a just-war book and was a class-war book, when along
came Eimi—aha! said some people; here’s another dirty dig at capitalism.
And they were disappointed.
Do you think these disappointed people really hated capitalism?
I feel these disappointed people unreally hated themselves—
And you really hated Russia.
Russia, I felt, was more deadly than war; when nationalists hate, they hate by merely killing and maiming human beings; when Internationalists hate, they hate by categorying and pigeonholing human beings.
So both your novels were what people didn’t expect. Eimi is the individual again; a more complex individual, a more enormous room.
By a —what do you call yourself? painter? poet? playwright? satirist? essayist? novelist?
But not a successful artist, in the popular sense?
Don’t be silly.
Yet you probably consider your art of vital consequence—
—To the world? [end p. viii]
What about the world, Mr. Cummings?
I live in so many: which one do you mean?
I mean the everyday humdrum world, which includes me and you and millions upon millions of men and women.
Did it ever occur to you that people in this socalled world of ours are not interested in art?
Isn’t that too bad!
If people were interested in art, you as an artist would receive wider recognition— Wider?
Love, for example, is deeper than flattery.
Ah—but (now that you mention it) isn’t love just a trifle oldfashioned?
I dare say.
And aren’t you supposed to be ultramodernistic?
I dare say.
But I dare say you don’t dare say precisely why you consider your art of vital consequence—
Thanks to I dare say my art I am able to become myself.
Well well! Doesn’t that sound as if people who weren't artists couldn’t become themselves?
What do you think happens to people who aren’t artists? What do you think people who aren’t artists become?
[end p. ix]
I feel they don’t become: I feel nothing happens to them; I feel negation becomes of them.
You paraphrased it a few moments ago.
"This socalled world of ours."
Labouring under the childish delusion that economic forces don’t exist, eh?
I am labouring.
Answer one question: do economic forces exist or do they not?
Do you believe in ghosts?
I said economic forces.
Well well well! ‘Where ignorance is bliss. .. Listen, Mr. Lowercase Highbrow—
—I’m afraid you’ve never been hungry.
Don’t be afraid.
NEW YORK 1933 E. E. CUMMINGS
[end p. x]
While it may be a good thing to have The Enormous Room more widely available through the Penguin 1999 edition, it is a shame that Samuel Hynes used the Modern Library 1934 text. His "Note on the Text" is a bit sly. He begins: "Three principal editions of The Enormous Room were published during Cummings’s lifetime" and then goes on to indicate that of these three, "the Modern Library edition is clearly preferable." It may well be the best of the three but this particular game is rigged. If one limits the choice to those published in Cummings’s lifetime, one must ignore the latter magnificent work of George Firmage and the far superior Liveright edition. I realize that Penguin couldn’t publish the Firmage text of a competing publisher; I suppose it is unrealistic to ask Hynes to mention this other, competing text. Hynes certainly could not make an argument that the Modern Library text is better. Firmage’s "Afterword" in the Liveright edition clearly supports the superiority of his text over the other three including the Modern Library edition. So Hynes does have a major problem. I don’t think his introduction or glossary compensate at all for the inferior text he uses. The Firmage / Liveright edition is simply more "Cummingsesque." While I am pleased that the Penguin people think there are enough readers out there to make it worth their while again to publish The Enormous Room, still I would like to put a little sticker on all copies of their edition saying, "Buy the best; buy Liveright!"
Order from Amazon.com
or from W. W. Norton (distributor of the Liveright edition)
More views of La FertéBack to:
Cummings' drawings of people in The Enormous Room
Literary Ambulance Drivers in WW I
E. E. Cummings and Paris
Enormous Room page (Liveright Edition)
W. W. Norton Enormous Room page
EEC Notes page
People, Places, and Publications page
Bibliography / Works Cited page
Spring home page