William Slater Brown in 1917
William Slater Brown 
and The Enormous Room

[Norman Friedman and David V. Forrest] 

[Spring 1 (1992): 87-91] 

David Forrest has been diligent in tracking down Slater Brown, the man who was with Cummings in France in 1917 and was incarcerated along with him at La Ferté-Macé. In SPRING of November 1987 (Old Series 7, 3) Forrest relates that Brown was a former neighbor of Cummings in Cambridge whose family had rented the house next door. Brown was the son of a country doctor from Webster, MA, a cotton mill town founded by his (Brown's) maternal great grandfather, Samuel Slater. On July 17, 1987, Forrest managed to meet Christopher (Kit) Collier, whose mother is Brown's sister. Collier is Connecticut's State Historian and a Professor of History at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. He subsequently wrote (August 1, 1987) that he would try to put Forrest in touch with Brown, who lives in Rockport, MA. Collier wrote again on February 5, 1990, saying he had a letter from Uncle Bill but was holding it in the hope that Brown himself would write Forrest (SPRING, November 1990 [Old Series 10, 3]). Then, on January 2, 1992, Collier sent Forrest the following letter: 

    I guess it is time to give up on getting Uncle Bill to write something about eec for you. He is still in pretty good general health, but his memory is beginning to fail him--at least in the short run. [Brown would be around 95 years old at this time.] 
    He sent me the enclosed at the time I initially attempted to get him to do something for SPRING. I held off sending it to you because he had not said I could and also because I always hoped he would get to it. I might have known he wouldn't because he is opposed in general to biography—certainly didn't want to be the subject of one. On the other [end page 87] hand, my brother has some notes or tapes of conversations with him--I think. [We've been unable to contact James L. Collier, Kit's brother.] 
    If you print this letter, please don't send him [Brown] a copy of the issue; send me one, though. 
    I note that you once asked me about Esther Brown. Bill was married about 1925 to Sue Jenkins, a radical labor supporter, daughter of a Welsh coal miner from around Pittsburgh. I think she was in high school with Malcolm Cowley there. My brother knows more of that detail. They had one son, Gwilliam, born in Feb., 1928. He graduated from Harvard in 1951 and worked nearly his whole life for Sports Illustrated--was on the original staff. He died of brain cancer at the age of about 45, I think. He was very close to me and my brother and lived with us off and on when his parents were unable to take care of him. 
    Bill became an alcoholic and his writing career ended and he left Sue (whom he kept up with till her death about five years ago). He then took, as a common law wife, Esther. I think she taught at Columbia Teachers College. They lived in a town along the Hudson for a while in the mid and late forties. They have one child, Rachel, who lives on the Cape with her husband, who is a PhD oceanographer. Again, my brother knows all the details. 
    Then after Bill became a successful A.A. in the early fifties, he moved to Boston and there married Mary James, a niece of THE Jameses. She died a couple of years ago. 
    Anyway, here's the letter. 

William Slater Brown in 1979
Photo © Bernard F. Stehle

Before transcribing Brown's typed letter, we should explain the reference to Friedman's "brief biography" mentioned therein. This was written as the entry on Cummings for Alfred Bendixen s Encyclopedia of American Literature, to be issued by the Ungar Publishing Company, in which it is said, "It was three months before they were released, thanks to his Cummings' father's frantic wire-pulling, and sent back home, [end page 88] much the worse for wear" (SPRING, May 1988 [Old Series 8, 2]). We should also note that, contrary to received opinion, it was not their letters that caused the problem; it was, rather, their knowing about the mutinies in the first place.

Here is Brown's letter to Kit, July 6, 1988:

    Many thanks for forwarding the three copies of Spring. One in particular contains a brief biography of Cummings with a few minor errors. I plan in cooler weather to write the editor about them. The author, an intelligent man named Friedman, writes that old Mr. Cummings or rather Dr. C., got me out of the slammer in Précigné. Cummings' father did nothing to get me out. He blamed me for getting his son into the trouble. It was my Uncle Paul Bartlett, God bless him! who sprung me with the help of some friends in Washington, two months and a half after Cummings left France. I have the letters from the State Department.
    Later on we were on good terms, Mr C. and I, and [he was] grateful to me for helping E.E.C. with The E. Room.
    Another point: it was not those dumb, jejune letters of mine that got us into trouble. It was the fact that C. and I knew all about the violent mutinies in the French Army a few months before Cummings and I reached the front. We learned all about them from the poilus. The French did everything, naturally, to suppress the news. We two were loaded with dynamite.
    Winston Churchill writes about the mutinies in The First World War and declares only the highest top brass were aware of the disorders in the French Army. Several years after the war [books?] were written on the subject.     Sorry to write at such length on the subject, but people still believe that my dumb letters caused all our misfortune, when it was all due to Cummings' and my consorting with the French soldiers at the front. [end page 90] 

William Slater Brown in 1979
Photo © Bernard F. Stehle

As it happens, after we compiled these materials and readied them for The Journal, we heard from Bernard F. Stehle, a former student of Richard Kennedy's who teaches at The Community College of Philadelphia. It seems that he actually visited Brown in Rockport in 1979 and took a series of photographs. With his permission, we are pleased to present his portraits of Brown herein. Stehle has also agreed to write up something about that visit, which we will publish in a future issue of this Journal, along with additional photographs. 
—The Editors
[end page 91]

Additional reading on William Slater Brown: 

  • Collier, James Lincoln. " 'B' [William Slater Brown]." Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 6 (1997): 128-151. 
  • Pritchard, Stanford. "My Friend B." Kenyon Review 12.1 (Winter 1990): 128-149. Print and Web. [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. Web version has some html conversion glitches.]
  • Van Gelder, Lawrence. "William Slater Brown, 100, Writer of the Lost Generation." New York Times (28 June 1997). Web. [W. S. Brown Obituary]

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