The Enormous Room [1922] Notes and Links

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. Though several editions of The Enormous Room are available, we recommend the Liveright "typescript" edition of 1978 (pictured and linked at right). The notes below are keyed to page numbers in the 1978 Liveright edition. [Note: The 1922 Boni and Liveright edition of The Enormous Room may now be viewed online courtesy of A new edition of The Enormous Room, edited by George James Firmage, with an introduction by Susan Cheever, was published by Liveright in 2014.] 


(xxi) "FOR THIS MY SON . . ." Cummings' father, the Unitarian minister, quotes a verse from the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:24). 

(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 of Foreign Terms" at the back of the book (243-268).  

(9) Le Petit Parisien = Le Petit Parisien, daily newspaper published between 1876 and 1944. Since Cummings was arrested on Sunday, September 23, 1917 (Kennedy 148), he is probably reading this issue. The right-most column of the fourth and final page of the Petit Parisien features three advertisements labeled "Voies Urinaires" ["The Urinary Ducts"], offering cures for prostate and urinary problems, gonorrhea, syphilis, and impotence. (Issues of this paper and many more historical and literary documents are archived at the French National Library site.)

(11) the rosette of the Legion = the Legion of Honor, highest French order of merit medal.

(13) l’Escadrille Lafayette = the Lafayette Escadrille, French aviation squadron manned by volunteer American pilots.

(17) 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'."

(18) Pétrouchka—a ballet in four scenes, with music by Igor Stravinsky. Originally staged in 1911, it was revived in 1917 by the Ballets Russes. According to Richard S. Kennedy, Cummings and Brown saw the ballet "more than once" (140) during their five weeks in Paris before going to the front.

(21) Bonsoir,Madame La Lune = song composed by Emile Bessière (words) and Paul Marinier (music) that tells of Pierrot, who goes on a drinking binge because he has found his girlfriend Pierette in bed with another man. Leaving the bar, Pierrot sees the moon and sings: "Bonsoir Madame la Lune, Bonsoir / C'est votre ami Pierrot qui vient vous voir." [Good evening Madame Moon, good evening / It's your friend Pierrot who's come to see you.] In the final stanza, Pierrot says he is afraid that he will go back to a cold empty room—to sleep like an indigent in the rustling wind, rocked by the silver beams of the moon. The last refrain dreams of a reconciliation: "Bonsoir Madame la Lune, Bonsoir / Pierrette en songe va venir me voir." [Good evening Madame Moon, good evening / Pierrette will come to see me in my dreams.]

(27) A Pilgrim's Progress: Cummings refers to The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), a Christian allegory written by the dissenting preacher John Bunyan. Throughout The Enormous Room, various aspects of C's journey  are compared to Bunyan's book.

(27) sang La Madelon—also known as "Quand Madelon," the song was written in 1914 by Louis Bousquet (lyrics) and Camille Robert (music), and was very popular with French soldiers in WW I. The lyrics tell of a waitress named Madelon who works at a café named (in some versions) 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'amour
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 life, so long to love
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.

(29) C'est d'la blague does mean something like "That's clap-trap" (247) or as we would say, "b.s."—however, the expression also implies "nonsense" or a "practical joke." The entire passage might be translated: "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 also pages 33-34 and 82-83. 

(34) I got up to buy a Fantasio = popular French humor magazine.

wooden man
(37) 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).

(38) 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 episodeand/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. 

(39) 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."
LinksViews of La Ferté-Macé and Aerial Views of the Enormous Room.

More photos of the "Petit Séminaire" may be seen on the page "petit séminaire / lycée des Andaines"--which is part of the site called "La Ferté-Macé, hier,... par les cartes postales anciennes" ["La Ferté-Macé yesterday, . . . through period postcards . . ."].

Also on the "petit séminaire / lycée des Andaines" page are links to twelve amazing photos (taken on February 20, 1916) of the interior of the detention camp.  The French caption reads: "À partir de Février 1915, et jusqu’en 1919, le Séminaire a servi de centre de rétention. Durant cette période, 6118 personnes y ont été internées (des suspects, c’est la guerre de 14-18). Ces photos ont été prises à ce moment-là." ["From  February 1915 until 1919, the Seminary served as a detention center. During this period, 6118  people were interned there (suspects--this occurred during the war of 14-18). These photos were taken at that time."]
La Ferte buildings

(40-41) a man . . . Ichabod Crane . . . a rather moth-eaten rooster . . . a fencer = the Surveillant.
LinkPossible photo of the Surveillant in the infirmary (February 20, 1916). [Courtesy of the "petit séminaire / lycée des Andaines" page] 

(42) We were standing in a chapel: Photo of the interior of the chapel. [Courtesy of the "petit séminaire / lycée des Andaines" page] 

(44-45) a sort of room,filled with pillars;ecclesiastical in feeling . . . of enormous length = The Enormous Room.
Link: This photo shows the men's domitory at the Dépôt de Triage at La Ferté-Macé on February 20, 1916, a year and a half before Cummings' arrival. 

(53) The London Sphere = The Sphere, illustrated British news magazine.

(53) R. A. = member of the British Royal Academy of Arts (founded 1768), a rather academic official institution for artists. A member would be very skilled in the techniques of drawing and painting. 

(56) The cautious watcher of the skies —an allusion to lines 9-10 of John Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer": "Then I felt like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken."

(57) "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.

(67) a room,pretty nearly square,filled with rows of pillars = the dining hall. 
Link: The men's dining hall at the Dépôt de Triage at La Ferté-Macé on February 20, 1916, a year and a half before Cummings' arrival. 

(72) Reynard = Reynard the Fox, a trickster figure from medieval French tales, “a nasty but charismatic character who was always in trouble but always able to talk his way out of any retribution.”

(76) Deutsche Verein = "German Club." Jacob Wirth's = a German restaurant in Boston. The only living hippopotamus in captivity = The Forepaugh Circus claimed to feature "THE ONLY LIVING MALE HIPPOPOTAMUS!" One circus poster also boasted: "IT SWEATS BLOOD!" [A poster with a less extravagant claim ("THE ONLY MATURE SPECIMEN ON EXHIBITION ANYWHERE") may be seen here.]

(78) Hagenbeck = Carl Hagenbeck, Jr. (1844–1913), founder of the Hamburg Zoo and supplier of animals to zoos and circuses. Hagenbeck also presented "people shows" of indigenous peoples to European and American audiences. 

William S. Hart (79) William S. Hart (1864-1946) = star of early western movies.

(82) Slough of Despond = "the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, . . . for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears and apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place" (Bunyan 23).

(83) 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."
(84) Fort Leavenworth = military prison for conscientious objectors and deserters. See "i sing of Olaf glad and big" (ViVa XXX; CP 340). faire la photographie = figuratively, to draw pictures, especially portraits of people.

(86) 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. 

(88) the disgusting Défaitiste Organ Itself = probably the Bonnet Rouge, a leftist newspaper supported by Interior Minister Malvy that “had been receiving German money to spread pacifist propaganda.” (See notes to pages 90 and 167.) Wilhelm,Ober,Olles —see the note in the "Glossary of Foreign Terms" (268).

(90) Monsieur Malvy = Louis-Jean Malvy (1875-1949), French Minister of the Interior during World War I. He was forced to resign ("he got collected himself") on August 31, 1917 when he failed to suppress defeatist and pacifist agitators and publications. Cummings and Brown were arrested on Sunday, September 23, 1917 (Kennedy 148).
(90, 141, 170) at the Santé = Paris prison built in 1867 and still in use. A January 28, 2000 New York Times article reported on a doctor’s exposé of the deplorable conditions in the prison.

(93) verbum sapientibus = "a word to the wise" [Latin].

(94) "Asbestos" = sign on theater curtains notifying the audience that the curtain was at least partially made of asbestos and thus fireproof.

(96) 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. Name some of the ways in which the Ministre tries to label or pigeonhole Cummings. In what ways are his assumptions false or misguided? (See pp. 11-15, 29.) In what ways does Cummings indicate how language and clothing (9, 36) construct our views of the world? Why do you think Cummings puts so much French in the book? Why do you think Cummings answers as does to the question "Est-ce que vous détestez les boches?" [Do you hate the Germans?] (14)? (See p. 61.) 

2. In what ways are the first 3 chapters of the book written as spiritual journey? (See the notes on the parallels to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.) Why do you think C is so happy to be arrested and imprisoned (6-7, 9, 17)? In what ways is C like / unlike Robinson Crusoe (17)? Comment on the stages of this journey:  the "divine man" (24-25); the "harp” (26), "underworld" (28-29), and "wooden man" (38).

3. What do you think are some of the meanings of C.’s encounter with "a little wooden man" (38)? (Aesthetic? Spiritual? Compare / contrast with pages 39, 42, 125-128.)

4. 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" [17-21]?) As you read, try to figure out what Cummings values in filth, ignorance, and child-like behavior. Can you find any time when dirt is NOT seen as positive?

5. 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 includes very little about the five weeks that he and Slater Brown spent in Paris, and their nearly three months at the front in the ambulance corps? Why do you think Cummings never directly refers to the French mutinies of 1917? (See note to page 27.) Brown later said that their knowledge of the mutinies was the real reason they were arrested: 

. . . 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 ("William Slater Brown" 90). 

6. Notice how C introduces us to his first hours in the Enormous Room (44-59). How would you characterize his technique and why do you think he tells this portion of the story in this way? For example, why do you think he decides that such a dirty unhealthy place is "the finest place I've ever been in my life"? (See pp. 46-47, 79, 80.) In what ways are B and C "lucky" (86-87)? 

7. Compare / contrast Count Bragard's attitudes towards filth, his fellow prisoners, and art (52-54) with C's attitudes towards these same topics. Why do you think Cummings makes these contrasts?

8. Why do you think C stresses the "timelessness" (83) or "actual Present" (83) of his stay in prison? Why are the prisoners in this jail? (See pp. 59-60, 83-84, 106.) Why do you think Cummings "draws" portraits of his fellow-prisoners instead of telling the story from beginning to end? (See p. 82.)

9. Name some ways in which some of the inhabitants of the Enormous Room avoid becoming "one of three animals" (100). Compare to being a “doll.” In what ways do the prisoners learn about freedom (101; 190-191)? Why?

Enormous Room notes and questions, chapters VI-XIII

(107) Apollyon = a "foul fiend" in The Pilgrim's Progress dwelling in the Valley of Humiliation, who is 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.
La Vie Parisienne (small) Link: Possible photo of the Directeur overseeing office work (February 20, 1916). [Courtesy of the "petit séminaire / lycée des Andaines" page]

(108) Le Sourire and that old stand-by of indecency, La Vie Parisienne = two French humor magazines noted for their slightly risqué drawings. 

(129) 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.

(129) "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 runs
"London is a woeful place,
Shropshire is much pleasanter
Then let us smile a little space
Upon fond nature's morbid grace.
                 Oh,Woe,woe,woe,etcetera . . ."
realize that I parodied my old friend the parodist  (Letters 234)
EEC quotes the third and last stanza of "Mr. Houseman's Message." The complete poem can be found on page 42 of Pound's Personae.

(131) Carranza = Venustiano Carranza Garza (1859–1920) was one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution.

(141, 170) La Santé = Paris prison built in 1867 and still in use. A January 28, 2000 New York Times article reported on a doctor’s exposé of the deplorable conditions in the prison. (See also page 90.)

(151-52) Count Bragard should have spelt his name,not Bra-,but with an l = He should have spelled it "Blagard," i.e., "Blackguard." The "Count" is also obviously a braggart.

(157) a species of square = the Place du Midi in La Ferté-Macé where the inmates went to "catch water" from "a kind of hydrant" that Cummings also terms "an iron contrivance." 

(166) a golliwog = blackface dolls who appear in the children's books of Florence K. Upton (1873-1922), seen by many as racist stereotypes. These books were popular at the turn of the 19th century: novelist Vladimir Nabokov remembered them as some of his favorite childhood reading.

(167) Monsieur Malvy = Louis-Jean Malvy (1875-1949), French Minister of the Interior during World War I. See note to page 90.

(168) 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:"

Whoever takes the trouble to look it up in a dictionary will find that "zoo" comes from the Greek zoon, meaning "animal." The misapprehension that zoos have to do with animals would appear to be universal. Actually, however, the syllable "zoo" originates in that most beautiful of all verbs, zoo, "I am alive"—hence a zoo, by its derivation, is not a collection of animals but a number of ways of being alive. As Hamlet might have put it: "to zoo or not to zoo, that is the question." ("The Secret of the Zoo Exposed" 174) See Martin's "'The Mysteries of Noyon'," pp. 127-128. We would also point out that "Loo" is British slang for bathroom or toilet.

(168) . . . 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).

(178) The Old Oaken Bucket = sentimental nostalgic song by Samuel Woodworth (1785-1842). The refrain goes: "The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket, / The moss-covered bucket which hung in the well."

(185) 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."

(192) 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).
606 advertisement 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).]

(217) Eats uh lonje wae to Tee-pear-raar-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).

(219) "L'automne humide et monotone" —like the verse on p. 57, 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.
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.

The last stanza reads:
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.

(224) 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."

(224) Pollyanna = children's novel by Eleanor H. Porter (1868-1920), published in 1913.

Questions, chapters VI-XIII

1. In what ways can you relate the Directeur’s instruments of power, "Fear, Women, and Sunday" (107) to the traditional infernal trilogy of the world, the flesh, and the devil? (For one sort of fear, see the top of p. 88.)

2. In what ways might Sunday represent the devil? In what ways is Sunday a weapon? (See pp. 38, 42, 83, 101, 128, 168.) In what ways might the Mass on Sundays be a parody of real spirituality (perhaps symbolized by Surplice)? What do you think is the difference between feeling and belief (101, 168)? (See Foreword xi-xii.). Name some possible ironic meanings in the Curé’s little sermon (128; cf. pp. 167, 194). (See also pp. 38, 42, 83, 101.)

3. What similarities and differences do you see between Bunyan’s episode of Apollyon (described in the notes above) and Cummings’ description of the Directeur? 

4. What do you think Cummings means when he says (a) that "Renée was in fact dead" (119) and (b) that watching Lena’s punishment taught him "the meaning of civilization" (122)? Why do you think the Machine-Fixer revises his view of the putains? (See pages 102, 122-23.)  

5. In what ways can you relate Celina's cry at the le Directeur to "CHIEZ,SI VOUS VOULEZ CHIEZ" (124) to the other mentions of excrement and filth in the book? (See pages 20-21, 30, 54-56, 101-102, 115, 122-123, 155-156, 188, 190-191, 236.)

6. Compare / contrast the prisoners that C likes (Mexique, for example) with the group of pimps (140-147). Notice when the inhabitants of La Ferté are compared to animals (65-66, 72, 76, 100, 115, 118, 143-145, 185-186). When is this animal state positive, negative, or neutral, and why? [Notice that the three top officials are described as animals—the Surveillant as Rooster (40), the Gestionnaire as Hippo (76-78), and the Directeur as Lion (115, 123).] What causes the change in attitude towards Count Bragard (147-152)?

7. What noteworthy qualities do the men called “the Delectable Mountains” share? Why do you think these men are so important to C? Why do you think the articulate C is so drawn to these inarticulate and child-like men? (See pp. 87-88, 165, 173-176, 188-196, 199.)

8. Compare / contrast the Delectable Mountains with another group of “primitives,” the pimps (140-147). Notice when the inhabitants of La Ferté are compared to animals (143-145, 65-66, 72, 76, 100, 115, 118, 185-186). When is this animal state positive, negative, or neutral, and why? What sorts of animals are the Delectable Mountains? [See animal references on pages 40, 65-66, 72, 76-78, 100, 115, 118, 143-145, 185-186.]

9. 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.")  

10. 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 M. Auguste (84-85), Bear #2 (91), the Machine-Fixer (100-103), Lena, Celina (118-125), the Zulu (168, 173-176), Surplice (194-195), and Jean le Nègre (199, 205, 213-214) be described as artists?

11. What do you think Cummings learns about art in the Enormous Room? (See p. 224.) What are some of the functions of the "primitive" in the book? Why do you think C says that education is a "handicap" when it comes to appreciating or creating art? What do you think he means when he says that "to create is first of all to destroy" (224)? In what ways might "a minute bit of purely personal Feeling" be "Art" (224)?

12. Why do you think that the prisoners seem to become more like toys and dolls as fall becomes winter (225)? After B leaves, C suffers from "depression" (229) and a "mental catastrophe" (230). Then he feels that he is "at last,a doll" (232). Then snow begins to fall. In what ways can you relate these transformations with the last scene of Petrushka? Why do you think C becomes a "doll"? What might this mean?

13. Why do you think C cleaned up for his first interview with the Directeur (233-235) but "wallowed in a perfect luxury of dirt" afterwards (236), before his second interview (237)? After hearing that he is to go free, C feels that he "turned into Edward E. Cummings . . . [into] somebody else,possibly myself" (238). Compare / contrast with his first night in a cell (17). In what ways are these two selves like/unlike? Compare also with his question, "Who was this wooden man?" (38). In what ways is C reborn at the end of the book? What do you think C. discovers about himself on this journey? (See pp. 237-238.)

14. Why do you think that C's style changes to stream of consciousness after he hears that he is to go free? Name some reasons why C's release from "la Misère" does not constitute a happy ending.

Works Cited

Other articles: Dos Passos, John. "Off the Shoals." The Dial 73 (July 1922): 97-102. Rpt. in Baum, ed. ESTI:eec: E. E. Cummings and the Critics. 4-9.

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. 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.] 

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

I N T R O D U C T I O N to The Enormous Room (Modern Library, 1934)

        Don’t be afraid.
        —But I’ve never seen a picture you painted or read a word you wrote—
        So what?
        So you’re thirty-eight?
        And have only just finished your second novel?
        Entitled ee-eye-em-eye? [Eimi]
        And pronounced?
        "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—
        The individual.
        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]
        To myself.
        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?
        Da da.
        Isn’t that too bad!
        If people were interested in art, you as an artist would receive wider recognition— Wider?
        Of course.
        Not deeper.
        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?
        Does it?
        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.
        So what?
        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]

Buy Liveright!
From John Gill April 6, 2000:

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  
or from W. W. Norton (distributor of the Liveright edition)

Views of La Ferté

More photos of the "Petit Séminaire" may be seen on the page "petit séminaire / lycée des Andaines"--which is part of the site called "La Ferté-Macé, hier,... par les cartes postales anciennes" ["La Ferté-Macé yesterday, . . . through period postcards . . ."].

Also on the "petit séminaire / lycée des Andaines" page are links to twelve amazing photos (taken on February 20, 1916) of the interior of the detention camp.  The French caption reads: "À partir de Février 1915, et jusqu’en 1919, le Séminaire a servi de centre de rétention. Durant cette période, 6118 personnes y ont été internées (des suspects, c’est la guerre de 14-18). Ces photos ont été prises à ce moment-là." ["From  February 1915 until 1919, the Seminary served as a detention center. During this period, 6118  people were interned there (suspects--this occurred during the war of 14-18). These photos were taken at that time."]

Literary Ambulance Drivers in WW I

E. E. Cummings and Paris

The Enormous Room page (Penguin edition)

The 1922 Boni and Liveright edition of The Enormous Room (

An on-line text of The Enormous Room (Project Gutenberg) 

W. W. Norton Enormous Room page

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