Paul Headrick

[Spring 1 (1992): 46-76]

Several of the literary critics who have written on E. E. Cummings' The Enormous Room (1922) feel it has not received the attention it deserves. They speculate on the reasons for this lack of attention, but not at length.[1] An examination of the reviews of The Enormous Room and the critical essays that have specifically dealt with it shows that changing critical and political contexts have shaped its reception, and, though the politics of criticism has shifted a great deal since 1922, these shifts have always served to sustain a position for The Enormous Room on the margins of the literary canon.

A survey of the initial reviews of The Enormous Room draws attention to a number of features of the text that would continue to be discussed when it became an object of attention for academics. The feature made most clear by a consideration of the reviews is the potential of the text to be read either as fiction or nonfiction. The reviewers and critics use a variety of terms that signal they are responding in one of these two ways, such as "art," "novel" and "aesthetic qualities" in the case of those who take the work as fiction, and "document," "autobiography" and "relational content" for those who read it as nonfiction. (These terms are no more problematic than "fiction" and "nonfiction" themselves, which are used here not to suggest that they represent unambiguous and inclusive categories, but as a convenient way of referring to a set of responses which, though defined in different ways, can be seen to organize themselves into two distinct groups.) Whether reviewers respond to the text as fiction or nonfiction [end page 46] influences their evaluations of the work, and helps explain the nature of the later academic treatments.


Of the approximately twenty early reviews, three argue that the nonfictional potential of the text should be ignored. John Dos Passos, a friend of Cummings at the time of the writing, of The Enormous Room, reviewed the work in The Dial, the journal that first published Cummings' poetry and sketches and continued throughout its existence to support his writing. Dos Passos makes clear his opposition to reading that take the work to be nonfiction:

It's not as an account of a war atrocity or as an attack on France or the holy Allies timely to the Genoa Conference that The Enormous Room is important, but as a distinct conscious creation separate from anything else under heaven. (10-11) Gilbert Seldes makes a similar point in his review in The Double Dealer: I have spent so much time on the aesthetic qualities of The Enormous Room because they seem to me of the first importance and because (with the exception of Mr. Dos Passos, also a painter and poet) no one has more than touched upon them. (102) In Vanity Fair, John Peale Bishop, also a poet and a friend of Cummings, adds to the argument against treating Cummings' work as nonfiction: "...The Enormous Room is hardly to be taken as a document, another account of indignities and injustices now to be told" (13).

What is significant about these reviews is that their assertions that The Enormous Room is fiction, and not important for the things it tells about, are tied to claims for its worth as art. Dos Passos hopes that by coming out in the "disguise of prose" Cummings' literary innovations will win a [end page 47] better reception than that of his poetry (10). Seldes values the book because "it has the authority of a work of art in intention..." (100). Bishop says that by being "a presentation of emotions," the book meets what Ezra Pound calls "the supreme test" (12).

By arguing against reading the work as nonfiction, Dos Passos, Bishop, and Seldes implicitly acknowledge that the text does invite, or at least allow for, such a reading If they did not recognize such a possibility, there would be no need to argue against it. They also admit that their evaluations are not reconcilable with responses that foreground what the text has to say about the war, about western governments or about E. E. Cummings, in the manner of conventional understandings of nonfiction. Dos Passos and Seldes both find it necessary to distinguish between their responses and those of other reviewers who are also positive about The Enormous Room, and who even draw attention to some of the same aesthetic features that attract their notice, but whose attention to its nonfictional potential they perceive as threatening to its artistic status.

These three reviews are indicative of the opinions of an important segment of the literary community. The Dial and The Double Dealer were both literary monthlies, and both had considerable prestige as arbiters of taste. In The Literary Journal in America, The Double Dealer is referred to as one of the two important southern literary magazines, and it is noted that "The Dial was prestigious enough to cause Hemingway deep and lasting disappointment when it refused his work" (Chrelens 11). Vanity Fair was not exclusively literary in its orientation, but it did deal extensively with the arts, and considered itself to be a promoter of modernism (Amory 7). It also published Cummings' poetry.

The critical position taken by these reviewers, summed up by Dos Passos with his claim that the work should be considered as "a distinct conscious creation separate from anything else under heaven," represents a belief in the autonomy of the literary object that we recognize as one of the fundamental principles of New Criticism. Contemporary theorists sometimes exaggerate the rigidity with which this principle was insisted upon in the major statements of the New Critics, often to set up an easily toppled straw man, but [end page 48] the manner in which the New Critical conception of the aesthetic function of the text foregrounds fictionality remains clear, as in Rene Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature:

If we recognize "fictionality," "invention," or imagination" as the distinguishing trait of literature, we think thus of literature in terms of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Balzac, Keats rather than of Cicero or Montaigne, Bossuet, or Emerson. Admittedly, there will be "boundary" cases, works like Plato's Republic to which it would be difficult to deny, at least in the great myths, passages of "invention" and "fictionality," while they are at the same time primarily works of philosophy. This conception of literature is descriptive, not evaluative. No wrong is done to a great and influential work by relegating it to rhetoric, to philosophy, to political pamphleteering, all of which may pose problems of aesthetic analysis, of stylistics and composition, similar or identical to those presented by literature, but where the central quality of fictionality will be absent. (16) Cummings' book was published at a time when New Criticism was beginning to emerge in the writing of T. S. Eliot and others, and in their treatment of The Enormous Room as purely fictional the reviews of Cummings' associates show the new theory's influence.

Seldes, who in addition to writing for The Double Dealer worked for The Dial, Cummings, Bishop, and Dos Passos thought of themselves and each other as part of the literary auant garde that would come to be known as modernist. Cummings' address to his graduating class at Harvard was on the topic of "The New Art"; he read Ulysses as it was published in serial, reviewed the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and admired the work of Ezra Pound. In "Literature as an Institution," Leslie Fiedler points out that the early New Critics were associated with the "little magazines" and that they were united by a commitment to modernism (75). William Cain expresses [end page 49] succinctly what is commonly taken to be the relationship between the literary movement and the critical theory: "[T]he new critics invented techniques for reading Eliot and his fellow modern poets" (55). The way in which these reviewers insisted The Enormous Room be read was in keeping with the critical position they believed necessary to understand the works and writers with which they generally associated themselves.


The negative reviews of The Enormous Room represent the converse of the readings of Dos Passos, Seldes, and Bishop. They give little weight to the work as an artistic enterprise, and condemn it for its politics. In the weekly public affairs journal The Independent, Edmund Pearson focuses on The Enormous Room only as history, and concludes that Cummings deserved what he got:

If his book, The Enormous Room, which he now publishes to describe his prison experiences, may be taken as indication of his judgment, his friends and correspondents may well have been men who engaged in letter writing of a kind which in war time has an ugly name. (Dendinger 4) Thomas L. Masson, in the New York Times Book Review, also treats the work as nonfiction, and vilifies Cummings' politics: [I]f he really likes the Germans and thinks them a much better people than the French, why not say so clearly? Why smother us with word pictures of what was happening to him and leave us in too much painful doubt about his own honest opinion?... his book is a Bolshevist Book none the less because it is vague. (6-7) The New York Times published a review the day following [end page 50] the comments in its book review section. It is most explicit in treating the book as nonfiction: [I]t is permissible, and perhaps desirable, that this strange work should be viewed from another of view--from the point of view taken by one to whom a book is not entirely a product of good or bad art an end in itself--but something with a relational content and an influence on its readers. (Baum 3) Considering The Enormous Room for its "relational content," The New York Times reviewer finds, agreeing with The Independent, that Cummings "deserved the reprehension he received and concludes that the book is "utterly false" (Baum 4).

Just as the position taken by the reviewers in the little magazines is attached to a critical theory, so too is the stance of that negative reviews connected to a broader idea of the nature of literature. In Gates of Eden Morris Dickstein argues that the New York Times Book Review, along with magazines such as Harper's and Atlantic, was part of a "genteel tradition in American letters going back to New England in the nineteenth century" (134). He describes the prolonged opposition of this tradition to new developments in literary practice and theory:

By the fifties it had fought a hopeless rear-guard Thirty Years War against modernism and the New Criticism, against all manner of obscurity and experimentation in literature, against pessimism, alienation, and European influences on American letters, brought here by writers who had spent too much time in Paris, and nurtured by their highbrow epigones in the academy or in quarterlies like Partisan and Kenyon Review. (134) At the time of the publication of The Enormous Room, the war to which Dickstein refers was just beginning. Cummings' work, which was associated with the new literature and at the same time seemed to invite criticism that dealt with it as [end page 51] nonfiction, was the natural site for a minor battle in this war. As a "boundary" case, it gave the conservative reviewer an opportunity to shifts the grounds of the discussion from the technical merits of innovations in style to more familiar territory. In The Independent, Pearson acknowledges the connection between The Enormous Room and a new literary movement in associating Cummings with a group that "models its work upon the filthier portions of the writing of James Joyce," for whom "the modesty and manners of the apes in the zoo are quite good enough" (Dendiger 4), but proceeds to political issues. The reviews in the New York Times and the New York Times Book Review say little that could be taken to acknowledge that appropriateness of a response that considered "aesthetic qualities." Masson notes disapprovingly that despite his Harvard education Cummings "indulges in split infinitives" (6). The New York Times refers to "the strainings and obscurities of his style" (Baum 3).

The reviewers for The Independent, and The New York Times could, however, have opposed the direction of New Criticism by insisting on nonfictional reading and then gone on to praise The Enormous Room. Their objections to it are based on what they see as its radical politics, a perception expressed most clearly in The New York Times Book Review. There are passages in The Enormous Room that critics who find the book to be left-wing in its politics commonly cite, notably that which treats the socialist "Machine Fixer" sympathetically (101-103), but later critics do not reach the same conclusions concerning the politics of Cummings' book.

Both the time of its publication and its publisher--Boni and Liveright-- may have predisposed some reviewers to see The Enormous Room as left-wing. Shortly after its founding in 1917, Boni and Liveright had earned a radical reputation (Gilmer 11). The left-wing writers with whom the New York Times Book Review associates Cummings, John Reed and John Dos Passos, were both published by the firm. The publication coincided roughly with the end of the post-war "Red Scare" period, in which hostile feelings toward Germany were redirected "to fear of radical revolution," and anything that could be seen as critical of America tended to be construed as preaching communism (Coben 52). By 1922 much of the ener- [end page 52] gy that had driven the scare had dissipated, but its effects can still be seen in the tone of the reviews in The New York Times and the other conservative papers.


Almost all of the remaining reviews of The Enormous Room from 1922 are positive. The work is treated primarily as an expose, but the reviews also make comments about the style and language that are similar to those made in The Dial, The Double Dealer, and Vanity Fair. The publications in which these reviews appeared, including such papers as The Greensboro Daily News and The Springfield Republican, did not consider themselves to be at the center of a critical or political debate and had nothing at stake in dealing with The Enormous Room simultaneously as fiction and nonfiction.

The response of the buying public to The Enormous Room, however, suggests the greater influence of the reviews New York papers. The first edition of The Enormous Room sold two thousand copies at $2.00 each, the standard price for works of fiction in the twenties (Tebbel 678). The major bibliographers of Cummings agree that this was a poor result (Norman 110, Kennedy 281). But in Horace Liveright Publisher of the Twenties, Walker Gilmer claims that the response to the first edition constituted "what publishers like to call a respectable sale"(36).

The relative commercial unimportance of the literary journals is indicated in a letter from Horace Liveright to Ernest Hemingway, responding to Hemingway's complaints about the lack of sales of In Our Time: "You must realize that the little group in America that read some of your work in the highbrow magazines amounts to very little in the sale of a book" (qtd. in Gilmer 124). Arrangements between writers and publishers acknowledged the importance of The New York Times for the success of a book. Theodore Dreiser's contract with Liveright included a stipulation that the publisher place weekly ads in the paper to publicize his current works (Gilmer 137). Part of the consequence of the critical disputes in which The Enormous Room was caught up was, then, a popularity among what Liveright calls "the little group," but only modest commercial success. [end page 53]

Many of the early reviews of The Enormous Room mentioned that Cummings was also both a poet and painter, but at the time of publication he did not have a major reputation as either. This changed in the years immediately following, as Cummings published three volumes of poetry between 1923 and 1925. In 1925, Cummings received The Dial award "for distinguished service to American letters." At the time of the award Liveright (Albert Boni had left the firm) had remaindered The Enormous Room and had sold one hundred copies to Cummings' father at thirty cents each. According to Kennedy, Liveright restored the price on the basis of the attention the award brought Cummings (280-281). Malcolm Cowley, who was literary editor of The New Republic at this time, gives a different version of the events, claiming Horace Liveright came to dislike the book intensely because of its lack of commercial success, feeling that "he had been fooled," and as a consequence sold the remaining copies of the first edition for wastepaper (337).

Whichever recounting is correct, Cummings' reputation as a poet would eventually have a significant effect on the reception of The Enormous Room. The development of his reputation, and some of the changes in the practice of literary criticism over the thirty years between the initial publication of The Enormous Room and the appearance of the first article on the book in an academic journal, need to be understood before the academic responses can be analyzed. There were also a number of important developments in the commercial history of The Enormous Room in this period that need to be noted.

Liveright issued a new edition of The Enormous Room in 1927, attempting to capitalize on praise given the work by T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence had written the English publisher Jonathan Cape, urging him to publish The Enormous Room. Quotations from this letter were used in the publicity campaign both for the second American edition and the first British edition, which Cape published in 1928. Liveright followed with a third edition in 1929. If the sales figures Gilmer provides are correct, Liveright's decisions to print second and third editions are puzzling. Gilmer gives total sales between the first publication and the end of 1930 as 2,454 copies. With the estimate of sales for the first edition at 2,000 copies, [end page 54] Liveright's subsequent printings were hardly commercially successful. Whatever the commercial result, the new Cape edition and the Liveright reprintings, both prompted by T. E. Lawrence's comments, show how the support of a prominent individual can keep a work before the public.

One notable American review appeared in 1933, in the April 5th issue of Contempo. Isidor Schneider, who handled publicity for The Enormous Room when it was first published by Liveright, addresses the difficulty in classifying Cummings' work and praises it for combining the attributes of both fiction and nonfiction: "But in The Enormous Room art and protest were projected together by the same impulse..." (Dendinger 21). Schneider also attempts to explain what he calls the "brilliant obscurity" in which The Enormous Room languished. He argues that its politics, left-wing and affirmative, are responsible for its neglect, but will eventually lead to its recognition, once a new society has been established by communism:

Mr. Cummings, at present, avoids the revolutionists. But in his affirmation as an artist he joins hands with them in their affirmation as revolutionists. And in the society which they will establish his book at last finds its agreeing public. (23) Schneider's review and a brief notice in The Richmond News of November 6, 1929, are the first to wonder about the lack of popular success of The Enormous Room. The explanation Schneider proposes is not, however, the only one offered In a letter to Liveright in which he expresses confidence in the commercial success of In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway says that The Enormous Room sold poorly because its modern style made it difficult for American readers (Gilmer 121). Hemingway also praised The Enormous Room in a letter to Edmund Wilson, but his comments were not published(qtd. in Wilson 117). Hemingway's explanation may have greater validity than Schneider's--by the thirties obviously; radical works were gaining significant popular success but Schneider's position is important in showing the persistence of the view of Cummings' work as radical. William Cain says [end page 55] of the thirties that it was "a period when many intellectuals were hymning the Soviet Experiment" (34). While The Enormous Room did not sell well, its status as a left-wing book helped keep it alive in literary circles, and it might have gained greater support into the thirties but for a change in the perception of Cummings' politics.


Schneider's review appeared only eight days after Cummings' second prose work, EIMI (1933), was published. It is safe to assume Schneider had not had a chance to read EIMI, or discuss it with someone who had. Written after Cummings' trip to the Soviet Union, EIMI was widely perceived to be an attack on communism, and as a result a number of Cummings' friends on the left broke with him (Kennedy 361).

Cummings comments accurately on the reception of his prose works in his introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Enormous Room: "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" (vii). The perception that The Enormous Room aligned Cummings with the radical left hurt its popular reception when it was first published; the reversal of that perception hurt its reputation among those who had supported Cummings when their views became more influential in the thirties. Linda Wagner, in "E. E. Cummings: A Review of the Research and Criticism," quotes Isidor Schneider, who, after championing The Enormous Room earlier in the decade, finds that as a consequence of Cummings' rejection of the revolution, "there is nothing left for him" (198).

As Dickstein observes with the benefit of hindsight, the battle against the rise of New Criticism was "hopeless." During the period in which New Criticism became dominant in the academy, Cummings continued to publish poetry, but the positive reception given The Enormous Room at the time of its publication by those taking New Critical positions was not paralleled by the response to his new work. On the contrary, his poetry was subject to a series of extreme attacks, [end page 56] not from newspaper reviewers but from some of the most influential of the New Critics.

The first important attack on Cummings' poetry was an article in Hound & Horn in 1931 by R. P. Blackmur, which finds Cummings to be objectionably personal in his poetic presentation of emotion:

It is not an emotion resulting from the poem; it existed before the poem began and is a result of the poet's private life. Besides its inspiration, every element in the poem, and its final meaning as well, must be taken at face value or not at all. This is the extreme form, in poetry, romantic egoism: whatever I experience is real and final, and whatever I say represents what I experience. Such a dogma is the natural counterpart of the denial of the intelligence. (107-24) Blackmur's criticism was taken up by Allen Tate in a 1932 article in Poetry, and Yvor Winters matched the harshness of Blackmur's attack in an article in response to The Collected Poems, published in 1938: [I]n his serious moods, he [Cummings] writes sentimentally about love, conceived primarily as copulation; in his satirical moments, he makes smutty jokes about it. There is a certain penumbra of composition extending a short distance outward from this matter, but it is merely a penumbra. In his moral ideas and attitudes, Cummings is little if anything more than a fin de siècle romantic whose sensuality is constantly breaking down into a literary equivalent of obscene exhibitionism. (98) In 1944 F. O. Matthiessen restated Blackmur's and Winters' criticisms, added that Cummings' romanticism is "solipsistic," and made what would become a common objection: "The fascinating thing about Cummings is that he is always talking about growth and always remains the same" (77). For Matthiessen, the result of Cummings' technique [end page 57] and lack of development is "monotony" (78). It is not surprising that such harsh attacks from prestigious critics would limit the amount of critical attention paid to Cummings, but though there was great resistance to his poetry, by the mid-forties his reputation nevertheless began to improve. While the Red Scare that followed World War One contributed to popular reaction against the perceived radicalism of The Enormous Room, the improvement in Cummings' reputation as a poet coincides with the conservatism of the Cold War. In 1950 Cummings was awarded the Academy of American Poets fellowship, in 1951 a Guggenheim fellowship, in 1952 the Charles Eliot Norton professorship at Harvard, in 1955 the National Book Award, and in 1957 the Bollingen Prize for poetry.


Important critical attention to Cummings followed his decade of awards. From 1958 to 1965 the first biography, the first major bibliography, an anthology of reviews and criticism, and two book-length treatments of Cummings' work were published. But as the attacks by such critics as Blackmur, Tate, Winters, and Matthiessen unquestionably served to diminish Cummings' academic respectability, the nature of the responses to these attacks on the part of his defenders sometimes served to diminish the status of The Enormous Room within the Cummings canon.

In The Magic Maker (1958), Charles Norman calls The Enormous Room "a classic" (108). He also surveys some of the early reviews. Norman's work provides valuable biographical information, but his readings of Cummings' work are perhaps biased as a consequence of his association with Cummings, with whom he consulted throughout the writing of the biography. Norman's is the only one of the works on Cummings in this period that does not tend to deprive The Enormous Room of status in some way.

S. V. Baum's ESTI: e e c: E. E. Cummings and the Critics (1962) includes two reviews of The Enormous Room, well chosen to represent the two poles in the response to the work: Dos Passos's from The Dial and the review in The New York Times. Baum's introductory essay, however, makes no men- [end page 58] tion of The Enormous Room. Despite the inclusion of the two early reviews of his prose, Baum identifies Cummings as exclusively a poet.

In E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer (1964) Norman Friedman gives The Enormous Room a respectful treatment of substantial length. Friedman explicitly acknowledges the nonfictional status of the book (and "book" is the term he uses to refer to it, never "novel"). His initial comments summarize "what happened" to Cummings (23), relying on The Enormous Room to provide this information, but foregrounding the events to which the book refers, not the presentation of those events.

But Friedman is not limited by this recognition of The Enormous Room as nonfiction; he proceeds to an analysis that draws attention to the way in which the text is shaped, including the parallel with Pilgrom's Progress to support its "central meaning," the individual's submission "to the world's categories in order to transcend them" (31). If the practitioners of the New Criticism prefer to concentrate their methods on texts they respond to as fiction or poetry, then Friedman's treatment implicitly criticizes this preference.

Friedman argues with Blackmur's earlier criticism of Cummings, claiming that Blackmur misses "the transcendental metaphysic underlying Cummings' obsession with directly "contacting reality" (34-35). His title suggests, however, that the agenda for Cummings criticism has at this stage been at least partially set by those who objected to his poetry and made the case that he did not develop. Friedman argues that Cummings progresses as an artist, and his conclusion that The Enormous Room is a testing ground for the style Cummings would later perfect supports his position:

Except for scattered passages of impressionistic description, Cummings had not yet learned how to digest his intelligence, how to negate thinking by thinking. He had not yet learned, that is, how to make his instrument accord organically with his vision, his language recreate the actuality. (33) Robert Wegner's The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings (1965) gives very little attention to The Enormous Room [end page 59], only quoting from it occasionally to illuminate an issue he is discussing with respect to the poetry. He shares the position implicit in Baum's ignoring of The Enormous Room: Cummings is a poet, so his works are only worthy of attention as poetry or as explanation for his poetry.


While the conservatism of the Cold War coincides with partial recovery in Cummings' reputation, it is also concur rent with and related to developments in the orientation of American criticism that would affect later academic treatments of The Enormous Room. From the late forties through to the early sixties, a growing number of important critic focus on identifying specifically American qualities in literature, especially in the novel. This trend can be trace to Carl Van Doren s The American Novel (1921), written during the post-World War One Red Scare. Several of these nationalist projects considered modernist work. The Enormous Room, however, did not receive very much attention.

The 1937 essay collection edited by Malcolm Cowley After the Genteel Tradition: American Writers 1910-1930, includes no discussion of Cummings, only the note in Cowley's "Postscript" that Cummings was "out of favor" (176). In 1942 Alfred Kazins On Native Grounds: An Interepretation of Modern American Prose Literature gives The Enormous Room as much attention as Dos Passos', Hemingway and Fitzgerald's major novels. Dos Passos' review in The Dial, was reprinted in a collection edited by Edmund Wilson 1943, The Shock of Recognition: the Development of Literature int the United States Recorded by the Men Who Made It. None of the writers or editors of these books, however, can be considered New Critics, and their influential the academic world was correspondingly less.

Among the works that could be called New Critical b their general orientation, F. J. Hoffman's The Twenties: American Writing in the Postwar Decade, published in 1949, gives five of its five-hundred pages to The Enormous Room. The Enormous Room is mentioned twice, briefly, in the same author's work of 1951: The Modern Novel in America, 1900-1950. John Aldridge's After the Lost Generation, also pub- [end page 60] lished in 1951, is positive in its discussion of The Enormous Room, but deals with Cummings in a few paragraphs, in contrast with the entire chapters given to Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. All of these critics are engaged in constructing a canon of prose fiction, and they are prepared to grant The Enormous Room a place in it, but not a central place.

In 1958 the first scholarly article on The Enormous Room appeared. Kingsley Widmer's "Timeless Prose" responds to the objections to Cummings and can be seen as an attempt to accommodate Cummings' work to current critical positions. Widmer's tactics are evident in his opening paragraph:

There would appear to be a minor but significant prose literary tradition which is, apparently, peculiarly American. A brief examination of one twentieth century example of this type, E. E. Cummings' The Enormous Room, may suggest a crucial problem of modern prose form. The type, if a rather amorphous body of work of considerable dissimilarity can be so identified, might be defined by several predominant characteristics: a conscious violation and avoidance of traditional prose forms; the attempt to turn narrative prose into lyric poetry without the traditional formal order of poetry; the mixture of aesthetic functions--documentary, autobiographical, fictional and poetic; and the experimentation with logical, causal and temporal relationships in the effort to achieve different kinds of aesthetic experience. (3) By discussing The Enormous Room as part of a tradition of American literature, Widmer participates in the trend of American criticism throughout the late forties, the fifties, and sixties that sees the investigation of the American tradition as one of the principal functions of the critic, and a work's connection to the tradition as a principal measure of its worth. He addresses the complaint that Cummings' work is not autonomous, is about things other than itself, by taking this aspect of the work as a signal that it is an example of a distinct genre. Widmer goes on to associate The Enormous [end page 61] Room with the work of Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau, writers whose position at the center of the canon had ear been solidified by the work of F. O. Matthiessen.

The critical precedent for Windmer's approach was established with the publication one year earlier of The American Novel and its Tradition by Richard Chase. Chase objects to the position of F. R. Leavis's with respect to the properties of the novel and argues that "Those readers who make a dogma out of Leavis's views are thus the proprietors of an Anglo-American tradition in which many of the most interesting and original and several of the greatest American novels are sports"(4). Chase's position is that the American novel constitutes a separate genre, a hybrid of the romance and the novel, and thus needs to be judged by separate criteria. The grounds of the argument that Chase uses to defend the American novel anticipated, then, those that Widmer uses to build his case for The Enormous Room and defend its nonfictional element. After claiming that the nonfictional potential of The Enormous Room is not a flaw but a generic feature, however, the rest of Widmer's discussion largely ignores the question of genre. His treatment is a New Critical analysis of a novel.

Widmer responds to other criticisms of Cummings as well. His claim that "...The Enormous Room may first appear to have no other aim than the poeticiation [sic] of a sensitive and idiosyncratic individual's miscellaneous experiences and ruminations" (4), and that it is not "simply an aesthetic exercise in whimsical subjectivism" (6), can be seen as a reaction to Blackmur's attack on Cummings for being personal and anti-intellectual. Just as Widmer argues that the text is part of a distinct genre but then does not treat it as such, so too does he proceed to confirm the criticisms more than refute them, concluding that the novel is "solipsistic" (5), and that eventually there is a "frequent collapse of the tone into sentimentality and arbitrary whimsicality" (7). He refers directly to Blackmur in a note, finding only that his attack was "perhaps overstated"(8).

After this first treatment of The Enormous Room in a scholarly article, which in important respects reinforces some of the earlier criticisms of Cummings' poetry and work in general, the next article did not appear till 1965--seven years [end page 62] later, following the major studies on Cummings' life and work that have already been discussed.


From 1965 to 1978 scholarly articles on The Enormous Room appear at the rate of about one each year. In most cases these articles show a need to justify their attention to The Enormous Room. They do so by responding to the criticisms of Cummings made in the thirties and forties, as well as to a variety of other problems--including the continuing difficulty for New Critics of the work's nonfictional potential and the question of its place in a tradition of American fiction. As a consequence of the latter concern, the potential relationship between Cummings and writers such as Joyce, noticed by the early reviewers, is seldom given more than sing attention.

The first article to appear after Widmer's of 1958 is David Smith's, in the July 1965 number of Twentieth Century Literature, the same journal in which Widmer published. Widmer was on the journal's Bibliography Committee at the time, but whether he had any role in the publication of another Enormous Room article is not known.

Smith's article is one of two that focus on the relationship between The Enormous Room and Pilgrim's Progress. It defines its discussion to this relationship, and does not place Cummings' work in any tradition aside from that implied by the connection with Bunyan. In the same year in which the journal article appeared, however, Smith published a book, John Bunyan in America, which includes an exnded version of the original article. Its inclusion in this work associates The Enormous Room with those other American writers in whom Smith identifies a connection with Pilgrim's Progress, including Alcott and Hawthorne. Smith's work, in other words, does not attempt to establish a place for The Enormous Room at the center of American literature, but it does, especially by associating Cummings and Hawthorne, make a claim for its legitimacy. In neither version of Smith's article is there any indication of a potential nonfictional reading of The Enormous Room.

The first article that directly takes up some of the [end page 63] criticisms of Cummings appears two years later in American Quarterly. Marilyn Gaul sees The Enormous Room as a war novel to be considered alongside works by Hemingway and Remarque, but also as an experimental work associated with works by Stein and T. S. Eliot. Gaul treats The Enormous Room as a novel, and again gives no consideration to its non-fictional potential or to the possibility that it participates in other genres. She is evaluative, and praises the work in contrast with Cummings' poetry:

In the poetry, then, Cummings' assault on the traditional values of words appears to be little more than evocative eccentricity. Within the more flexible bounds of prose, however, Cummings was able to build up new contexts, to provide the precise associations upon which a creative and functional use of language depends. (648) Gaul's description of Cummings' poetry reiterates the criticism of Blackmur and Matthiessen. In order to protect The Enormous Room from this criticism, she needs implicitly to reject Friedman's argument that Cummings does develop, asserting instead that his early prose work represents the height of his achievement and is distinct from his poetry. In her analysis of the individualism that The Enormous Room praises, she emphasizes that the "separate, private" peace the narrator arrives at is "communicable," or, in other words, not solipsistic (661).

While Gaul treats the genre question by avoiding it, Floyd B. Lawrence, in an article in The University Review makes an argument that echoes that of Dos Passos' review in The Dial. He separates the author from the narrator, and insists that the novel is not a social document:

But E. E. Cummings, or the narrator of his novel, is scarcely defeated and never really crushed. Nor do we think of Cummings' antagonist as being World War I, or American society, or The French government, or le Directeur. (35) Lawrence's article is an evaluative comparison of Dos [end page 64] Passos' Three Soldiers and The Enormous Room. In arguing that the nonfictional content of Cummings's work is unimportant, he also asserts its artistic worth: "Cummings, I hope to show, wrote a novel which possesses that moral insight and artistic perfection which even the best war novel can never combine in an enduring fashion" (35). Lawrence shows that the New Critical insistence on autonomy for the literary work is still operating in 1969, the year his article appears. He concludes with a comment on the lack of academic interest in The Enormous Room: "it richly deserves the critical appraisal which, unfortunately, it has never received" (41).

One of a series of articles in Landmarks of American Writing, James Dougherty's 1970 essay on The Enormous Room is evaluative by virtue of its context. Within the essay a number of justifications are given for looking at The Enormous Room. Its value is connected to its being "an important imaginative record of that violent time when the 'modern' spirit was in birth" (325). It is seen to offer not an example of Cummings' later poetic techniques but an explanation for "why Cummings later felt them necessary for poetry in the twentieth century" (325). As well as describing The Enormous Room as "part of the literature of that well-known disillusionment which followed the Great War" (326), Dougherty finds that it is "an anticipation of the post-modern world of the late 1960's" (326). Finally, however, he concludes that "The Enormous Room is a part of the tradition of American radical thought, a Walden for the twentieth century." This is the relationship to which the greater part of his analysis is given.

In noting the significance of The Enormous Room as a "record," Dougherty acknowledges its value as nonfiction, but if he places it in the tradition of Thoreau, he neglects this potential in the text. Only in an endnote does Dougherty recognize that the nonfictional potential of The Enormous Room also connects Cummings with Thoreau, and then this connection seems to be a curiosity rather than something needing investigation: "Cummings shares with Thoreau a serendipitous gift for making fact symbolic" (339).

While placing The Enormous Room in an American tradition, Dougherty also indirectly responds to the objection that Cummings is an "anti-intellectual." He finds that The Enor- [end page 65] mous Room offers "an alien notion of freedom, repudiating many of the symbols of cultural and psychological development" (335-336), but suggests that the repudiation is not generally anti-intellectual, but, more specifically, "disquieting to the liberal mind" (335).

The tactic of justifying attention to The Enormous Room by attaching it to a subtradition of American fiction is taken up by James Smith, Jr., in an article in Studies in American Fiction. He categorizes Cummings as an "anti-war novelist" and a member of the Lost Generation, but the subtradition that he believes The Enormous Room initiates is based on the character of Jean le Negre, that which portrays "the predicament of modern man in terms of a Negro character" (26). Smith is evaluative, but rather than praise the work unequivocally, he acknowledges faults, in language reminiscent of Blackmur and Matthiessen, and suggests the work is valuable despite them: "Although accusations of filth, gushy sentimentality, and unrelieved bitterness may have some justification, Cummings did attempt to make his narrative as honest, accurate, and compelling as he could..." (25).

The most pronounced effort to attach The Enormous Room to the mainstream of the American prose tradition is that of Harold McCarthy, who gives a chapter to The Enormous Room in The Expatriate Perspective: American Novelists and the Idea of America. Including Cummings in his book connects The Enormous Room with Cooper, Melville, Hawthorne, James, Twain, and Hemingway, all novelists established as canonical in the period between the early forties and late sixties. McCarthy notes a similarity between Cummings' use of words and images and that of Eliot and Joyce (131), but, in keeping with the title of the section of the book in which the Cummings chapter is placed--"The Neo-Transcendentalists" -- he links Cummings most closely with the tradition of New England radicalism of Emerson and Thoreau.

McCarthy is explicitly evaluative. He begins by noting approvingly that "...The Enormous Room has been recognized from its first appearance as a work of extraordinary power and originality" (123). He is also explicit in his rejection of a nonfictional reading, saying that the shocking nature of the book prevented its correct metaphorical significance from [end page 66] being understood, "a significance that places it in the tradition of those works of American literature whose most distinctive vision is one of the human spirit transcending a cultural apocalypse"(123).

To complete his responses to earlier criticisms, McCarthy goes back to one of Cummings' earlier critical essays to defend him against the charge of anti-intellectualism. He takes Cummings' description of Cezanne's artistic method—-Cummings says Cezanne is "violently disunderstanding a second-hand world"(133)--as descriptive of Cummings' own position, and defends it in the following manner:

Such an observation is not anti-intellectual; rather it demonstrates Cummings's perception of a process whereby a person transcends intellectual formulae, a priori attitudes, and cultural conditioning and strives by an act of the imagination to feel the identity of his own primal nature with the forces that find expression in the art of primitive peoples (133).

The first instance in criticism of The Enormous Room that shows a waning of the influence of New Criticism and the attacks on Cummings made by a number of its leading proponents is a 1976 article by George Peek in the Ball State University Forum. Peek begins by stating clearly that The Enormous Room needs to be understood as both fiction and nonfiction, the first critic since Friedman's book of 1964 to clearly take this position "E.E. Cummings' The Enormous Room is at once a most explicit, factual autobiography and a masterfully complex piece of literary art" (50). In the combination of fiction and nonfiction Peek finds a degree of self reflexivity, in which our attention is drawn to "the work of the artist in an attempt to comprehend and understand the complexity of the artistic creation, the book itself" (50). Peek's essay develops into an analysis that has much in common with the essays that preceded it. There is, however, a second major difference between Peek's approach and those of earlier critics: it makes no attempt to connect The Enormous [end page 67] Room to a tradition of American literature, or any other tradition. The essay concludes with the assertion that "The book provides an insight into man surpassed by only a few pieces of literature" (60). Though, as has been seen, some of the previous articles praise The Enormous Room, Peek's essay suggests that a concern for the way texts comment on themselves and the artistic process is likely to make a critic more comfortable with the work than does the New Critical concern for autonomy or fictionality.

The most recent critical article in English on The Enormous Room is also more comfortable with the generic status of the work, but shows the impact of an earlier development in literary theory than does Peek's. Gary Boire responds to what he sees as a mix of genres:

Cummings deliberately exploits a variety of generic forms to construct his own type of fictional evaluation; the most apparent, of course, are dystopia, direct political invective, beast fable, quest motifs, and archetypal image patterns. (350) In his interest in the mixture of genres and "archetypal image patterns," Boire shows the influence of the criticism of Northrop Frye, not surprising in a Canadian graduate student who, at the time he wrote the article, was studying at McMaster University with Alvin Lee, perhaps the most important critic closely associated with Frye (and the current holder of the Northrop Frye Chair in Literary Theory at the University of Toronto).

Despite his attention to the mix of genres, however, Boire, like Dougherty, consigns his acknowledgement of the combination of fiction and nonfiction to an endnote: "The extent to which Cummings makes use of his actual experiences may be seen through a reading of his letters written during his stay in France" (340). In the essay proper, Boire is careful to distinguish between the author Cummings and the narrator Cummings, and discusses only the latter. Like the New Critics, Boire wants to de-emphasize the nonfictional potential of The Enormous Room: "In effect, 'war'--social and political upheaval--is present in the work only insofar as it functions as a background or filter..." (350). For Frye, and [end page 68] the scholars influenced by him, the tolerance urged for difrent kinds of writing and different genres includes an openness to "every variety of poetic expression" (99); however, poetic," in Frye's criticism, rarely includes nonfiction.

In its privileging of the relationships among literary texts over their potential relationships with nonliterary contexts, we can see, at least through Boire, the compatibility of Frye's approach with New Criticism. Like the American New critics, Boire wants to include The Enormous Room in a tradition. As we would expect from a critic schooled on Frye, the relevant tradition is not bounded by a nation, but expands from works by Dos Passos, Hemingway, Eliot, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman to D. H. Lawrence, John Stuart Mill, Wordsworth, Defoe, Bunyan, Augustine, and, finally, Virgil and Homer.

Reading The Enormous Room by means of a critical approach derived from Frye produces, in a manner similar to the line taken by Peek, a reading that is less troubled by the text; and, like Peek, Boire is not led to respond to or otherwise show the influence of the earlier New Critical disparagement of Cummings and his work.


One might expect, from the loss of influence of New Criticism in American university English departments, and from the evidence that newer theories are more compatible with The Enormous Room, that the articles by Peek and Boire would represent the beginning of a flourishing of criticism of The Enormous Room. Quite the opposite is true. Boire's is the last article on the work to appear in English. This lack of interest is puzzling, especially since Boire's article was published at a time of renewed attention to Cummings and the entire body of his work. Between 1979 and 1981 there appeared a special Cummings number of the Journal of Modern Literature (April 1979); the first major bibliography of the critical response to Cummings, by Guy Rotella; Richard Kennedy's new biography of Cummings; and Wagner's article reviewing the research and criticism. In addition, in 1976 Liveright began to publish reproductions of [end page 69] typescript editions of Cummings' works, including, in 1978, an edition of The Enormous Room.

The potential of new theory to produce new readings and implicitly or explicitly evaluate The Enormous Room differently is now, however, entirely unfulfilled. The Enormous Room appeared for the first time in Frecnh translation in 1980. The single French review and critical article that followed the publication of the translation indicate the direction poststructuralist readings might take.

Both the review and the critical article show and interest in that feature of the text that gives the New Critics difficulty, its combination of fiction and nonfiction. Jacques Teboul, in a review for La Quinzaine Littéraire, makes the case that the work's primary value is connected to its narrator also being its author:

Avec l'allégresse sauvage de l'écrivain qui sait qu'il a raison parce qu'il se contente de regarder et d'inventer une écriture nouvelle. Il observe en effet, il exerce son regard, il parle des croquis qu'il fait en même temps qu'il écrit d'inoubliables portraits. (18)

[With the wild energy of the writer who knows he is right because he is content to watch and to invent a new writing. He observes in effect, he exercises his gaze, he speaks of the sketches that he makes at the same time he writes unforgettable portraits.]

Teboul's review, appearing in a popular journal, is not theoretical in its language, but in its interest in the play between the author and the narrator, it shows the influence of a variety of contemporary theories that can be grouped under the label poststructuralist. The same influence can be seen in the way Teboul descrives Cummings' language, as he praises "la richesse excessive des métaphores et des superlatifs" (18) [the excessive richness of the metaphors and superlatives]. Excessiveness ceases to be a fault when the informing theory is no longer bound by the New Critical concern for irony and suspicion of sentiment. [end page 70]

Pierre Deflaux's article in Revue Française D'Etudes Américains also shows, in the kind of attention it gives to the language of The Enormous Room, a theoretical orientation different from that of the American critics. Also, like Teboul, Deflaux does not have difficulty in considering The Enormous Room as nonfiction, and in making its status as a "boundary case" the focus of his analysis:

Seul un discours sur mesure, et non de confection, affranchi des censures lexicale, syntaxique, éthique, mondaine ou politique, permettait la transcription honnête d'une telle aventure, de cette rencontre inattendue avec la bêtise énorme au front de taureau et la barbarie de l'institution. (159)

[Only a special discourse, not one ready-made, free from lexical, syntactical, ethical, social or political censorship, permitted the honest transcription of such an adventure, of this unexpected encounter with the enormous bare-faced stupidity and barbarity of the institution.]

In 1973 Malcolm Cowley, who excluded Cummings from his 1937 work on American writers, published another essay collection, A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation. It contains an article entitled "Cummings: One Man Alone," which originally appeared in The Yale Review in the same year. In his discussion of The Enormous Room Cowley writes, "the free-ranging, partly colloquial, partly involved style had a lasting effect on American prose" (337). It appears that one of those critics who was disappointed by what was perceived as Cummings' abandonment of radical politics eventually came to change his views. Cowley's evaluation of the importance of The Enormous Room is not shared by many critics, or, if they do share in it, they have not committed their opinions to print. Whether the current absence of commentary on The Enormous Room persists, or whether its fortunes change, as they did with Cowley, and it gains greater attention from academics, will depend on the direction that continuing developments in literary criticism, [end page 71] always connected to politics, take. To date these developments have always acted to preserve the status of The Enormous Room as a work on the margins of literary respectability.


l The first reviewer or critic to comment on and attempt to explain the lack of attention to The Enormous Room is Isidor Schneider, who, in 1933, believed its politics to be radical and responsible for its poor reception. The last writer to make a similar effort is the French critic Pierre Deflaux, who, writing in 1987, believes the text's observance of a coherent natural order is the source of its lack of appeal to critics.

2 The reference is to the 1978 Liveright typescript edition, which is the edition Kennedy quotes from in his biography. As no critical articles in English have been written on The Enormous Room since 1978, it is not possible to confirm whether this edition will be accepted as the authoritative one, but problems with earlier texts, some of them connected to fears of censorship, are well known, and the typescript edition does address these problems. [end page 71]

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