Taimi Olsen
[Spring 1 (1992): 77-86]

Although The Enormous Room [1] is typically grouped with in Dos Passos' Three Soldiers and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms as fiction of World War I, E. E. Cummings created more than a "war" novel. The Enormous Room leads the modernist movement in rejecting genre traditions and adopting an innovative prose style. Cummings questions the assumptions of literary meaning by examining the effectiveness of various modes of communication, and he challenges traditional discourse through his unconventional and often disjointed poetic. For Cummings, the subject matter of The Enormous Room, the silent and "indescribable" essence of things, demands new methods of expression. Cummings reworks literary forms, linguistic signs and standard thematic structures, in order to express this silence.

As protagonist, narrator, and author, Cummings reconstructs reality through his assertion of linguistic freedom. Essentially, The Enormous Room concerns what Ferdinand de Saussure terms associative relationships in language. Normally, as Jameson explains, syntagmatic, or horizontal, meaning governs the sentence through "a succession of meaning-units or words in time." [2] Associative meaning, however, comes from outside the immediate context of the sentence. Cummings breaks out of sequential sentence structure through the use of typography, rhyme, and the associative meanings of words in order to change the nature of the sentence.

In his 1915 commencement speech at Harvard University, "The New Art," Cummings anticipated his place in the modern- [end page 77] ist artistic movement, demonstrating his awareness of new works of art not only in literature but also music and painting.  He discusses the "development from the ordinary to the abnormal" and the modern use of nineteenth-century impressionistic and realistic techniques by such artists as Matisse, Scriabin, Amy Lowell, Donald Evans, and Gertrude Stein. [3] Two new developments, the 'brutality" in the poetry of Lowell and Evans and the logical abstraction in Stein's Tender Buttons, figure not only in Cummings' first collection of poetry, Tulips & Chimneys (1923 [1922]), but also in The Enormous Room, where Cummings creates his own stylistic version of brutality and absurdity with his "violent" cubist and surrealistic prose.

Although Cummings' novel marks a midpoint in new developments in prosody, falling in among Stein's most experimental novel and those of James Joyce, the influence of The Enormous Room was hampered by publication difficulties rivaling Joyce's difficulties in publishing Ulysses. The American edition (1922) translated the foreign phrases and "corrected" most of the punctuation, and editions of 1928 and 1934 "improved" his French (much of it street slang) and amended his punctuation. Cummings wanted the first edition restored or destroyed The novel was finally rescued by the 1978 edition, edited by George Firmage. Although scholars Norman Friedman and Richard Kennedy laid the groundwork for a revival of this novel, no recent, full-length study has been undertaken.

Cummings based his modernist experiments with language on the realistic transcription of dialogue and the subjective recording of perceived experience. During five weeks in Paris (before assignment to the French Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps during the war), Cummings and his friend William Slater Brown immersed themselves in French language and culture most importantly the slang taught by friendly prostitutes. In his letters as well as in the novel, Cummings records the impact of languages during his stay overseas. From France in 1917, he wrote entirely in French to his mother, describing a variety of national languages and foods. [4] The Enormous Room provides a closer chronology of the languages that Cummings encountered at the prison La Ferté-Macé: the Turk explains "the Arabian [end page 78] Turkish and Persian languages" to C., the protagonist (89), Afrique teaches him "to count and swear in Arabic" (105), and Mexique writes "the entire conjugation of tengo in the deep mud" (132). Cummings' extensive use of French in The Enormous Room represents the central linguistic peculiarity of his book. The effective jumble of languages--Polish, German, and French--disorients the reader and confounds nationalist feelings. Cummings demonstrates the difficulty of conveying meaning--particularly official meaning--through language; the Saussurian elements of difference between the primary elements of language, for Cummings, imply a larger field than linguistic concerns. Cummings focuses on a range of language barriers en-countered by characters incapable of verbalizing their thoughts effectively or hindered from communicating with peers by the mixture of foreign languages. Metaphysical concerns thus underlie Cummings' exploration of language.

Cummings bases his story directly on his own experience as an ambulance driver and his arrest for suspected treason in September, 1917, recording the impressions of his three-month confinement at the French prison La Ferté-Macé. Yet he promptly rejects the autobiographical nature of the book, which is "mere fiction...vulgarly violent fiction at that." Thus Kennedy refers to the narrator as "C." in order to distinguish him from the author (xii). Cummings structures his novel on the tradition of the spiritual journey, using textual references to Bunyan's seventeenth-century Christian allegory, Pilgrim's Progress, and plots his novel according to the presupposed physical (and spiritual) linear progression. Chapter titles such as "I Begin a Pilgrimage" and "An Approach to the Delectable Mountains" inform the reader of the protagonist's forward movements.

Cummings' use of Bunyan serves as a momentary and amusing vehicle to more serious concerns about the adequacy of language to describe human perceptions and spiritual insights. In short, Cummings proceeds to redefine reality, rejecting the superficial meaning of stale literary traditions which govern the novel genre and changing the grammatical rules which govern prose writing. Cummings subverts the expectations created by Western conventions by interrupting the linear plot structure of  [end page 79] the novel. In the timeless sequence of C.'s detention (chapters five through twelve), Cummings asserts that in prison, when one is sentenced for an indeterminate length of time, past and future lose all meaning. Time consists only of "the actual Present" (83). Cummings dismisses calendar time and its companion, literary time, by declaring the pre-eminence of the present. When he continues the narration with C.'s release from prison, he promptly rejects fiction's standard happy ending. C. declares that his departure "cannot by any stretch of the imagination be conceived as constituting a Happy Ending to a great and personal adventure" Although C. reaches Paris--the Celestial City, he rejects any "Reality" which refuses to liberate the Delectable Mountains, who are still in prison (229).

Cummings dismisses the reality of prose by ignoring stylistic restrictions and altering the rules of grammar and punctuation (through an interchange of nouns and verbs and a free use of capitals, dashes, and frequent omission of spaces innovations familiar to any reader of Cummings' poetry). He mixes writing styles in order to transcend the ordinary process of story-telling. Richard Kennedy enumerates the three main prose styles: the "set pieces, done in variations of his cubist style," the interior monologues, and the sense-oriented descriptions (Kennedy terms this his "synaesthetic style"). [5] Cummings is acutely aware of the limitations of the written word, despite the autobiographical basis of the novel. C. laments:

Alas,in the medium which I am now using a certain amount or at least quality of description is disgustingly necessary. Were I free with a canvas and some colours...but I am not free. And so I will buck the impossible to the best of my ability. (169)
Although the narrator in prison may not have access to paints, the author did; Cummings painted frequently upon his return to New York, exhibiting Sound and Noise at an Independent Artists show in 1920. Contrary to his statement, he consciously chose the medium of prose for his story, although he applies similar aesthetic criteria to both mediums. Milton [end page 80] Cohen's statement in reference to the Sound and Noise series, that "the dynamism of these works derives from the careful arrangement of conflicting planes, lines, and colors, rather than from the textual act of painting them," easily describes the prose of The Enormous Room.[6] The liveliness of the novel results from styles set in conflict.

Cummings approximates the visual impact of painting with inscriptions (words set apart from the text), using the page as his canvas. Capitalization of noises or shouting sets these occurrences apart from the text, as in the BUMPBUMP" of a train (30) or the guards shouting orders, "LES HOMMES MARIES" (164). Phonetic spellings convey individualized speech, as with the Frenchmen who pronounce his name "KEW-MANGZ" (41), and foreign words spelled phonetically, such as "Mynheer Le Chef" (105), a fusion of French and phonetic Dutch, create further interpretive difficulties for the reader. Cummings employs slang, especially foreign slang, without regard to the ability of the reader, as in "Ta mome" (your gal, 147) and "Asseyez-vous la, tete de cochon" (sit there, stubborn fool, 154). [7]

Cummings impersonates experience in the text at the level of paragraph arrangement. He embeds phrases spoken quickly or separates the dialogue to provide each sentence with surrounding space, suggestive of natural pauses:

"Is there in the room anyone of Austrian nationality?"
The Silent Man stepped forward quietly.
"Why are you here?"
"I don't know" The Silent Man said, with tears in his eyes. (220)
Cummings deliberately paces this exchange between Apollyon and a detainee to recreate the suspense which results in the man's short and frightened answer.

Cummings also structures a casual dialogue with the reader, following the style of his letters, one step above cryptic notes, and marked by his stylistic signature. In reproducing the rhythm and tone of a personal letter in his prose style, Cummings involves the reader in the act of writing: the lack of spaces, unex- [end page 81] pected capitalization of nouns, foreign phrases--all these techniques require the reader to perform an immediate interpretive act. Depending on the reader's ability or desire to follow Cummings' unusual prose, she or he can in part sympathize with the prisoners and the disjointed cultural environment:

For who was eligible to La Ferté? Anyone whom the police could find in the lovely country of France(a)who was not guilty of treason(b)who could not prove that he was not guilty of treason...J'avais de la chance. Because I am by profession a paintcr and a writer. Whereas my very good friends...write not a word and read not a word....(83-84)
Cummings notes his privileged position as an educated artist; his illiterate companions cannot protect themselves. He continues his social protest--begun when he willingly follows Brown into prison despite opportunities to avoid a jail sentence--through the act of writing. He gives a voice to the illiterate, the mentally or socially impaired, and the stoic sufferers.

The room itself serves as a metaphor for the recreation of human communication. Cummings turns away from structural restrictions in literature--the four walls of the room--and concentrates on the space between the walls. Although C. eventually describes the room in terms of its construction, "in shape oblong, about 80 feet by 40,unmistakably ecclesiastical in feeling" (50), with pillars and cathedral windows, Cummings first imparts an anthropomorphic life to the room, which plays upon C.'s imagination. Upon first entering the prison:

the hitherto empty and minute room became suddenly enormous; weird cries, oaths, laughter, pulling it sideways and backward, extending it to inconceivable depth and width, telescoping it to frightful nearness. From all directions, by at least thirty voices in eleven languages...l was ferociously bombarded. (43) [end page 82]
The inhabitants of the room embody the essence of that space, and through them, the room transcends the limitations of its walls and seems to live and breathe.

The metaphor of space represents what Cummings sees as his liberation from literary and linguistic structures. Through his innovations in style, Cummings reworks linguistic space. He contracts the sentence by omitting spaces after commas, semi-colons and colons; he expands the sentence vertically through the use of dashes and ellipses, and horizontally through capitalization. The ellipses also provide an escape from linear time--the narrator's thought (expressed) continues (unexpressed) eternally, despite the succeeding sentences. Cummings' prose mimics the surrealistic movements of the room, as perceived by the narrator.

Cummings recalls the fluid motion of seemingly static things (the room, the sentence) in his characters as well. The interplay between linguistic and thematic space occurs most distinctly in Cummings' invocation of The Zulu:

He did not come and he did not go. He drifted. His angular anatomy expended and collected itself with an effortless spontaneity.... There are certain things in which one is unable to believe for the simple reason that he never ceases to feel them. Things of this sort--things which are always inside of us and in fact are us and which consequently will not be pushed off or away where we can begin thinking about them--are no longer things; they, and the us which they are, equals A Verb; an IS. The Zulu, ,then, I must perforce call an IS. (168)
Cummings equates a lexical unit, the verb, with physical and spiritual human existence. The Zulu exists as both a mobile personality and a verb of being. When Cummings insists that the Zulu is "entirely indescribable," he points to the elusiveness of both human nature and the odd linguistic moment of being. When used in a sentence, the verb "to be" creates a paradox of movement and stasis; in the use of the static equation (some- [end page 83] thing is something), "to be" describes both mutable and immutable conditions.

Cummings reverts to silence when the linguistic symbol fails (as it inevitably will) as a means of identifying the essence of humanity. Silence, an aural "space" not controlled by words, functions as the central symbol in The Enormous Room. Numerous illiterate, shy, or quiet characters (such as the Silent Man or the man in the Orange Cap) represent the inarticulate people who possess "brilliant quietness" (71). Cummings describes the "linguistic awkwardness" of Jan, a Danish man who gives "the impression that to give or receive an idea entailed a tremendous effort of the intelligence" (71), to show that the rhetoric of education and ideology has not tainted the uneducated class, in C.'s romanticized vision. C. also romanticizes the Delectable Mountains (the Wanderer, the Zulu, and Surplice) and Jean (who are either illiterate or untaught in foreign languages) in part because of their ability to surpass their educational level and communicate important, spiritual truths. They epitomize physical and spiritual fluidity.

The Wanderer (a gypsy) is an archetypal figure whose exterior presence communicates his spiritual qualities. C. focuses on his face as a mirror of his inner state, "finely formed and almost fluent," which "contained a beauty and dignity which, as I first saw it, annihilated the surrounding tumult without an effort" (73). The Wanderer, by his sheer existence, breaks down the barriers between self and the exterior.

The Zulu, already mentioned, also has "a face at once fluent and angular, expressionless and sensitive" (183). More than the Wanderer, the Zulu encompasses the dilemma of describing the unknowable. "He could not, of course, write any language whatever...the secret of his means of complete and unutterable communication lay in that very essence which I have only defined as an IS" (173-174). The Zulu imparts meaning through a silent emission, a passively active communication of human essence.

Surplice and Jean Le Negre express themselves through inarticulate sounds and represent the reverse of the Wanderer and the Zulu's passivity. They actively pursue dramatic roles as the [end page 84] fool and the clown respectively, in order to disguise their true natures. Instead of silent radiation, both characters emit their unknowable essence through pure sound.

The personality of Jean Le Negre, the epitome of this group of characters, is a necessary expression of his essential self, "the bright child of [his] mind" (214). Jean's dramatic dialogues (in French) demand all of Cummings' stylistic flexibility: "il est Fort! [strong] M'sieu Jean,c'est un GEANT" (210). Jean fills the entire space of the room (and the sentence) with his presence. Like his body, Jean's voice inspires C. through its physicality: "His use of language was sometimes exalted fibbing, sometimes the purely picturesque. He courted above all the sounds of words, more or less disdaining their meaning" (199). In Cummings' restructuring of reality, Jean represents complete freedom--pure sound as an expression of self not restricted by any social or linguistic system.

Jean forms the pinnacle of C.'s spiritual ascent, as he transcends the limitations of words as a restrictive system. In the same manner, Cummings rejects preconceived meanings, as present in the rules of grammar and punctuation, genre forms (autobiography, fiction, or documentary), given names, the definition of words--any form which encases human communication. Cummings reshapes the nature of his prose into a flexible tool for the artistic expression of human divinity. Cummings' conceptualization of linguistic concerns corresponds to Saussure's idea of difference. As Jameson writes, "content is everything, and it is the feeling of the native speaker which remains in the last resort the test of the presence or absence of distinctive features" (17). Although Jameson refers simply to distinctions between linguistic signs, Cummings points to the differences between nationalities and ideologies, and the need to express the evasive but primary spiritual component of humanity.

--University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill  [end page 85]


[1] E.E. Cummings, The Enormous Room (Liveright: typescript ed. 1978), 229. All page numbers refer this edition.

[2] Frederick Jameson, The Prison House Of Language; A Critical Account Of Structural and Structuralism and Russian Formalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 37.

[3]E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, ed. George Firmage (New York: October House, 1965),  6-11.

[4] Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings, eds. F.W. Dupee and George Stade (New York: Harcorut, Brace and World, 1969). 34-6,38-9

[5] Kennedy, Foreword, The Enormous Room (New York: Liveright, 1978). Cummings' synaesthetic style "merges, linguistically, the words which apply to one of the senses with those which apply to another" (xviii).

[6] Milton Cohen, PoetandPainter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings's Early Work (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987), 40

[7] I am grateful for the glossary in the 1978 edition  of The Enormous Room. "Tete de cochon" literally translates as "head of a pig or, in colloquial English, "pig-headed."   [end page 86]

Back to:
Enormous Room page

Spring issue 1 contents

Spring Contents Index