John M. Gill

[Spring 7 (1998): 94-123]


"This is Camp de Triage de La Ferté Macé,Orne,France,and all these fine people were arrested as espions...."
"Do you mean to say we’re espions too?"
"Of course!" B said enthusiastically. "Thank God!" (The Enormous Room 46)
Espion! The word still resonated on our first visit to La Ferté-Macé, August 12, 1989, seventy-two years after E. E. Cummings had been incarcerated there. My wife Susan and I had driven over from Tours to see this small Norman town. Our Michelin Guide had suggest the Hotel Le Céleste just off the town square opposite the old twin-towered church. We checked in there.

C, the first-person narrator in The Enormous Room, had denigrated La Ferté-Macé and its inhabitants. I wanted to make up my own mind. Visiting the town and looking through "The Windows of Nowhere" have reinforced my belief that C is based on but is not fully Cummings. In this paper, I will note significant differences.

At first glance La Ferté-Macé looked like a typical Norman town: if it wasn’t magnificent and gorgeous like Paris, at least it was neither drab nor desolate. Le Céleste was old but pleasant and quite comfortable. Mme Corinne Cingal and her husband Olivier who ran it were courteous and gracious, not at all like those inhabitants of the town one might have expected from C’s [end page 94] account. Our initial reaction to La Ferté-Macé was most favorable.

Since the point of our visit to the town was to look at the buildings where Cummings had been imprisoned, our first business after checking into Le Céleste was to ask for directions. Susan, a Professor of French at the College of San Mateo, did all our conversing in La Ferté-Macé. Mme Cingal, telling us she had not heard of Cummings and did not know where the buildings might be, suggested we inquire at the local Tourism Office; with her efficient directions, we found it on the corner of a nearby street. The Tourism Office was a tiny room filled with neatly arranged brochures and books. The lady on duty there greeted us warmly. We asked about the buildings where the American poet E. E. Cummings had been incarcerated during World War I. This lady had not heard of Cummings either, nor did she know where any such prison might have been in La Ferté-Macé. She suggested immediately, however, that the Town Historian would know; she graciously offered to phone him then and there. He was out on his farm, but his wife promised that he would return the call. All this struck us as most generous.

The lady in the Tourism Office suggested we explore the town while we awaited the phone call, adding that we might also enjoy a trip to the nearby resort area of Bagnoles-de-l’Orne. We strolled through La Ferté-Macé and drove the few miles to Bagnoles. We enjoyed both. Back at the Tourism Office we found that the Town Historian had indeed called with his information about Cummings. The Tourism Office lady had kindly typed out her notes of the phone message for us like this:

Arrêté comme espion, pris pour un allemand [end page 95]
avait fait Briouze-la Ferté-Macé, le trajet a pied
emprisonné Place du Midi (place Général de Gaulle)
Ancien séminaire ( Lycée actuellement )
There it was, the word espion—and then my eye caught that allemand. Well, I thought, whatever ideas erroneous or not that the Town Historian may have about Cummings, at least he has heard of him and has thoughtfully replied to our query with the information about the location of the buildings. The Tourism Office lady kindly gave us a map, located and marked Place Général de Gaulle for us, and told us how to reach it. It was a short distance away just at the edge of town down the bill where Cummings and the other inmates had "caught water."

This was the first of our three visits to La Ferté-Macé. On this first visit we strolled around outside of the three joined buildings--it was only on our two later visits that we were given tours inside. (I will follow C’s general practice and call this complex "La Ferté," reserving "La Ferté-Macé" for the town itself; C does not use the usual hyphen.) And so, on a lovely summer evening in Normandy, we strolled around La Ferté, now a technical school (Lycée Nationalisé Polyvalent et L.E.P. Des Andaines). We walked around the stone wall (now, of course, freed of the barbed wire of Cummings’ time and considerably lower than the ten feet it was in places then), the Church building at one end (reminding us this was an "ancien séminaire"), the building at the other end (the whole top floor of this building was the Enormous Room), the front courtyard, the area in back where the men’s and women’s "cours" were. Our first impression of La Ferté was how massive it all is. [end page 96]

John Gill outside the "chapel" (photo by Susan Gill)

View of the three-building complex from the air. The "chapel" is on the left;
the Enormous Room was on the top floor, right (Kennedy 150). For another aerial view, see
Aerial Views of the Enormous Room.

There is a comprehensive photograph of the back of the three-building complex on page l50 of Richard S. Kennedy’s standard biography Dreams in the Mirror; Kennedy indicates the building and the floor of the Enormous Room. This is a far better picture than one can shoot from the ground. Taken from the air, it shows the buildings as well as some of La Ferté-Macé. The spatial relationship of the town and these buildings is made clear. Kennedy describes La Ferté as "a grim, grey, stone three-building complex, formerly a seminary (closed in 1906), comprising two three-story structures and a large chapel, surrounded by a seven-foot stone wall" (149). However, "three-story" would be the French designation; Americans would opt for "four-story." C indicates that the stone wall was ten feet high at least in places and topped with three feet of barbed wire (92, 157). Also, the building Kennedy terms "a large chapel" [end page 97] should, I believe, be designated as a "Church." Situated at one end of the three-building complex, it is as immense as The Enormous Room building at the other end; it is much too large to be called a "chapel." C calls "a chapel" (42) the "exceedingly small room" where Mass is said for the inmates (126). His description, as we will note, indicates that this room is too small to be the end building of the three-building complex. I will call this building, then, the "Church."

Pleased with our find of this (to us at least, if not to many of the inhabitants of La Ferté-Macé) historic and memorable reminder of E. E. Cummings, glad we had seen the place of "La Misère," we walked back up the hill to thank the kind and helpful Tourism Office lady and through her the Town Historian. Then, after a delicious dinner at our hotel, we strolled the town. It was pleasant, very small-townish, dotted with tripe stores and other evidences of its Norman lineage. We found none of the unpleasantness C and B (a character based on William Slater Brown) had noted; we would not have called La Ferté Mace "mean" (46) or "disagreeable" (39).

We were invited to tour inside La Ferté on our next visit three years later. We had driven down from Caen and again stayed at Le Céleste. The town seemed much the same. Mme Cingal, still the proprietress, was as pleasant as before, the refurbished hotel even more pleasant. After breakfast on the morning of Saturday, July 18, 1992, we walked down the hill to La Ferté. There was no one around. After strolling around the buildings, we stood gaping for a spell inside the courtyard at the front of the complex. Then gathering up our courage, we knocked at what appeared to be the main door. We explained our mission to the somewhat elderly lady who answered. She informed us she was the assistant concierge at the lycée, that she [end page 98] did not know of E. E. Cummings or that her school had served as a prison some 75 years before, but, most graciously, she offered to show us around. She led us through the empty buildings. Our guide took us down corridors, up staircases, hither and yon, until we were, like C in his first hours there, quite bewildered by it all. We asked about The Enormous Room itself mentioning specifically its pillars and windows. She indicated that the pillars as well as some staircases had been removed, and that some windows had been modified with new ones installed. She showed us that the upper floors as well as the rest of the buildings (except the Church) were a warren of classrooms, labs and offices for the kind of technical lycée (specializing, for example, in woodworking) it now is. The Church itself was empty, dim and dirty, perhaps being renovated, we thought. She took us to the Director’s office to show us on its walls framed photos of the buildings in the old days when, for example, it had been a seminary. There were no photos of it as a prison with its barbed wire. We asked about the hydrant where C and the other inmates caught water; looking out the window of the office towards the street, she said she knew it had been nearby but did not know exactly where, as it had been removed long ago.

We noted the view from the windows upstairs. Because of the boarding up of the windows on three sides, the inmates had only peepholes for a very restricted view of part of the front courtyard and a bit of the street in front of the building. Their view from the back, however, from the unobstructed ten windows on that side, would have been extensive; it would have included not only the prison activities immediately below, but the landscape, fields and woods in the distance, a sweeping if perhaps not a spectacular view. C, I recalled, paid little attention to this view of the landscape aside from making a few [end page 99] astringent comments. Looking out the third-floor windows of La Ferté, I thought that though the place had gone through radical changes and renovations over 75 years, yet here on the spot one could perhaps still glean some insights into C’s perceptions, attitudes and writing strategies during his stay in The Enormous Room.

Our guide was most kind on this tour of La Ferté, answering our questions, pointing out interesting aspects, providing information. As we were leaving, we asked her name, which she wrote down for us. Amid our abundant thanks, Mine Colette Lecomte graciously said that the tour had been her pleasure. It had certainly been ours.

Susan and I were back in La Ferté-Macé two years later in July 1996. For the third time we were welcomed by Mine Cingal at Le Céleste. This time we noted that not only our hotel but the whole town had a more prosperous look. Along our drive from Caen there were new "Invasion" signs from the 50th Anniversary commemorations of the Allied landings including some in La Ferté-Macé itself These reminded us again that La Ferté-Macé is a typical Norman town.

Again, Susan and I stood outside the front of the complex gazing around. Again the whole area was deserted. A young man came out of the main door we had knocked on two years before, climbed on his bike, eyed us quizzically, and, clearly trying to be pleasant rather than officious, rode over to us and asked if he could help. We told the young man of our interest in the American writer E. E. Cummings and his imprisonment there. Like all the others (except the Town Historian) whom we had asked in La Ferté-Macé, he had not heard of Cummings or of the lycée being a prison, but he graciously offered to take us inside. Telling us he was not faculty but some kind of lab [end page 100] assistant/custodian, he unlocked the front door and ushered us in. He walked us down a corridor to a large locked key depository, gathered a few keys, and showed us around, unlocking doors as we went. We saw no one else in the buildings. Again we toured the school buildings, classrooms, labs, and offices and visited the inside of the large high-vaulted Church. We noted especially that its walls were bare, that broken stone and dirt abounded, that there were no furnishings, and that the place had a feel of not having been used in a very long time. Our guide then led us first outside and then back in at another door a few yards away (reminding us of C and the inmates going in and out of the buildings in order to reach various ground-floor locations) to a room which we understood was under part of the Church; this had a stage and chairs as if for use as a school auditorium or for small theatrical performances.
We talked with him about the outside walls surrounding part of the complex; he took us out and we inspected these walls, considerably lowered since Cummings’ time. We asked if he knew where the hydrant used by the inmates to catch water had been. He led us out the back around the end of the Church to the front of the buildings (that is, to the town side). Across this street, he unlocked a gate and led us into a park-like area up a short hill past a building he said belonged to the school. It seemed to be a residence of some sort. There near this building he showed us an old hydrant with a handle like that of a pump. C locates his hydrant up the Street which ran in front of La Ferté and met two other streets in an area he called "a species of square" (157), now the Place Général de Gaulle. So the hydrant our guide showed us was not C’s. However, C’s description indicates that the inmates caught water at a similar hydrant operated "by means of a stubby lever" [end page 101] (157), one that seemed to be of the same vintage as the one we were shown.

At right: a pump or "hydrant" (Photo by Susan Gill)
[Editor's note: for possible views of the actual pump, see "an iron contrivance . . . " (page 1) and "an iron contrivance . . . "  (page 2).] 

Whatever disdainful remarks C (in the context of his artistic purposes) made about La Ferté-Macé and its inhabitants, Susan and I enjoyed visiting this old Norman town. We were deeply impressed on our three visits to it by the special kindness of Mme Cingal and her hotel staff, of the Tourism Office lady and the Town Historian, and especially of our two informal guides, Mine Lecomte and M. Blanchard (the man on the bicycle). Though only the Town Historian had even heard of E. E. Cummings, they all were especially generous and gracious to complete strangers from the United States. And next year we hope to visit La Ferté-Macé again; I’d like to chat with the Town Historian about that espion and allemand. [end page 102]


        "The Story Of The Great War Seen From The Windows of Nowhere"
                —E. E. Cummings (Firmage 270)
When C awakes bewildered and lost on his first morning in The Enormous Room at La Ferté, he begins to take stock of his amazing surroundings. After his joyous reunion with his great friend B and his introduction to some of his compellingly eccentric fellow inmates, he starts from the door end to walk down the long room with B and Monsieur Auguste. Carefully setting the scene ("As you stood with your back to the door, and faced down the room"), C mentions various objects in the room, then writes: The right-hand long wall contained something like ten large windows. . . There were no other windows in the remaining walls;or they had been carefully rendered useless. In spite of this fact,the inhabitants had contrived a couple of peep-holes--one in the door end and one in the left-hand long wall;the former commanding the gate by which I had entered, the latter a portion of the street by which I had reached the gate. (50-5 1) When the night before C had been escorted to The Enormous Room, he had gone through a double-padlocked door to enter the room which was the top story of one of the end buildings of the three-building complex of La Ferté, the Church being at the other end. His stroll that first morning starts from this door end; that is, his back is towards the middle building. Thus the long-wall ten windows on his right face the back of the complex. The [end page 103] inmates can look through these ten windows. All the other windows had been "rendered useless" or boarded up; these include those which on that first-morning stroll are on his left (that is, those long-wall windows directly facing the street in front of La Ferté and the town beyond), as well as those at either end of the room. Consequently, the inmates of The Enormous Room cannot view the street down below in front of La Ferté or the town beyond. As C notes, this has "an obvious significance" (52). It should be noted that the three buildings of the complex are joined but not in a straight line; the middle building is set back from the other two. Consequently, though The Enormous Room building is attached to the middle building, it has windows on all four sides. Thus one of those two inmate-devised peepholes (both offering interesting but necessarily extremely limited views) is in the end wall "facing the entrance gate," that is, in one of the windows facing back toward the middle building. From this peephole with its limited view of the gate the new arrivals such as Jean Le Nègre could be spotted (197). From the other peephole in one of the windows directly facing the street, C sadly, desperately, "caught a glimpse" of B and some others "entering the street" on their way to that horror of a prison Précigné (228).

Out the ten windows on the other or long back side of La Ferté the inmates can see some of the prison activities taking place below as well as a view of, in C’s words, "a bleak lifeless abject landscape of scrubby woods beyond" (51-52). This is C’s evaluation of that view the first morning he is in The Enormous Room. [end page 104]

The most striking thing about the room itself is, obviously, its immensity. With all the renovations over the years the room no longer exists as such; however, its significant magnitude can easily be imagined from walking around inside the building or from viewing it from outside. Cummings, of course, stressed this immensity by selecting The Enormous Room as the title of his book from the 26 suggested possibilities sent him in Europe by his father and Liveright (Firmage 273). I believe this enormity is stressed in another way; I will contrast it with three small rooms at La Ferté.

When C first enters The Enormous Room, it is night; he indicates his first reaction: "There was no way of judging the size of the dark room which uttered no sound." In a moment, however, absolutely exhausted, he falls on his paillasse though fully clothed. Before he can close his eyes, he hears "a sea of most extraordinary sound.. .the hitherto empty and minute room became suddenly enormous" (42). Then, as the darkness recedes at dawn, one of the first actual attributes of the room he makes out is its "enormous length" (45); soon thereafter he is terming it "The Enormous Room" and describing it as "in shape oblong,about 80 feet by 40,unmistakably ecclesiastical in feeling--two rows of wooden pillars,spaced at intervals of fifteen feet,rose to a vaulted ceiling 25 or 30 feet above the floor" (50).

It should be noted that from his first moments there, C revels in being in The Enormous Room; on his very first morning, echoing B (as we will note), with whom he has just been reunited, he exclaims enthusiastically, "By God. . . this is the finest place I’ve ever been in my life" (80). He is [end page 105] happy there, "happier," he insists, "than the very keenest words can pretend to express" (229).

The general happiness and exuberance C experiences in The Enormous Room, "the finest place on earth, " are not, of course, unalloyed. There are three small rooms at La Ferté where events occur which bring him misery. One of these events takes place late during his first night at La Ferté after the long and difficult ten or twelve mile walk from Briouze with his two gendarme guards. Shortly after entering the complex, C faces his first interrogation at La Ferté: "I followed my guides down a corridor,up a stair-case,and into a dark small room.. . ." There, though "dizzied" by the fatigue of his long walk, he tries "to determine who was now my tormentor" (40) in this small room. Second, there is Apollyon (M. le Directeur), who utilizes one of the "instruments of his power" (107) on Sundays by creating the "tantalizing proximity" of male and female inmates at Mass. This "maddening" situation is intensified, as it occurs in an "exceedingly small room" which "may have been thirty feet long and twenty wide" (126). [1] The third example is that of "la commission" of "Three Wise Men" which decides the fate of the inmates (permanent prison, release to somewhere in France as a refugee under surveillance, or freedom). This commission, which condemns B to Précigné and sends C to his choice of locales in France—"provided it was not on or near the sea-coast"(233) [2]—holds its tormenting interrogation in a "little room" at La Ferté (218). The Enormous Room happiness is framed by small-room misery at La Ferté. As I looked out the windows (as they now are) from that area of the building which was once The Enormous [end page 106] Room, I thought of what C terms his "amputation of the world" during his time there with B (83). This "amputation" is obviously engineered in a physical sense by the French Government through the authorities at La Ferté. However, I will argue that it is engineered, in part at least, by C himself for thematic purposes in the book. He writes, for example, in his first description of The Enormous Room and the views out its windows:

The blocking of all windows on three sides had an obvious significance:les hommes were not supposed to see anything which went on in the world without;les hommes might,however, look their fill on a little washing-shed, on a corner of what seemed to be another wing of the building,and on a bleak lifeless abject landscape of scrubby woods beyond—which constituted the view from the ten windows on the right. (51-52) "[B]leak lifeless abject landscape of scrubby woods beyond" is a very self-limiting view out of ten large windows over a period of three months. [3] I am suggesting that though the view of the town is blocked off, C deliberately chooses not to find the solace, serenity, enchantment, wonder, inspiration, charm that nature (yes, even or especially nature in rural Normandy in autumn) could provide--and almost always did for E. E. Cummings. All C has to do is lift his eyes beyond "the muddy expanse below" (177) and see nature beyond those open windows as Cummings saw it all his life and wrote stunningly about from beginning to end. In addition, C’s self-limiting view of [end page 107] the world outside cannot be attributed solely to his misery at being a prisoner. With tremendous excitement, as I have noted, he glorifies his happiness at La Ferté. Further, before he reaches The Enormous Room and starts to neglect and denigrate nature around him, he perceives and appreciates the loveliness and inspiration of nature as a prisoner on his way to La Ferté; and, most importantly, he feels it even in The Enormous Room itself shortly after B leaves. It is only during the weeks he is with B that C, as a thematic strategy for the book, shuts himself off from the stimulating wonders of nature.

There is a decided shift in C’s views of nature, then, on his way to La Ferté from those he records about his time in The Enormous Room with B. After B leaves, there is another shift. However, before discussing these, it is instructive first to consider three other factors: C’s opinions of nature seen through "The Windows of Nowhere" during the time he and B live in The Enormous Room, the fact that they do not consider any notions of escape, and finally C’s reflections about the town of La Ferté-Macé.

The windows on all four sides of The Enormous Room, both the unblocked and the blocked, function as crucial aspects of plot but also of theme. The ten windows on the back, the unblocked windows, are the locale of a number of monotony-breaking and joyous activities. Nine of these windows, while not boarded up, are nailed shut "with good long wire nails for the sake of warmth" (144). Since the tenth can be opened, it is the scene of the amusing spitting contest, a glorious attempt by the inmates to hit "the sentinel below or a projecting window-ledge or a spot of mud." C, though he will not claim he is a "master" in the art [end page 108] of spitting out this open window, does insist he is at least "a competitor to be reckoned with so far as accuracy was concerned" (89).

This open window is also featured in one of the most hilarious episodes of life in The Enormous Room. C and other inmates lower a "jam-pail" on an amazing "rope"—"thirty-eight feet long"—made of the inmates’ belts, ties, scarves, shoe strings, handkerchiefs, etc. to the waiting laundress Margherite below on the ground; she is to fill it with water for the parched inmates.

Unfortunately, "the pimply-faced brilliantly-uniformed glitteringly-putteed sergent de plantons lui-même" notices; only through the stunning incompetence of the planton (who is hysterically ordered, "NOM DE DIEU TIREZ!" but who can’t locate his cartridges) is disaster avoided. C and the others pull frantically until at long last the pail comes up over the sill. They all tumble backward in a mass; though they still have no water, they are "shaking with laughter" (179-80).

On these happy occasions at the windows, C can easily observe the world beyond the scene directly below. He concentrates, rather, on the La Ferté activities; he finds it, for example "interesting in the extreme" to look down and see "just outside the wall of the building—Celina Lena Lily and a new girl who was Renée. They were all individually intoxicated" ("joyously tight," "stiffly bunnied," "raucously pickled" "utterly soused") (119). Such viewing C finds "interesting," but when he does raise his eyes to look further beyond, he finds only desolation.

While one would naturally expect C to note during the time he and B are together "the dull black evil stinking air" in "the cold rotten darkness" of The Enormous Room [end page 109] itself (227), it is surprising that even the weather outside the windows, according to C, is for the most part dismal, monotonous, and, again, "evil." He writes in this vein often; he notes, for example "the greyness of the desolate autumn" and "the black evil rain" (184).

On a few occasions the weather is moderately acceptable. Once, looking from the windows, C discovers "one fine day, perhaps the finest day" (165), but this faint praise is most often overshadowed by his disdain. For example, he relates that on one day, "we were all upon afternoon promenade,it being beau temps (for that part of the world). . ." (181). Most of his comments about nature during this time are derogatory. He writes, for example, "as always,it was raining" (88) and, quite typically:

Rain did,from time to time,not fall: from time to time a sort of unhealthy almost-light leaked from the large uncrisp corpse of the sky,returning for a moment to our view the ruined landscape. From time to time the eye,travelling carefully with a certain disagreeable suddenly fear no longer distances of air coldish and sweet,stopped upon the incredible nearness of the desolate without motion autumn. (224-25) There is at least one inmate who, looking out at the autumn scene through the windows of The Enormous Room, can appreciate the views of nature they afford. On his first morning in The Enormous Room when C wakes up, B’s first words to him (this is after they had traveled separately to La Ferté) are, "Hello,Cummings. . .There’s a man here who is a friend of Vanderbilt and knew Cézanne" (45). This is the artist Count F.A. de Bragard, R.A. Though the friendship of these three eventually cools, C admits, "To [end page 110] me,I may say,he was even extraordinarily kind." He gives as an example the time they "talked painting" and the Count demonstrates "an English trick" to C: he makes a hole in a piece of paper and, in C’s words, "gazed profoundly through the circular aperture at an exceptionally disappointing section of the altogether gloomy landscape,visible thanks to one of the ecclesiastical windows of The Enormous Room." In contrast to this, one of C’s characteristic evaluations of the view, the Count sees it differently: "There’s a lovely bit of landscape’ he said sadly. ‘If I only had my paints here'" (147-48).

On another occasion, promenading The Enormous Room with the Count, C writes that he sees "through the windows the dull bloating colours of sunset pouring faintly;and the Count stops dead in his tracks and regards the sunset without speaking for a number of seconds. Then—’it’s glorious,isn’t it?’ he asks quietly." Though C replies, "Glorious indeed," it is obvious from his previous comment about the sunset that he is merely being polite. A moment later C speaks "with deference" to the Count (148).

Further, C’s "amputation of the world" during his time in The Enormous Room does not occur in what is usually meant by the word prison. As C indicates, "La Ferté Macé was not properly speaking a prison,but a Porte or Campe de Triage" (60). It was a place of confinement, true, harsh confinement indeed, but hardly a prison. For example, one could obtain a private room and better meals for a fee or pay others to do the required tasks just as The Clever Man pays "the less fortunate to perform his corvée d’eau [sewage dumping] for him" (95); C is allowed to draw out a generous 40 francs of his money a week to spend at the [end page 111] well-stocked canteen for, among other things, cheese and chocolate (77-78); and inmates accompanied by a planton are allowed into the town. It does not sound like a prison when Count Bragard with Tommy, an English planton, can go into town "as a trusted inhabitant of La Ferté to do a few necessary errands for himself;whither he returned with a good deal of colour in his cheeks and a good deal of vin rouge in his guts" (152) or when Emil the Bum "has a quid in his gums night and day,which quid he buys outside in the town" (86) or when "a man brought up a harmonica which he had purchased en ville" (194). Indeed the inmate balayeurs go out to town regularly, assisting those who were leaving, as the Machine Fixer and Garabaldi do for C; C and his two inmate friends on this occasion even have a drink together in a tavern "just opposite the gare" shortly before C’s train leaves. (239)

It is surprising how many inmates, in short, can be outside the walls. These include the balayeurs and those who caught water for the German cook. C is assigned this latter duty several times; he describes it as "the combined pushing and pulling of a curiously primitive two-wheeled cart over a distance of perhaps three hundred yards to a kind of hydrant situated in a species of square upon which the mediaeval structure known as Porte (or Camp) de Triage faced stupidly and threateningly" (157). The route is out the building at a gate toward the Church end of the complex, then a turn right outside the ten-foot stone wall with its three feet of barbed wire and on up the hill on the street in front of La Ferté until that street meets two others in the square. Here is the "kind of hydrant" from which the men catch water. C describes it as "an iron contrivance [end page 112]operating by means of a stubby lever which, when pressed down, yielded grudgingly a spout of whiteness" (157). The hydrant and the square where the streets meet are slightly up the hill from The Enormous Room building.

Walking up this hilly street in front of La Ferté (now Rue Felix Désaunay) to C’s square (now Place de Général de Gaulle) one notes that it is steep enough so that both the pushing and pulling up the route ("a momentous distance of perhaps five hundred feet" [112]) as well as the desperate restraining of the water-cart from rolling back down the hill must have been arduous work. The water-catchers deserved their real-coffee reward from the cook.

Contemplating all the inmate activities outside the walls of La Ferté, noting that (except for two or three including The Black Holster who were on permanent status) the plantons were "réformés" [4]and remembering the incompetence these guards displayed throughout (we have seen the example of the planton not being able to locate cartridges when ordered to fire during the jam-pail episode), one realizes that part of C’s self-amputation of the world is the fact that C and B never even consider the possibility of escape. Others do escape: "The Young Russian and The Barber instead of passing from the cour directly to the building,made use of a little door in an angle between the stone wall and the kitchen;and that to such good effect that we never saw them again." The "lion-hearted plantons" are not aware of this escape until several hours later "despite the fact that a ten-foot wall had been scaled, some lesser obstructions vanished, and a run in the open made almost... before their very eyes" (92). These two escapees make it almost seem easy. There is also The Frog "who one day [end page 113] somehow managed to disappear like his predecessor The Barber" (190). B had told C his first morning in The Enormous Room, "Cummings, I tell you this is the finest place on earth" (46). C imbibing this as he did so many attitudes learned from his dominating friend echoes this a short time later, "By God. . .This is the finest place I’ve ever been in my life" (80). The themes of the fiction demand that The Enormous Room be an "amputation of the world" as well as "the finest place on earth": throughout it all, there is no thought of escape. The "amputation of the world" theme comes into play also in the context of the daily papers to which C and B have access. The planton Tommy brings "The Daily Mail every day until Bragard couldn’t afford it,after which either B and I or Jean le Nêgre took it off Tommy's hands" (152). This is most interesting, among other reasons, since Jean can’t read; C describes him "poring with extraordinary intentness over the pages of a London Daily Mail which [he] was holding upside-down" (198). C and B also buy Le Matin from one of the plantons "who went to the town and got the Matin there" (155).

After reading The Enormous Room one might expect to find La Ferté-Macé to be an almost dreadful place, an unpleasant town with unpleasant inhabitants. Our visits to the town, however, reinforce the notion that the disdain of the place and its people in the book is also part of the thematic strategies of the fiction. Walking from Briouze, C finds La Ferté-Macé "an extremely small and rather disagreeable town" (39). There are two factors that help account for this immediate evaluation. One is that the two gendarme guards, who had been quite relaxed on the train and during the walk from Briouze, on the approach to La [end page 114] Ferté-Macé become stern and military. C and his guards had even stopped at a café in Briouze for a drink of wine; these guards also allowed him time to pause before the crucifix along the roadside. However, now close to the town, they become again the hated gendarmes. And second, C, mistaking the pronunciation he has heard, thinks he is entering Marseilles; the houses he sees are obviously not "so large and lively as I had expected from my dreams of Marseilles" (39).

It is B who immediately straightens C out about the qualities of La Ferté-Macé during C’s bewildering first morning in The Enormous Room. B informs him that the place is "Camp de Triage de La Ferté Mace, Orne, France." When C confesses he thought it was Marseilles, B explains: "But this is M-A-C-E. It’s a little mean town,where everybody snickers and sneers at you if they see you’re a prisoner. They did it to me" (46). In their first conversation after their reunion, B instills this and other attitudes that C will adopt.

Back in Paris, on his way to La Ferté as a guarded prisoner, C does note "the pointings and the sneers and the half-suppressed titters" he evokes (35). Yet he still finds on the streets of Paris a few "divine people who stared at me and nudged one another" (32) One of these, albeit few, "divine people" is the conductress of the "car" which carries C and his guards part of the way from one railway station to another; she helps C "with a gesture which filled all of me with joy" and "smiled at me." (31). Others in Paris evoke differing responses. The "bourgeoise" who serves him disagreeably in one of Paris’s boucheries with "suspicion of me written in headlines all over her mouth" brings forth the [end page 115] blunt, "I hated her..." (34). In Paris C can make distinctions between divine and hateful people.

However, after B’s comment about La Ferté-Macé and its inhabitants in The Enormous Room, C no longer makes such distinctions. Catching water up the street outside the walls of La Ferté, C notes that the street was "connected with a rather seffish and placid looking little town" (157). One should note that at the time he had been in La Ferté-Macé only once, at night, under distressing circumstances. Now, as an inmate catching water, he can see only the outskirts of the La Ferté-Macé. But B had called it "a little mean town."

Likewise, C writes, "Honestly,I never ceased to be surprised by the scorn,contempt,disgust,and frequently sheer ferocity manifested in the male and particularly the female faces. All the ladies wore,of course,black; they were wholly unbeautiful of face or form. . ." (159). The first time he caught water, he notes that "everybody in the town was returning from church"; he ducked "the shafts of censure by the simple means of hiding my face behind the moving water-barrel" (159). B had told C his first day in The Enormous Room, "everybody"—no distinctions—" snickers and sneers at you if they see you’re a prisoner" (46).

However, in the few days remaining to him in The Enormous Room after B has left, C rediscovers nature and returns to writing poems. He concludes, "I turned into Edward E. Cummings,I turned into what was dead and is now alive. . . ." He adds, "I am going by myself with no planton into the little street of the little city of La Ferté Mace which is a little,a very little city in France,where once upon a time I used to catch water for an old man" (238). [end page 116] Alone, as E. E. Cummings, without B’s dominating instructions, he is without disdain about La Ferté-Macé or its inhabitants. He no longer calls it "disagreeable" or "selfish." He does not castigate the inhabitants. La Ferté-Macé is only a very little city in France where once upon a time he caught water for the cook.

What C expresses during his time in The Enormous Room with B is not the same as that which he expressed before or after. C, as we have noted, even though "happier than the very keenest words can begin to express," finds no beauty or inspiration in nature outside the windows during his months with B at La Ferté. This is in sharp contrast to C’s perceptions and feelings when, without B, he travels under guard and as he is incarcerated in various prison cells on his way to La Ferté-Macé from the Norton-Harjes Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un ambulance camp. Describing, for example, the train trip from Grez to Paris as a prisoner escorted by detested gendarmes, C writes, "it is light outside. One sees the world. There is a world still,the gouvernement français has not taken it away..." (30).

The "amputation of the world," then, as it pertains to the inward concentration of C with its concomitant neglect or disdain of nature, occurs only when C was with B in The Enormous Room. Even in another prison, in his cell at Noyon, C in great good humor observes landscape drawings on the wall and declares, "I began to wonder what a tree looks like, and laughed copiously" (18). Later at Grez, again in a prison cell, he spots outside leaves "of a refreshing colour," adding "I felt singularly happy" (27). Even in his prison cell nature can be "refreshing." [end page 117]

It is instructive to contrast this with C’s use of leaves at La Ferté: "effecting a study of colour itself" he and B on promenade spend time "collecting rather beautifully hued leaves in la cour." They arrange these colorful leaves with parts of "cigarette-boxes chocolate-wrappers labels of various sorts and even postage-stamps" as well as other items of varying colors in one of his "note-books" (224). However, the trees in the men’s cour ("in reality a verger") from which these "beautifully hued leaves" fell or were plucked that autumn are, C writes, a "dozen mangy apple-trees,fighting for their very lives in the angry soil" (57); certainly C does not consider these apple trees, nor other colorful autunm trees seen in the distance from the windows of The Enormous Room to be "refreshing." To him the apple trees were "mangy" and the woods "scrubby" in the "desolate" autumn. With B in La Ferté Mace, C finds nothing in nature that is "refreshing."

Further, on his way to La Ferté C meets some "friends": "a little silhouette" and "Ia lune." There is a touching scene at his cell when he is imprisoned in Noyon: "I had laid a piece of my piece of chocolat on the window-sill. As I lay on my back,a little silhouette came along the sill and ate that piece of a piece,taking something like four minutes to do so. He then looked at me,I then smiled at him,and we parted,each happier than before" (18). Later, "because the moon was like a mademoiselle,and I did not want to offend the moon," he will not sing out loud "Bon Soir, Madame la Lune" (21). Thinking also of "a huge iron can waist-high" (17) he finds in his cell that he calls Ça Pue, C concludes: "My friends:the silhouette and la lune,not [end page 118] counting Ça Pue,whom I regarded almost as a part of me" (21).

The moon is again evoked on that lengthy and laborious night walk—a ten or twelve mile stroll" (40)—with his two gendarme guards from Briouze to La Ferté. Shortly before entering The Enormous Room and the reunion with B, C can say, "It was a fine night for a little promenade;not too cool and with a promise of a moon stuck in the sky." He notes "moonbeams" and says that "the delicious silence of the night. . . boosted me into a condition of mysterious happiness" (37). Finding a little stream, C crawls to it: "I drank heavily of its perfect blackness. It was icy, talkative, minutely alive" (38). During this time, then, despite the misery of this long laborious walk as a prisoner guarded by two gendarmes, C finds a boosting, happiness-endowing beauty of the night, with "the moon’s minute flower pushing between slabs of fractured cloud" (38).

Even entering "the small and rather disagreeable town" of La Ferté-Macé itself C is still aware of the moon, remarking: "the round yellow big moon looked immensely and peacefully conscious." Too tired to think, as he tells it, C fantasizes that La Ferté-Macé was but "the moon’s picture of a town. . . . This was a city of Pretend,created by the hypnotism of moonlight" (39).

All these aspects of nature, the mood and the tone, its beauty, its power to refresh, its ability to boost happiness, its bases of insight and imagination, which C finds on his way to La Ferté, even just outside its doors, are missing when C is in The Enormous Room with B. It is only after B leaves The Enormous Room that nature again blooms for C in beauty and inspiration. [end page 119]

During the very few days that elapse between B’s departure from La Ferté and his own, C slips into depression, depression so severe "which this departure inflicted upon my altogether too human nature" that it results in, he admits, "(one might nearly say) mental catastrophe" (229-30). But C still in his depression, still in his "Slough of Despond," still incarcerated at La Ferté-Macé, but without B, is now again open to the sway of nature. The snow fell. Before when B was still in The Enormous Room, a snowfall resulted in C’s comment, "the grey dirty snow-slush hid the black filthy world which we saw from our windows" (212-13). Now, a few days after B has left, one inmate "at the nearest window" announced "Il tombe de la neige— Noël! Noël! ":

I went to another window and looked out. Sure enough. Snow was falling,gradually and wonderfully falling,silently falling through the thick soundless autumn. . . It seemed to me supremely beautifIul,the snow. There was about it something unspeakably crisp and exquisite,something perfect and minute and gentle and fatal. (232)
Not only is the snow "wonderfully falling," not only is the snow "beautiful," and "exquisite," but it also inspires C to begin a poem, "a poem about the snow,a poem in French, beginning Il tombe de la neige,Noël,Noël." The world is no longer "amputated"; even The Enormous Room is now "filled with a new and beautiful darkness,the darkness of the snow outside" (232-33). C and Jean le Negre "strode to and fro in the muddy court admiring la neige,not speaking" (236). The contrast between this perception of and joy in [end page 120] nature in The Enormous Room and C’s evaluation of it during B’s days there is complete.

C and B turn inward in their "amputation of the world." They concentrate only on their most immediate world, fighting off all else. Only that which immediately concerns The Enormous Room matters to them at this time. Certainly they display little interest, for example, in those back home, their loved ones worried to death, none whatever about the war, no interest in anything besides themselves, their ideas and feelings, their fellow inmates and the confining life at La Ferté. They spend a good deal of time attacking the circumstances of their imprisonment, the French government, the authorities at La Ferté, and nature in autumn outside their windows. it is "we" the enlightened happy few against "them"—and the "them" includes the landscape and the weather, the view from "The Windows of Nowhere." When there is no more "we," when B is shipped out, C’s individualism, based not on himself but on that "we" with B, crumbles. Then and only then can he find something in nature out the windows that is praiseworthy, that "wonderful" and "exquisite" snow. The "amputation of the world" C experiences during the time with B in The Enormous Room is over: "I turned into Edward E. Cummings, I turned into what was dead and is now alive..." (238).

Nothing in the Norman autumn at La Ferté during his incarceration with B pleases C. His old friend Mlle La Lune is missing, there are no birds to see and joy with, no stars to guide, no vibrant colors in the sky, no soothing wind, no refreshing autumn trees in color. There is nothing in nature to boost the spirit, nothing that teaches or inspires. There is nothing out those "Windows of Nowhere" except that [end page 121] "bleak lifeless abject landscape," the desolation of a Normandy autumn with weather like "black evil rain." While B is with C in The Enormous Room, it serves the fictional theme of the "amputation of the world" to disdain the inspiration and solace of any beauty or charm in nature. Only after B left did C write his poem about the snow.

Noting that E. E. Cummings and William Slater Brown spent a good deal of time during their days in their Enormous Room discussing "art, literature, and aesthetic theory," Kennedy writes that "Cummings continued to write poems" (152). C does not. C is not E. E. Cummings.

Vigorously denying he was providing a "Happy Ending," C insists that "this history is mere fiction(and rather vulgarly violent fiction at that)" (229). C’s neglect and disparagement of nature seen from "The Windows of Nowhere" in The Enormous Room, aspects of the "amputation of the world" theme of the book, are additional proof of C’s contention. This is fiction. [Editor's note]

Yet, The Enormous Room remains fiction with a difference. Even if C is a persona, sometimes more, sometimes less E. E. Cummings, even if the book uses novelistic techniques like the strategy of the "amputation of the world" theme in its central scenes set in La Ferté, it is not a novel. Cummings himself referred to it as a "miscalled novel." [5]Yet, though based on Cummings’ experiences during World War I in France, it is clearly not an ordinary war memoir or a mere historical account. What then are we to make of The Enormous Room? If ever a piece of writing is sui generis, this one, especially with its linguistic fireworks and its poetic reverberations, is just that. After visiting the town, I find myself thinking of it not in the [end page 122] categories of fiction or history but, thankfully, simply as E. E. Cummings’ "La Ferté-Macé Book."

— Palo Alto, California


[1] Looking at the Church building with its airy space, one can see it is clearly larger than the room C describes. Perhaps Mass was said at a side chapel of the larger Church.

[2] Cummings was freed through the intervention of his father and others after he had chosen to go to Oloron-Sainte-Marie, at the foot of the Pyrenees, but before this sentence could be carried out. (234).

[3] Cummings’ drawing "Scene from the Enormous Room" (51) is of this view. There are animals in front of the woods in this drawing of the "lifeless" landscape. C does not mention them.

[4] C indicates that with a few exceptions "all the plantons were supposed to be unhealthy;they were indeed réformés whom le gouvemement francais sent from time to time to La Ferté and similar institutions for a little outing,and as soon as they had recovered their health under these salubrious influences they were shipped back to do their bit for world-safety,democracy,freedom,etc.,in the trenches" (59). 

[Editor's note:] This appears to be a misreading of the passage. Cummings says that the last chapter about his departure from La Ferté cannot be construed as a happy ending for two reasons: 1) "I was happier in La Ferté Macé,with the Delectable Mountains about me,than the very keenest words can pretend to express," and 2) leaving "La Misère" while knowing that "some of the finest people in the world are doomed to remain prisoners thereof . . . [and] are doomed to continue . . . the grey and indivisible Non-existence which without apology you [Cummings] are quitting for Reality—cannot by any stretch of the imagination be conceived as constituting a Happy Ending . . ." (229). Cummings' book can not be seen as "mere fiction(and rather vulgarly violent fiction at that)" precisely because it does not provide the happy ending that such vulgar fiction demands.

[5] i: six nonlectures, 4.

Works Cited

[end page 123]

Enormous Room page

More photos of  La Ferté Macé

Aerial Views of the Enormous Room

"an iron contrivance . . . " (page 1) and "an iron contrivance . . . "  (page 2)

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