Paul Headrick
[Spring 2 (1993): 48-56]

Most of the critics who have written on The Enormous Room have at least noted its obvious allusions to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. Few, however, make the relationship between the two texts a primary focus of their inquiries. Critics frequently comment on the differences between the texts, and reasonably point to those differences to explain their not giving the relationship greater weight. Kingsley Widmer's observation that "the use of Bunyan and the pilgrimage is only partial, and probably would not justify the ingenuity of systematic expression" (6) typifies this position.

The two exceptions to this relative lack of emphasis on the relationship between Enormous Room and Pilgrim's Progress are David Smith's chapter on the Enormous Room in John Bunyan in America and Samuel Pickering's article, "E. E. Cummings' Pilgrim's Progress." Smith argues that Cummings " chose The Pilgrim's Progress as the organizing principle of The Enormous Room (105), that there is a "fundamental dependence on the earlier allegory" (107), and that The Enormous Room "reinstate[s] the truth of The Pilgrim's Progress (105). Pickering engages in the kind of systematic exposition that Widmer suggests is not justified by the use of which Cummings puts Bunyan, claiming parallels between, for instance, Bunyan's apology and Cummings' introduction, Bunyan's den and the enormous room itself, the city of destruction and the western front, and the temptations of Mr. Worldly Wiseman and the tribunal that asks Cummings if he hates Germans, and so on.

There is, on the question of the relationship between Cummings' and Bunyan's texts, a position that asserts neither that there is a close relationship such as Smith and Pickering find, nor suggests, in the manner of Widmer, that the relationship need not be emphasized. The [end page 48] Enormous Room is not, as Pickering claims, an allegory that functions in a manner analogous to Pilgrim's Progress nor does in reinstate its fundamental truths.

Yet the relationship is important nevertheless. The Enormous Room is a parody, working, as Linda Hutcheon defines it, as "a form of imitation, but imitation characterized by ironic inversion, not always at the expense of the parodied text" (6). The target of Cummings' parody is, indeed, not Pilgrim's Progress--there would be little point for Cummings in 1922 to be attacking the values of Bunyan's allegory--but the legacy of Puritanism, those principles that survive covenant theology and the diminishing of Puritanism's importance: anxiety over spiritual status and the expression of this anxiety in conformity, the view of the world as fallen, and the predisposition to allegory itself. Yvor Winters argues that the New England stream of American literature has always struggled to come to terms with the ambiguous and self-destructive legacy of Puritan ancestry (215), and in parodying Pilgrim's Progress Cummings is consistent with this literary tradition in which so many have placed him.

The inversions of Pilgrim's Progress in Cummings' text are many, but the most obvious are those to which Cummings as narrator draws our attention through allusion. The parody constituted by these inversions, so clearly signalled by the text, are consistent with an inversion on what could be called a formal or structural level.

The Enormous Room begins with Cummings and his companion, B, in the ambulance section that Cummings describes as "The Slough of Despond." The mud that fills the Slough in Pilgrim's Progress represents the "fears and doubts and discouraging apprehensions" that still trouble the sinner awakened to his condition (25). B and Cummings show that they are awakened to their condition when they leave America and when they reject the standards set by Mr. A. That they have doubts, or that they have not freed themselves entirely, is demonstrated by the allegiance to official values evident in their volunteering for the Ambulance Corps in the first place. These doubts, however, are not what befoul Cummings' slough, nor is it the mud that Cummings and B must wash off the ambulances. It is the [end page 49] values represented by Mr. A., the head of the section, which Mr. A. identifies as American values, saying, "we 're here to show those bastards how they do things in America"(3), through which Cummings and B must slog.

Secular America rejects the idea of the individual's spiritual status being determined by God-given grace, or the lack of it. The legacy that Cummings attacks, however, is that even with the giving way of the religious imperative, the American is still ridden by anxiety over his spiritual status and searches for external signs to satisfy his craving for knowledge that he is saved. The signs he fastens on are located in conformity with the leftover standards of Puritan covenant theology: social responsibility, adherence to law, material success fastidiousness, and sensual restraint. These standards are connected to the view that the world is fallen and that behavior which suggests that man is of Nature is a sign of his disgrace. In rejecting them especially cleanliness, Cummings ironically inverts the "Slough of Despond" episode in Pilgrim's Progress and, through this inversion criticizes the legacy of the theology that motivates and govern Bunyan's work.

The parody is sustained in the enormous room itself. The Delectable Mountains, which, significantly are individuals, not mountains, are vulgar, promiscuous, illiterate, and filthy. With reference to the values that are the legacy of Puritanism, they are depraved. Connecting the conventionally fallen with grace in the persons of the Delectable Mountains does not merely attack officialdom, but, again, ironically inverts Pilgrim's Progress, criticizing the notion that man is fallen, the notion on which the romantic or transcendentalist argues that governments and officialdom depend.

While these differences between Cummings' and Bunyan's texts, these ironic inversions, parody Pilgrim's Progress in what are perhaps obvious ways, a second, complementary inversion takes place on a formal level. The allegorical nature of The Pilgrim's Progress is itself a sign of Puritanism: anxiety to establish one's status by reading signs is connected to the allegorical impulse. This impulse is also ironically inverted in The Enormous Room. [end page 50]

In The Pilgrim's Progress, unlike The Enormous Room, the allegory is independent of the will of the narrator protagonist. The difficulties Christian encounters en route to the Celestial City, and the agencies that assist him, may be projections of his subconscious or his spirit, but the narrator does not recognize this, and Christian certainly does not. The names of the allegorical figures are simply given to the narrator in his dream, as when he says of the bog into which fall Christian and his temporary companion, Pliable, "The name of the Slough was Despond" (24). The narrator does not "decide" what to call the slough. He simply identifies it by a name whose source seems anterior to the text.

In The Enormous Room the protagonist-as-narrator constructs the allegory. Rather than subconsciously externalizing aspects of his personality, he consciously assigns allegorical roles to figures whose existence is independent of him, at the same time he alludes to The Pilgrim's Progress and claims responsibility for so doing: "In the preceding pages I have described my Pilgrim's Progress from the Slough of Despond, commonly known as section Sanitaire Vingt-et-un ..." (82). The Enormous Room then, rather than an allegory, is about someone constructing an allegory.

In this difference between the allegorical and meta-allegorical lies a criticism of the universal truth-claim made by the traditional genre. This criticism is constant with what has almost always been taken to be a common, if not dominant theme in Cummings' work, his hostility to system and his championing of the individual. By making an allegory out of nonfictional material, the narrator Cummings operates in a way parallel to that of the Puritan of America tradition, anxious to read the world as a system of signs that will indicate spiritual status. By giving responsibility for the allegory to the individual, however, the text argues that appeals to signs whose meanings are determined independently of the individual reading them are bogus. This is a critique, not of the Puritan allegory, but of the persistence of the allegorical impulse, of the impulse to abdicate individual responsibility by discovering an assigned meaning rather than creating an unsupplied one. [end page 51]

The claim that Cummings is responsible for the allegory needs to be qualified, however, for the responsibility is shared in an important way. The allusions to Pilgrim's Progress are Cummings', but the Adamic naming in the text, such as that of the inhabitants of the enormous room, is an activity Cummings shares with B: "B and I referred to him as The Silent Man" (71), "We called him Judas" (72), "He was called by B and myself...Même le Balayeur" (93), and so on. B is distinguished from Christian's companions as Cummings is from Christian, in taking responsibility for supplying meanings, rather than responding to a world whose meanings are assigned, and B's activities support the parody.

There are other important points of contrast between B and Christian's companions, however, and these differences also work as inversions that advance the parody. Faithful and Hopeful are the most developed characters in the first half of Pilgrim's Progress other than Christian, while very little is said about B. Faithful and Hopeful are weaker than Christian, but B is stronger than Cummings. While Christian and his companions disagree from time to time, Cummings and B are always in agreement.

Faithful and Hopeful are developed through dialogue. They and Christian reveal themselves as they discuss and jointly try to understand and cope with the world in which they find themselves, a world whose meanings are independent of them. A similar kind of discussion with B would in one sense be impossible for Cummings, and, more importantly, in another sense it would be threatening to him. It would be impossible because the meanings are not given but created. The two would not be discussing the world given to them but are rather creating the world through their discussion. It would be threatening because the spiritual journey Cummings is on is aimed at a realization of the independent individual, not just free of assigned meanings but free even of the constraints of community, however small. Despite Cummings' hostility to officialdom, his attachment to B shows that on rejection of any external determinant of spiritual status, the tendency is still toward the comforts of conformity. The lack of development in B, ironically inverting Bunyan's text, [end page 52] represents and is critical of the anxiety to hide the urge to conform under the cover of high-pitched assertions of nonconformity.

While it may seem that the meanings in The Enormous Room are Cummings' choices, the suppression of the relationship with B prevents us from investigating whether the only genuine choice Cummings has made is to tie his fate to B's Ä whether he has decided only the means by which his choices will be limited, rather than creating freedom to choose. The threat that B represents is based not only on his sharing of responsibility for meaning, however, but also on his power.

Faithful and Hopeful, though they sometimes prove wiser than Christian, are usually more naive and more easily led astray. They are following Christian's example by going on the pilgrimage. B, on the other hand, leads Cummings. Cummings' fate is a function of his attachment to B, but B is independent of Cummings. Cummings follows B physically. B is the first to arrive in the enormous room, and, though he has been there only one day longer than Cummings, he knows his way around and introduces "Le Nouveau" to the people and the operations of the room. B has settled in before Cummings arrives and has already judged the enormous room. When B greets Cummings his first morning in the enormous room, he says, "'I tell you this is the finest place on earth!"' (46). At the end of the day, during which B explains to Cummings the workings of the place, Cummings says, "'By God...this is the finest place I've ever been in my life"' (80).

Cummings's dependence on B carries more than the threat that the meanings assigned to the world will not be his responsibility. If, in their community of two, B is the stronger, Cummings' own meaning may be established by B. As long as he suppresses his relationship with B, Cummings' lack of independence will not be revealed. The incentive to suppress rather than simply discard B's influence rests on the appeal of the status B grants Cummings. First, Cummings is guilty through his association with B. This association is what takes him out of the society he detests and into the enormous room. Once there, he is part of the elect, again by virtue of his [end page 53] association with B, who has already established himself. All of the inhabitants of the enormous room court the good opinion of Cummings and B and do them favors. Christian's status is assigned by God. Cummings' status, at least for a time, is also assigned by an other. The inversion is a critique of the need to have status determined b at least one other, by a community, that persists beyond the death of God.

Christian's first companion, Faithful, is martyred in Vanity Fair after a trial in a kangaroo court. Similarly, B leaves the Enormous Room after a "trial." Christian does not mourn Faithful, as he knows he has ascended to the Celestial City, and he knows his own status does not depend on him. Cummings, in contrast, is devastated by B's departure. When le Surveillant says to Cummings, "'You ought to be extraordinarily thankful and particularly happy,'" trying to cheer him after B has been sent to prison, Cummings replies, "'I should rather have gone to prison with my friend... '" (231). The quality that makes The Enormous Room "the finest place on earth" depends on B, or is at least subordinate to Cummings' relationship with B. With B gone, Cummings falls into depression. His status is no longer affirmed by B.

B's departure does clear up a problem with respect to Cummings identity and status. From the time of his arrest, he is referred to as "the American," but when he enters the enormous room this causes confusion, as, obviously, it fails to distinguish him from B, and he becomes "Le Nouveau." After B leaves, Cummings is the only American. Christian's name, before he embarks on his pilgrimage, is "Graceless." Just as Christian 's journey remakes him as a representative of Christian values, Cummings is remade to represent American values, not those that Mr. A. thinks of as American, but those as conceived by the makers of the New England radicalism in which Cummings participates.

It is in the enormous room, with the departure of B, that Cummings' status as "the American" is made unambiguous. This is one of the only allegorical meanings that he does not control. Cummings conceives of this spiritual journey as culminating in an [end page 54] independence from forms such as that of the nation, so he does not make himself an "American," but it is just such a conception of the primacy of the individual that, paradoxically, makes him "American." What he does makes him who he is, and who he is gives him the label "the American." He becomes most completely "The American" after B's departure, and the process is not a painless one. He is thrown into depression, while he becomes like a Delectable Mountain, embracing filth, unable to read his Shakespeare.

Cummings finally realizes himself by finding the sign of his status internally, in his own imagination, triggered by a snowfall. After this moment of transcendence, his status is announced, ironically, by an inhabitant of the enormous room:

   After a long time I returned to my bunk and I lay down, closing my eyes; feeling the snow's minute and crisp touch falling gently and exquisitely, falling perfectly and suddenly, through the thick soundless autumn of imagination...
   "L'americain!L'americain!" (232)
The voice that announces Cummings' status is, significantly, anonymous. It is one of the few points in the text in which the allegorical meaning has, like that in Pilgrim's Progress, no attribution. Cummings just is "the American." Several things are worth mentioning with respect to the transcendent moment. It is personal and self-referential. No external sign indicates what Cummings' status is; he finds the sign within himself, in his own imagination.

Despite the self-referential nature of his transcendence, it should be emphasized that Cummings has not rejected the need for some sign of status. The Enormous Room does not reject the idea of an elect; rather, its parody of Pilgrim's Progress criticizes the means by which such status is conventionally established, presenting different criteria for determining status. The artist is of the elect. Christian ends his journey when he enters the Celestial City. Cummings ends his journey by returning to the point from which he started. The world [end page 55] is not fallen, so there is no need to renounce the world. There is also no need now to seek out B. As an artist, Cummings is individual and self-reliant: The American.

Works Cited

Back to:
Enormous Room page

Spring issue 2 contents

Spring Contents Index