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E. E. Cummings: A Life.


E. E. Cummings

A Life

By Susan Cheever

The daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Cheever, Susan Cheever has written four memoirs, biographies of Alcoholics Anonymous cofounder Bill Wilson and of Louisa May Alcott, a history of the Transcendentalists, an analysis of sexual addiction, and five novels.

THE TOPIC: In 1960, 17-year-old Susan Cheever met maverick poet Edward Eastlin "E. E." Cummings (1894-1962) when he performed a reading at her New York City prep school. Since that day, she has been a vociferous admirer and advocate. In this concise biography, she relates Cummings's idyllic New England childhood and his riotous years at Harvard, where the innocent pastor's son discovered alcohol and women and began the experiments with language, punctuation, and capitalization that characterized his poetry. The ensuing events of his life--his harrowing wartime experiences, failed marriages, literary friendships, and political beliefs--also profoundly influenced his work. Long dismissed by critics as sentimental and unsophisticated, Cummings, argues Cheever, was instead the front-runner of a larger cultural movement and one of America's premier poets.

Pantheon. 240 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780307379979

Buffalo News ****

"Here, unexpectedly, is a terrific biography of Cummings profoundly distinguished by a lot of things: 1) intimate proximity (Susan Cheever's great fiction writing father John was a younger friend and admirer of Cummings); 2) brevity (at 240 pages, everything in this book counts; it's not one of those literary biographies that take you from a writer's breakfast up through lunch on a random Tuesday just because it can); and 3) willingness to encounter clearly a lot of things about Cummings and his life that have soured considerably for posterity." JEFF SIMON

Cleveland Plain Dealer ****

"Blending biography, memoir and cultural history--among her favored genres--Cheever offers not a definitive scholarly work but a textured inspection of some of the more intriguing faces of the multifaceted Cummings.... Although Cheever reproduces numerous poems and passages, her principal intent is not literary criticism but the illumination of some aspect of Cummings' career, mind and heart." DANIEL DYER

NPR ***1/2

"She's put together a smart and readable portrait of this artist as a seemingly perpetual young man whose adult years were filled with personal despair, jumbled politics, a mix of anti-Communism, polite anti-Semitism and American self-actualization as well as family heartbreak." ALAN CHEUSE

San Francisco Chronicle ***1/2

"The book is not the definitive cradle-to-grave biography that Richard S. Kennedy, immersing himself in the million pages that make up the Cummings archives at Harvard's Houghton Library, attempted in his 1980 Dreams in the Mirror. Nor is it the authorized version that Charles Norman provided in his 1958 E.E. Cummings: The Magic Maker. What Cheever ... has produced is, instead, an absorbing rehearsal of a vibrant life that was representative of its time and place in no way more than its refusal to be representative." STEVEN G. KELLMAN

Boston Globe ***

"[The book] devolves rather quickly into a surprisingly conventional biography, albeit one with some distinctive strengths.... Despite her skill at summary and obvious love for her subject, however, much seems sketchy and underdeveloped in Cheever's account." PRISCILLA GILMAN

Wall Street Journal **

"A better biography than Ms. Cheever's would have much more to say about his friendships and disagreements with other writers, such as T.S. Eliot (whom he knew at Harvard), Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams.... Ms. Cheever's book has the virtue of brevity, but haste shows in the cliches ... and in the repetition of details without nailing down their psychological significance." DAVID MASON


Rather than a scholarly, straightforward biography, this deeply personal book is a montage of events and experiences. Cheever "charts the intricate tributaries" of Cummings's life, using specific incidents "as ports from which to embark on voyages of memory and reflection" (Cleveland Plain Dealer). Several critics praised this warm and informal approach, but others complained of a lack of detail, choppy transitions, cliche-ridden descriptions, and needless repetition. Reviewers also disagreed over the use of Cumming's poems and prose to highlight his thoughts, feelings, and opinions at different times during his life; a few would have preferred more straightforward literary interpretation. Nevertheless, E. E. Cummings is "a poignant and honorable attempt to restore Cummings to a proper prominence" (Boston Globe)--and a mercifully short one, at that.



A timeless book to be read by all


One of the best of its genre

*** GOOD

Enjoyable, particularly for fans of the genre


Some problems, approach with caution


Not worth your time
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Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2014
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