Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Enormous Room

In 1917 Edward Estlin Cummings, whose name is better known in lower case, ee cummings, joined a voluntary ambulance corps in France. He and a close friend, William Slater Brown, ran afoul of their American section chief for, among other things, associating with "them dirty Frenchmen."

Unbeknownst to them, they also ran afoul of censors for expressing anti-war sentiments in their letters home, and as a result were incarcerated in a military detention camp for suspected spies. It was an ordeal that Cummings could easily have avoided by saying he hated Germans. This he refused to do, in part because he felt it would be a violation of his friendship with Brown.

Cummings recorded his experiences in this autobiographical novel, named after the pillared high-ceilinged room in which some 60 men were confined. Many he came to regard as "some of the finest people in the world," and despite the brutish conditions, foul food, and bullying officials, he looked back on his time there as one of the happiest in his life.

Cummings of course went on to become one of the most prominent poets of the 20th century, and the energy of his language is evident throughout. He spices every page with French phrases, and takes great joy in deriding the French government, the prison officials, and authority in general. His descriptions of people are particularly fine, and in the latter portion of the book he devotes a chapter each to four he especially liked.

The Wanderer
His wife and children were held in the women's quarters of the camp, save his little son who stayed with him and the other men in the Enormous Room. The Wanderer's quiet stoicism, his deep love for his family, and the child's reckless energy make a moving portrait indeed.

The Zulu
A Polish farmer exceedingly generous with money that he conjured up out of thin air. Though he could not write and spoke only Polish, he was capable of communicating on any subject with the greatest of ease and the finest nuance of meaning, without speaking a word.

Religious and hard-working, yet ignorant and vilified by all, he embraced his position at the bottom of the pecking order in the Enormous Room. "To be made a fool of was, to this otherwise completely neglected individual, a mark of distinction; something to take pleasure in; to be proud of."

Jean le Nègre
The most remarkable character in the book: vain, irrepressible, full of laughter, energy, and nonsense. He arrived at the camp after being caught impersonating an English officer, at which he...

...announced that he was a Lord of the Admiralty, that he had committed robberies in Paris to the tune of sees meel-i-own franc, that he was a son of the Lord Mayor of London by the Queen, that he had lost a leg in Algeria, and that the French were cochons.

Cummings suffered a "mental catastrophe" when his friend Brown was removed from the camp. Other prisoners recognized his "disordered mind" and treated him kindly, "kinder than I can possibly say." When informed that he was to be released, he astonished the camp director by saying, "I should rather have gone to prison with my friend."

Final Notes & Links

The Enormous Room is a not-quite-forgotten classic. It's been in print ever since it was first published in 1922 and can be found online in a number of places.

Strangely there appear to have been at least three different editions, but how much they differ I cannot say. The most recent seems to be from Liveright/Norton. It "restores to the work much material that was deleted from the manuscript for the book's 1922 publication and is illustrated with drawings Cummings made while imprisoned in France."

The Poetry Foundation's entry on Cummings
Literary ambulance drivers