Biography Edward Estlin Cummings

Edward Estlin Cummings

photo of Edward Estlin Cummings
  • Time Period1894 - 1962
  • PlaceBoston
  • CountryUnited States

Poet Biography

Edward Estlin Cummings (October 14, 1894 – September 3, 1962), popularly known as E. E. Cummings, with the abbreviated form of his name often written by others in all lowercase letters as e. e. cummings, was an American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright. His body of work encompasses approximately 2,900 poems, an autobiographical novel, four plays and several essays, as well as numerous drawings and paintings. He is remembered as a preeminent voice of 20th century poetry, as well as one of the most popular.

Birth and early years

Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 1894 to Edward and Rebecca Haswell Clarke Cummings. He was named after his father but his family called him by his middle name. Estlin's father was a professor of sociology and political science at Harvard University and later a Unitarian minister. Cummings described his father as a hero and a person who could accomplish anything that he wanted to. He was well skilled and was always working or repairing things. He and his son were close, and Edward was one of Cummings' most ardent supporters.

His mother, Rebecca, never partook in stereotypically "womanly" things, though she loved poetry and reading to her children. Raised in a well-educated family, Cummings was a very smart boy and his mother encouraged Estlin to write more and more poetry every day. His first poem came when he was only three: "Oh little birdie oh oh oh, With your toe toe toe." His sister, Elizabeth, was born when he was six years old.


In his youth, Estlin Cummings attended Cambridge Latin High School. Early stories and poems were published in the Cambridge Review, the school newspaper.

From 1911 to 1916, Cummings attended Harvard University, from which he received a B.A. degree in 1915 and a Master's degree for English and Classical Studies in 1916. While at Harvard, he befriended John Dos Passos, at one time rooming in Thayer Hall, named after the family of one of his Harvard acquaintances, Scofield Thayer, and not yet a freshman-only dormitory. Several of Cummings's poems were published in the Harvard Monthly as early as 1912. Cummings himself labored on the school newspaper alongside fellow Harvard Aesthetes Dos Passos and S. Foster Damon. In 1915, his poems were published in the Harvard Advocate.

From an early age, Cummings studied Greek and Latin. His affinity for each manifests in his later works, such as XAIPE (Greek: "Rejoice!"; a 1950 collection of poetry), Anthropos (Greek: "human"; the title of one of his plays), and "Puella Mea" (Latin: "My Girl"; the title of his longest poem).

In his final year at Harvard, Cummings was influenced by writers such as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. He graduated magna cum laude in 1916, delivering a controversial commencement address entitled "The New Art". This speech gave him his first taste of notoriety, as he managed to give the false impression that the well-liked imagist poet, Amy Lowell, whom he himself admired, was "abnormal". For this, Cummings was chastised in the newspapers. Ostracized as a result of his intellect, he turned to poetry.[citation needed] In 1920, Cummings's first published poems appeared in a collection of poetry entitled Eight Harvard Poets


In 1917 Cummings enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, along with his college friend John Dos Passos. Due to an administrative mix-up, Cummings was not assigned to an ambulance unit for five weeks, during which time he stayed in Paris. He became enamored of the city, to which he would return throughout his life.

On September 21, 1917, just five months after his belated assignment, he and a friend, William Slater Brown, were arrested on suspicion of espionage. The two openly expressed anti-war views; Cummings spoke of his lack of hatred for the Germans. They were sent to a military detention camp, the Dépôt de Triage, in La Ferté-Macé, Orne, Normandy, where they languished for 3½ months. Cummings's experiences in the camp were later related in his novel, The Enormous Room about which F. Scott Fitzgerald opined, "Of all the work by young men who have sprung up since 1920 one book survives- The Enormous Room by e e cummings....Those few who cause books to live have not been able to endure the thought of its mortality."

He was released from the detention camp on December 19, 1917, after much intervention from his politically connected father. Cummings returned to the United States on New Year's Day 1918. Later in 1918 he was drafted into the army. He served in the 73rd Infantry Division at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, until November 1918.

Cummings returned to Paris in 1921 and remained there for two years before returning to New York. During the rest of the 1920s and 1930s he returned to Paris a number of times, and traveled throughout Europe, meeting, among others, Pablo Picasso. In 1931 Cummings traveled to the Soviet Union and recounted his experiences in Eimi, published two years later. During these years Cummings also traveled to Northern Africa and Mexico and worked as an essayist and portrait artist for Vanity Fair magazine (1924 to 1927).

Cummings' papers are held at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Final years and death

Grave of E. E. CummingsIn 1952, his alma mater, Harvard, awarded Cummings an honorary seat as a guest professor. The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he gave in 1952 and 1955 were later collected as i: six nonlectures.

Cummings spent the last decade of his life traveling, fulfilling speaking engagements, and spending time at his summer home, Joy Farm, in Silver Lake, New Hampshire.

He died on September 3, 1962, at the age of 67 in North Conway, New Hampshire of a stroke. His cremated remains were buried in Lot 748 Althaea Path, in Section 6, Forest Hills Cemetery and Crematory in Boston. In 1969, his third wife, Marion Morehouse Cummings, died and was buried in an adjoining plot: Lot 748, Althaea Path, Section 6.