Posted by: Lizzie Ross | February 4, 2011


The Enormous Room (1922), E. E. Cummings (before he relinquished capital letters)

When I read this book in college, I was struck by the Kafka-esque horror of Cummings’ situation. He was an ambulance driver in France, during WWI. His friend and fellow-driver had written some “dangerous” letters, and the two of them were arrested and eventually sent to the Ferté Macé internment camp (Cummings initially heard “Macé” as “Marseilles” and was disappointed to find the sea was nowhere nearby). He was innocent, yet treated as guilty by the guards, etc. And the internment camp, although not as bad as actual prison, was nonetheless oppressively unpleasant.

In particular, I’ve retained an image of a large, dark room, its floor covered with the sleeping mats of all the people squeezed into it. No air, no light, just unending time to talk.

I have to wonder now if I’d actually read the book. Cummings says, throughout, that he was having a great time. The people were fascinating, with wonderful stories and behaviors. The food, although neither edible or plenteous, was somehow satisfying. The 2-3 hours spent in the “yard” provided entertainment to reflect on, once inside the room.

And, yes, the room is full of mattresses, of the stink from pails used as toilets and emptied just a couple of times a day, of darkness broken by dim light from a few low windows, of noise and shouts. But it seemed less horrifying this time, as I caught Cummings’ light mood. This is no comedy, but he’s so relieved to be away from the job of ambulance driver, and so happy for opportunities to be flip with authorities (local minister of affairs: ‘Have you anything in your shoes?’ Cummings: ‘My feet.’)

Just a few paragraphs later, he is questioned about his ancestry.

‘You are Irish?’ — “No,’ I said, ‘American.’ — ‘You are Irish by family?’ — ‘No, Scotch.’ — ‘You are sure that there was never an Irishman in your parents?’ — ‘So far as I know,’ I said, ‘there never was an Irishman there.’ — ‘Perhaps a hundred years back?’ he insisted. — ‘Not a chance,’ I said decisively. But Monsieur was not to be denied: ‘Your name it is Irish?’ — ‘Cummings is a very old Scotch name,’ I told him fluently [in French]; ‘it used to be Comyn. A Scotchman named The Red Comyn was killed by Robert Bruce in a church. He was my ancestor and a very well-known man.’ … Monsieur, quite evidently disappointed, told the moustache in French to write down that I denied my Irish parentage ….

He’s unbelievably happy at La Misère, as he calls the camp, yet would rather go with his friend to prison than stay there or be released.

But why “twee”? Because on this second reading I also noticed Cummings playing with language, in ways that hint at the poetry to come. He describes an Englishman on a train as having a “certain well-bred-well-fedness”; one train leaves at “six something” and another at “twelve-something-else”. At times it became irritating. Perhaps my patience for this type of word-play has worn short. I can tolerate few of his poems (here’s one I like, which I remember as being scrawled on a tunnel wall at college).

At any rate, the point here is that my two readings of this book, separated by nearly 40 years, have been so drastically different. What do I know now, that I didn’t then?

“Twee”? You can look it up in the Urban Dictionary.

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