The famous American poet, E.E. Cummings—a conscientious objector and not much taken with the war fervor in the United States in 1917—nevertheless signed up that year for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, a volunteer ambulance brigade working under the auspices of the Red Cross, joined by John Dos Passos and another Harvard friend, William Slater Brown. In letters Cummings and Brown wrote home, the pair made statements critical of the French war operations. And Cummings himself expressed no personal animosity towards the German enemy.
The military censors, consequently, kept an eye on their letters for some time, and on September 21, 1917, Brown was taken into custody on the charge of espionage, with Cummings picked up as Brown’s friend and possible accomplice. The two were taken to a Dépôt de Triage at La Ferté-Macé, in Normandy. There they were held for 3 months. Cummings was finally released on December 19, 1917 and returned to the United States on New Year’s Day, 1918.
The captivity in La Ferté-Macé served as the basis of Cummings’ autobiographical novel, or rather fictionalized autobiography, The Enormous Room.
The title comes from the holding area for the dozens of prisoners: a large, barn-sized room on the top floor of the detention center, where the inmates spent most of their time. In the fall of 1920, Cummings' father suggested that his son reflect on his experience and set it down. William Slater Brown came to the Cummings’ family farm in NH and over the course of two months they set down on paper the bulk of the material which became The Enormous Room.
The work describes the boring, day-to-day existence in La Ferté-Macé and the occasional solitary confinement of one or other of the inmates for violating the rules (the rule against fraternization with the women prisoners, kept in separate quarters, and even against gazing at them, being the one most frequently broken). Cummings, though, is not writing a war or prison diary. His approach is much more impressionistic. In the circumstances where he had not been formally charged, and had been given no definite duration of imprisonment, Cummings felt he was in some sort of limbo, a place where time had no meaning. Cummings paints a series of character sketches of a rather bizarre group of inmates (whom Cummings likes) and officials (whom Cummings disdains as unimaginative rule-bound idiots). This gives the work something of a fantastic quality, almost as if Cummings were describing a sojourn in a madhouse, or in Wonderland.
Cummings also viewed his suffering in spiritual terms, consciously evoking John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, naming his chief opponent in the prison Apollyon, after Christian’s foe in Bunyan’s work, and he refers to some of his fellow prisoners as “the Delectable Mountains,” referring to a location in Bunyan’s work where Christian gains particular insight. It is, perhaps, not surprising that Cummings chose to view his experience using some of the figures and images of Bunyan’s work. Cummings’ father was a Unitarian minister (Cummings wrote a poem about his spiritual father), and Bunyan’s work was especially popular among Protestants, Unitarians included. Just look at the fascination the work held for Meg, the sickly March girl, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
Rev. Cummings also saw his son’s (and his own) travails in religious terms. The Enormous Room was published with an introduction consisting of letters the elder Cummings sent to American officials in France and even to President Wilson to learn what had happened to his son and to demand his release. The introduction opens with a quotation from the story of the Prodigal Son from the gospels, all in caps: “FOR THIS MY SON WAS DEAD, AND IS ALIVE AGAIN; HE WAS LOST; AND IS FOUND.”
Though he makes use of biblical and religious allusions, it is clear that Cummings saw his whole experience as something of a farce. He and his friend, Brown, were guilty of nothing more than being free-thinkers in a time of war, a time when governments—the French government especially—had little patience for such thinking, as can be seen in the following selection where he is equally critical of the U.S. government:
“After all, it is highly improbable that this poor socialist suffered more at the hands of the great and good French government than did many a Conscientious Objector at the hands of the great and good American government; or—since all great governments are per se good and vice versa—than did many a man in general who was cursed with a talent for thinking during the warlike moments recently passed; during, that is to say, an epoch when the g. and g. nations demanded of their respective peoples the exact antithesis to thinking; said antitheses being vulgarly called Belief.”
This work may prove frustrating to those who want a more conventional narrative of Cummings’ experience. For that, you’d have to go to a biography of Cummings such as that by Susan Cheever or Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno. For Cummings has to be Cummings, or as he himself says:
“There are certain things in which one is unable to believe for the simple reason that he never ceases to feel them. Things of this sort—things which are always inside of us and in fact are us and which consequently will not be pushed off or away where we can begin thinking about them—are no longer things; they, and the us which they are, equals A Verb: an IS.”
For any who reading the work, I’d also recommend the annotations provided by Prof. Michael Webster at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.