June 13th, 2013

Literary changers: E. E. Cummings

Another changer heard from, this time poet E. E. Cummings (and yes, he capitalized his name, although not his poetry):

In 1931 Cummings traveled to the Soviet Union. Like many other writers and artists of the time, he was hopeful that the communist revolution had created a better society. After a short time in the country, however, it became clear to Cummings that the Soviet Union was a dictatorship in which the individual was severely regimented by the state. His diary of the visit, in which he bitterly attacked the Soviet regime for its dehumanizing policies, was published in 1933 as Eimi, the Greek word for “I am.” In it, he described the Soviet Union as an “uncircus of noncreatures.” Lenin’s tomb, in which the late dictator’s preserved body is on display, especially revolted Cummings and inspired him to create the most impassioned writing in the book. “The style which Cummings began in poetry,” Bishop wrote, “reaches its most complete development in the prose of Eimi. Indeed, one might almost say that, without knowing it, Cummings had been acquiring a certain skill over the years, in order that, when occasion arose, he might set down in words the full horror of Lenin’s tomb.” In tracing the course of his thirty-five day trip through the Soviet Union, Cummings made frequent allusion to Dante’s Inferno and its story of a descent into Hell, equating the two journeys. It is only after crossing back into Europe at book’s end that “it is once more possible for [Cummings] to assume the full responsibility of being a man…,” Bishop wrote. “Now he knows there is but one freedom…, the freedom of the will, responsive and responsible, and that from it all other freedoms take their course.” Kidder called Eimi “a report of the grim inhumanities of the Soviet system, of repression, apathy, priggishness, kitsch, and enervating suspicion.” For some time after publication of Eimi, Kidder reported, Cummings had a difficult time getting his poetry published. The overwhelmingly left-wing publishers of the time refused to accept his work. Cummings had to resort to self-publishing several volumes of his work during the later 1930s.

I’ve heard stories like this before—especially the refusal to publish anyone who disagreed with the Party line. The same thing happened to Will Durant (see this), who wrote about his experience:

I had written…several articles about our trip [to the USSR]. My literary agent, the genial and enterprising George Bye, tried to dispose of these to Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly; both of these rejected them on the ground that they would alienate too many readers; for Russia, in our Depression years, seemed to millions of Americans the last best hope of men…The articles [I wrote] frankly called the Soviet system a dictatorship over the proletariat, and described without glamour or prejudice—but perhaps with insufficient knowledge and understanding—the achievements and failures of Communist Russia in economics, morals, manners, religion, and government. I was warned, by a well-informed editor at Simon and Schuster, that the printing of these discourses in book form would further alienate the literary fraternity, and especially the reviewers, who were sympathetic with Russia…

For whatever reason, Cummings and Durant had minds that were open to what they saw in the Soviet Union, and they were able to perceive it. Way too many others were either genuinely fooled by the Potemkin village they were presented, or pretended to be because they wanted the Communist dream to be true and could not or would not give it up.

And they wished to silence those who differed.

8 Responses to “Literary changers: E. E. Cummings”

  1. davisbr Says:

    Way too many others were either genuinely fooled by the Potemkin village they were presented, or pretended to be because they wanted the …dream to be true and could not or would not give it up.

    And they wished to silence those who differed.

    Hmm.

    Now, what recent events in what country’s internal and external political and social current landscape is that description just so darn reminiscent of?

    Which country?

    …it’s just so frustrating: it’s right at the tip of my tongue.

  2. JJ formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    It is an idealistic dream. A society where all men are equal, both before the law and economically. Where everything is done with only the common good in mind. Where greed and sloth have been eliminated. Where no person thinks ill of another or acts out in anger. Given human nature, it is just that – an impossible dream. Yet it entices the minds of so many. They hear the words of Don Quixote (“To dream the impossible dream…..”) and are inspired. If only we could eliminate differences, if only people weren’t so greedy, if only we could eliminate hate speech, if only capitalism didn’t produce such economic inequality, etc., etc., ad infinitum. It’s a mind set that infects far too many people and won’t go away until most people have put their child-like magical thinking behind and started to grasp the reality of the human condition. Something that Cummings and Durant did.

  3. Gringo Says:

    Probably the first disillusioned pilgrim to the Soviet paradise was Bertrand Russell. The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, first published in November 1920, reflects a time when the totalitarian state had not yet been completely established.

    We were all allowed complete freedom to see politicians of opposition parties, and we naturally made full use of this freedom. We saw Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries of different groups, and Anarchists; we saw them without the presence of any Bolsheviks, and they spoke freely after they had overcome their initial fears. I had an hour’s talk with Lenin, virtually tête-à-tête; I met Trotsky, though only in company…

    This freedom of association would not have been permitted future visitors to the USSR.
    Russell had an interview with Lenin, before a series of strokes reduced Lenin to a vegetable.

    He laughs a great deal; at first his laugh seems merely friendly and jolly, but gradually I came to feel it rather grim. He is dictatorial, calm, incapable of fear, extraordinarily devoid of self-seeking, an embodied theory…..
    I think if I had met him without knowing who he was, I should not have guessed that he was a great man; he struck me as too opinionated and narrowly orthodox. His strength comes, I imagine, from his honesty, courage, and unwavering faith—religious faith in the Marxian gospel, which takes the place of the Christian martyr’s hopes of Paradise, except that it is less egotistical. He has as little love of liberty as the Christians who suffered under Diocletian, and retaliated when they acquired power. Perhaps love of liberty is incompatible with whole-hearted belief in a panacea for all human ills. If so, I cannot but rejoice in the sceptical temper of the Western world. I went to Russia a Communist; but contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thousandfold my own doubts, not as to Communism in itself, but as to the wisdom of holding a creed so firmly that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.

    Russell saw the fanaticism of those who put the Communist creed into practice, and stepped away from the abyss. I wonder if Durant and E.E. Cummings would have been as disillusioned as Bertrand Russell had they visited the USSR when Russell did.

  4. Ann Says:

    And yet Russell remained a dedicated socialist.

    Also, I’m not sure he was averse to making some accommodation with violence in its pursuit–see this, for example:

    For my part, while I am as convinced a Socialist as the most ardent Marxian, I do not regard Socialism as a gospel of proletarian revenge, nor even, primarily, as a means of securing economic justice. I regard it primarily as an adjustment to machine production demanded by considerations of common sense, and calculated to increase the happiness, not only of proletarians, but of all except a tiny minority of the human race. If it cannot now be realized without a violent upheaval, this to be attributed largely to the violence of its advocates. But I still have some hope that a saner advocacy may soften the opposition, and make a less catastrophic transition possible.

    From his In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays.

  5. kolnai Says:

    Ann -

    Yup – even when Russell moved away from daffy political ideas it was only toward other daffy ideas. A genius in analytic philosophy, Russell was an almost unbelievable cretin in everything related the situated lives of human beings, certainly including politics. I don’t think I ever read a good idea from him on any subject outside of philosophy (and even there he was often merely brilliant instead of right).

    Just like Einstein, incidentally.

    I’ll take the opportunity to plug Sidney Hook’s awesome autobiography, “Out of Step,” for the hundredth time. He recounts encounters with Russell, Einstein, and others in there, and it ain’t pretty.

  6. Beverly Says:

    kolnai–

    Have you read “A Man Called INTREPID”?

    I’m well into it, and I’m seeing that the folks who valued freedom were up against it just as badly, if not worse, in the 1930s & WW II.

    The British patriots and secret agents had to fight off the record and undercover almost as much as their Continental counterparts. King George VI was their patron and protector, because Parliament and Chamberlain could not be trusted.

    It’s a hell of a story.

  7. Pat Says:

    Well, I’m just glad Durant wasn’t Duranty.

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    Pat:

    Durant met Duranty during that same 1932 trip to Russia, and had this to say about him:

    Walter Duranty was of no help; when I asked him why he was sending such optimistic reports to the New York Times about conditions in Russia, when they seemed so discouraging, he answered gaily, “You don’t take these matters seriously, do you?” He was handsome and knew Russian; half the girls in the hotel were wooing him, and he had no reason for pessimism.

    A psychopath, apparently.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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