Was E. E. Cummings a Racist?
That was the provocative HuffPost-style headline May 27 on Brow Beat, a culture blog on Slate.com. The author, Nina Shen Rastogi, reported that a lost poem by e. e. cummings had been discovered. The poem, named "(tonite," was published in the Awl, whose editor, Choire Sicha, tweeted that it was "reeeeaaaal troublesome!!!"
Her tweet linked to an excellent essay by James Dempsey, which is about a long-running correspondence between Cummings and his friend Scofield Thayer, the publisher of the important literary magazine The Dial.
What does this "mean?" I know, I know, a poem should not mean, but be. But this little kerfuffle has not allowed the poem to be, and indeed many years ago that six-letter word prevented it from being collected with Cummings' other works, because Cummings is often read in schools, and (as we have learned) "nigger" is a word capable of getting even Huckleberry Finn banished from some schools.
So here is what it means: God created the races, and threw them and their world into Hell, and they all became the same race and laughed at him for making them different and God got the joke and laughed at himself and called off Judgement Day. That's what it means.
And now the street is no longer sagging unlighted filth, but:
E. E. Cummings wrote a lovely poem against racism.
Also on my web pages:
"I've been researching Thayer for about five years now, with the aim of writing a biography that would give him his share of credit for publishing The Dial. It was while researching that book at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, that I came across the previously unknown, unpublished poem by Cummings, "(tonite."
"The poem...begins with a parenthesis, which has the effect of softening or diminishing the opening lines, as if putting them into a minor key. The opening of the poem is an exposition of a snowscape.
"The word "tonite" is emphasized by its spelling, by its isolation on the line, and by its primacy as the first word of the poem. This stressing of a single word is in tension with the subduing effect of the parentheses. The misspelling suggests not so much ignorance or willful illiteracy but rather the world of advertising and entertainment. It was at the time an attention-getting word one might see on a poster for a burlesque or vaudeville show. This mixing of art and popular entertainment is common in the Cummings of the period.
"Nigger" is and was at the time of writing a hard word, of course, one that was unmistakably insulting and disparaging, though not exclusively so. Carl Sandburg, by then a respected poet, had published, in 1916, a poem titled "I Am the Nigger." That poem is sympathetic to its subject but indulges in many of the stereotypes of the African-American as being muscular, lusty, instinctual and threatening. Cummings largely avoids such stereotypes in "(tonite." But that the word is used six times in a one-page poem perhaps gives us a clue as to why the work was never published. (This was not Cummings' only use of the term; the word appears in at least one other poem.)"
End quote. You will note that Dempsey doesn't find the poem "reeeaaaal troublesome!!!" He cites it, comments reasonably, and moves on. The poem is a fact. It uses an ugly word. Many poems do.
I have read almost every poem by Cummings, and The Enormous Room, his great novel about his time in a World War One prison camp in France. There is no racism to be found. The only black character in the novel, a fellow prisoner who Cummings calls "Jean le Negre," is remembered affectionately.
Yet I read the Slate headline and my heart sank. Surely this could not be so? It is nothing new for unpublished words to trash a poet's reputation; consider the damage done by the publication of Philip Larkin's letters, or the plumbing of T.S. Eliot's (published) words for indications of anti-Semitism.
But Cummings? Not the poet of love, spring, flowers and goat-footed balloonmen! Not our E. E.!
What struck me as curious was that Rastogi didn't quote the entire poem, although Dempsey went so far as to reproduce its original typescript. Rastogi's blog entry and its sensational headline focuses on the possibility of racism. She was led there by Choire Sicha's "reeeaaaal troublesome!!!" tweet, which is an obvious attempt to draw hits to the Awl. No blame there. What else is Twitter for?
But factoids get floated on the web because people only read headlines. On my Facebook page, I've posted links to my review of a movie, only to have people ask me if I'm ever going to review it. To her credit, Rastogi contacts Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, author of E.E. Cummings: A Biography (2004), and asks him about the troublesome poem. He responds her:
"It's not an easy answer. I'm fairly convinced that [Cummings] was not a racist. In fact, he was one of the few of his generation who actually expressed outrage at the treatment of Blacks. The term, "Nigger," of course, was in common usage. Carl Van Vechten, for instance, who was extremely sympathetic to the plight of African-Americans, wrote a novel in 1926 about the Harlem Renaissance entitled Nigger Heaven. Cummings's anti-racism is fairly evident in his work as seen in his sympathetic portrayal of Jean le Negre in The Enormous Room and his choice to create a ballet scenario based on Uncle Tom's Cabin. Even his private journal entries express outrage at lynchings and ill-treatment of African-Americans.
"But in 1916 he was 22, cocky, fairly unworldly but also very current. And "nigger" would have been the usual term in his circle for African-Americans. It's an unfortunate choice of words on his part but also very much part of his very un-PC character."
End quote. Rastogi concludes: "So there you have it: An unfortunate bit of juvenilia, but probably not enough of a reason to give up my teenage dream of reading "[i carry your heart with me (i carry it in]" at my wedding."
Whew. Cummings is "probably" not a racist. But what did he say in the poem as a whole? Here it is. Read it for yourself:
I submit that this is not "an unfortunate bit of juvenilia" but in fact quite a respectable poem, and if not in the same league with "anyone lived in a pretty how town" is nevertheless deserving of inclusion in any collection of Cummings' poetry.
The most troublesome words are these:
An African-American slum in 1916 might well have had its share of filth, as indeed all slums of whatever ethnicity. Is he suggesting African-American were uniquely unlighted, sagging and filthy? No, because he was writing a poem, not sociology. He also mentions "unsafe roofs and dangerous stairs." Clutching and cuddling are, of course, activities not uncommon in his poems.
So read the whole poem. God throws everyone into Hell and they
(tonite in nigger street
the snow is perfectly falling,
the noiselessly snow is sexually fingering the utterly asleep
...the sagging unlighted filth, within which black bodies clutch and cuddle
all turned suddenly
black but God looked down and the niggers were laughing at Him. And He laughed Himself and told the snow "I want you to go down into nigger street, and put that fire out because I have called off "The Last Day.")
in the perfect noiselessly air which is falling, with kissing bright sexual fingers fingering the utterly asleep street
the brite snow likes niggers