The Tang of Herded Men, and Their Smell: On the Centennial Edition of E. E. Cummings’s “The Enormous Room”
By Benjamin ShullDecember 12, 2022
The Enormous Room by E. E. Cummings
Cummings wrote the book at the urging of his father, a Unitarian minister in Boston, upon his return from France, where he was held in captivity on account of antiwar letters sent by his friend, William Slater Brown. Cummings met Brown on the boat ride over from the United States. The two, like Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos (a college friend of Cummings), had enlisted in the war effort as volunteer ambulance drivers. Cummings and Brown spent five weeks in Paris before heading to the front, where Brown’s letters were intercepted, landing them both in a detention camp. The Enormous Room is the story of their confinement.
As Nicholas Delbanco notes in his introduction, Cummings “has a little French, a little money, a large sense of the pleasures of absurdity and of the foolish pomp and circumstance of his inquisitors.” The author’s tongue-in-cheek tone suffuses his tale of captivity, which he narrates from the moment of his arrest to his arrival at the camp, with vivid sketches of the characters who inhabit it and the episodes that took place there.
Cummings’s early interactions with his questioners presage the book’s mood. Though the offending letters were sent by Brown (known here as “B.”), Cummings (“C.”) gets himself locked up as well by refusing to state that he hates the Germans (“Est-ce-que vous détestez les boches?”). The linguistic sparring compounds the sense of absurdity. At a stopover en route to the camp, he has the following exchange:
“Vous êtes uh-ah KEW-MANGZ?”
“What?” I said, completely baffled by this extraordinary dissyllable.
“Comprenez vous fran-çais?”
“Bon. Alors, vous vous ap-pel-lez KEW-MANGZ, n’est-ce-pas? Edouard KEW-MANGZ?”
“Oh,” I said, relieved, “yes.” It was really amazing, the way he writhed around the G.
Once he’s at the camp — the “enormous room” is his name for the living quarters for male inmates — the author offers an exegesis of how life works there: the daily schedule, the sadistic people in charge, his curious fellow prisoners. These scenes are heavily sensory, with pungent descriptions of human waste and the pitiful soupe the prisoners are forced to eat. T. E. Lawrence said that, from reading the book, he “knew, more keenly than from [his] own senses, the tang of herded men, and their smell.”
In the book’s fourth chapter, “Le Nouveau,” Cummings lays out the regime in charge:
The authorities at La Ferté consisted of the Directeur, or general overlord, the Surveillant, who had the plantons (orderlies) under him and was responsible to the Directeur for the administration of the camp, and the Gestionnaire (who kept the accounts). As assistant, the Surveillant had a mail clerk who acted as translator on occasion.
The plantons are a constant in the enormous room, a source of annoyance and intrigue for Cummings. The regime administers two main punishments for breaking the rules: pain sec and cabinot. The former, Cummings writes, “consisted in denying to the culprit all nutriment save two stone-hard morsels of dry bread per diem.” Cabinots, meanwhile, “were rooms about nine feet square and six feet high” to which prisoners were sent for stretches of solitary confinement.
Much of the book is devoted to depicting the extraordinary inhabitants of the enormous room, in sections that read like a droller version of Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead (1862). The portraits of these individuals are frequently amusing and always interesting, even if Cummings’s sometimes turgid prose can bog down the narrative. (Delbanco notes that the book can be a “difficult read.”) Linear storytelling is replaced by a mosaic of episodes involving various eccentric personalities, some of whom Cummings is fond of, others whom he detests. What is consistent is the author’s ironic and amused tone.
Not that Cummings is never serious. He’s clear-eyed about the guards’ sadism, much of which is directed at the women, who are held in a separate unit. He describes one incident where the directeur waits in the wings to jump out and scare a young girl just as she’s carrying out a bucket of human waste. The surprise causes her to drop the bucket, spilling the contents at her feet as she collapses in sobs. Commotion follows, after which the directeur unleashes a string of obscenities at all the prisoners. The scene inspires Cummings to rage:
I wish to state that I believe in miracles: the miracle being that I did not knock the spit-covered mouthful of teeth and jabbering brutish outthrust jowl […] through the bullneck bulging in its spotless collar. For there are times when one almost decides not to merely observe … besides which, never in my life before had I wanted to kill, to thoroughly extinguish and to entirely murder.
The camp, for all its depravities, is merely a holding facility. The inmates can always be sent to the even more brutal Précigné prison, which hangs like a specter over the enormous room. The irascible Brown is deemed dangerous enough to send there. After three months, Cummings is granted release, thanks in part to the efforts of his influential father back in Massachusetts. His final chapter, “I Say Good-Bye to La Misère,” relates all the details of his departure, including his dealings with the American embassy in Paris, his boat crossing back home, and his first glimpse of New York after months in confinement:
The tall, impossibly tall, incomparably tall, city shoulderingly upward into hard sunlight leaned a little through the octaves of its parallel edges, leaningly strode upward into firm hard snowy sunlight; the noises of America nearingly throbbed with smokes and hurrying dots which are men and which are women and which are things new and curious and hard and strange and vibrant and immense, lifting with a great ondulous stride firmly into immortal sunlight …
Early in the story, when an official asks Cummings what he was up to in Paris before he joined the front, he responds: “We had a good time.” So it seems, at least judging by J. Alison Rosenblitt’s The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War, a brief biography of Cummings published in 2020, which is centered on Cummings’s time in France during World War I and his experience of imprisonment.
Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of Unitarian minister Edward Cummings. He attended Harvard, where he befriended Dos Passos, with whom he would work on a college magazine. (He was also a classmate of Malcolm Cowley.) After completing a master’s degree at Harvard, Cummings moved to New York, where he was when the United States entered World War I.
Ambulance service, Rosenblitt observes, made sense for Cummings, since he hoped to play some part in the war effort but didn’t want to be drafted. Toward the end of April 1917, Cummings set sail on the Touraine, along with Brown, whose presence looms large both in Cummings’s time in Paris and in the camp. Rosenblitt, a lecturer at Oxford, notes that, of the two, Brown was more likely to cause trouble. He was the “driver of events,” she writes. “[I]t was his impulsive letters that prompted their arrest.”
The pair were officially assigned to the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, but before they could join, a clerical error gave them five weeks of leisure in Paris before starting service. During this interval, they truly experienced the “beauty” of living. “In Paris,” Rosenblitt writes, “Cummings found a symbiosis of art and life.” He and Brown attended the premiere of Erik Satie’s ballet Parade at the Théâtre du Châtelet on May 18, 1917. It was, Rosenblitt writes, “the artistic event of the Parisian decade,” featuring contributions from a who’s who of major artists: scenario by Jean Cocteau, costumes and sets by Pablo Picasso, and a performance by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
While in Paris, Cummings also “met the first woman [with whom] he ever truly fell in love,” Marie Louise Lallemand, who was working as a prostitute. Lallemand accompanied Cummings during his whole time in Paris, while her friend Mimi went with Brown. As Rosenblitt writes:
All the time he was in Paris, they grew closer, although each struggled to be certain of the feelings of the other. What Cummings loved most about her, apart perhaps from her beauty, was her kindness. They shared a great deal, including a sexual connection that Cummings had never shared with any woman before. It had its points of awkwardness, but it was a love affair.
Rosenblitt does an excellent job conveying the circumstances of Cummings’s imprisonment, which track with his own telling of them. Reading her well-crafted nonfiction account allows for a richer engagement with The Enormous Room, a book greatly admired by Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. Even if it’s not the easiest read, Cummings’s memoir-cum-novel is valuable for its outlook, as the author, who would publish his first poetry collection a year later, uses his wry voice to counteract the cruelties of war.
Benjamin Shull is a writer and editor in New York.
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