Edward Estlin Cummings (known as E. E. Cummings or e. e. cummings) was not only a poet, but also a successful essayist, playwright, author, and painter. One of the most remarkable features of his career was his ability to achieve popularity while also making great literary strides.
Photo: E. E. Cummings, 1933, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID: cph 3c11603
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cummings grew up in an intellectual household. His father was a Harvard professor of sociology and political science, and his mother was a great lover of literature, often reading poetry to Cummings and his younger sister Elizabeth. The household also promoted openness in religion, as Cummings' father was a Unitarian minister, which lead Cummings to display transcendentalist views through his writings.
Cummings earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Harvard University between the years 1911 and 1916, studying English and Classical Studies. His first introduction to the influential works of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound came through his studies at Harvard as well. In 1917, Cummings had his first published poems in the anthology Eight Harvard Poets (though he had been writing poetry since age 3). That same year, he volunteered as an ambulance driver in France, and through his experiences abroad, he fell in love with Paris. He also was interned in a prison camp, due to his vocal anti-war sentiments, and his experiences there became his first novel The Enormous Room (1922). Cummings' first book of poetry was Tulips & Chimneys in 1923, though the first publisher disregarded Cumming's desire for an ampersand and titled the work Tulips and Chimneys. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Cummings traveled often, especially to Paris, and came to admire the work of Pablo Picasso greatly. The death of Cummings' father (in a car accident in 1926) had a great influence on his writings, with a focus on deeper aspects of life. Cummings was married three times, received many prestigious grants and fellowships throughout his life (including the Guggenheim Fellowship twice), and was awarded an honorary seat as guest professor at Harvard University. Through this honor, Cummings gave his The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (1952 and 1955), currently collected in i: six nonlectures.
Poets.org gives an excellent summary of Cummings' poetic achievements: "In his work, Cummings experimented radically with form, punctuation, spelling and syntax, abandoning traditional techniques and structures to create a new, highly idiosyncratic means of poetic expression. Later in his career, he was often criticized for settling into his signature style and not pressing his work towards further evolution. Nevertheless, he attained great popularity, especially among young readers, for the simplicity of his language, his playful mode and his attention to subjects such as war and sex."