e.e. cummings: a life by Susan Cheever
From the author of American Bloomsbury, Louisa May Alcott, and Home Before Dark, a major reassessment of the life and work of the novelist, painter, and playwright considered to be one of America’s preeminent twentieth-century poets. At the time of his death in 1962, at age sixty-eight, he was, after Robert Frost, the most widely read poet in the United States.
E. E. Cummings was and remains controversial. He has been called “a master” (Malcolm Cowley); “hideous” (Edmund Wilson). James Dickey called him a “daringly original poet with more vitality and more sheer uncompromising talent than any other living American writer.”
In Susan Cheever’s rich, illuminating biography we see Cummings’s idyllic childhood years in Cambridge, Massachusetts; his Calvinist father—distinguished Harvard professor and sternly religious minister of the Cambridge Congregational Church; his mother—loving, attentive, a source of encouragement, the aristocrat of the family, from Unitarian writers, judges, and adventurers.
We see Cummings—slight, agile, playful, a product of a nineteenth-century New England childhood, bred to be flinty and determined; his love of nature; his sense of fun, laughter, mimicry; his desire from the get-go to stand conventional wisdom on its head, which he himself would often do, literally, to amuse.
At Harvard, he roomed with John Dos Passos; befriended Lincoln Kirstein; read Latin, Greek, and French; earned two degrees; discovered alcohol, fast cars, and burlesque at the Old Howard Theater; and raged against the school’s conservative, exclusionary upper-class rule by A. Lawrence Lowell.
In Cheever’s book we see that beneath Cummings’s blissful, golden childhood the strains of sadness and rage were already at play. He grew into a dark young man and set out on a lifelong course of rebellion against conventional authority and the critical establishment, devouring the poetry of Ezra Pound, whose radical verses pushed Cummings away from the politeness of the traditional nature poem toward a more adventurous, sexually conscious form.
We see that Cummings’s self-imposed exile from Cambridge—a town he’d come to hate for its intellectualism, Puritan uptightness, racism, and self-righteous xenophobia—seemed necessary for him as a man and a poet. Headstrong and cavalier, he volunteered as an ambulance driver in World War I, working alongside Hemingway, Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford . . . his ongoing stand against the imprisonment of his soul taking a literal turn when he was held in a makeshift prison for “undesirables and spies,” an experience that became the basis for his novel, The Enormous Room.
We follow Cummings as he permanently flees to Greenwich Village to be among other modernist poets of the day—Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas—and we see the development of both the poet and his work against the backdrop of modernism and through the influences of his contemporaries: Stein, Amy Lowell, Joyce, and Pound. Cheever’s fascinating book gives us the evolution of an artist whose writing was at the forefront of what was new and daring and bold in an America in transition (book cover).
Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor
Jack London was born a working class, fatherless Californian in 1876. In his youth, he was a boundlessly energetic adventurer on the bustling West Coast—an oyster pirate, a hobo, a sailor, and a prospector by turns. He spent his brief life rapidly accumulating the experiences that would inform his acclaimed bestselling books The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea-Wolf.
The bare outlines of his story suggest a classic rags-to-riches tale, but London the man was plagued by contradictions. He chronicled nature at its most savage, but wept helplessly at the deaths of his favorite animals. At his peak the highest paid writer in the United States, he was nevertheless forced to work under constant pressure for money. An irrepressibly optimistic crusader for social justice and a lover of humanity, he was also subject to spells of bitter invective, especially as his health declined. Branded by shortsighted critics as little more than a hack who produced a couple of memorable dog stories, he left behind a voluminous literary legacy, much of it ripe for rediscovery.
In Jack London: An American Life, the noted Jack London scholar Earle Labor explores the brilliant and complicated novelist lost behind the myth—at once a hard-living globe-trotter and a man alive with ideas, whose passion for seeking new worlds to explore never waned until the day he died. Returning London to his proper place in the American pantheon, Labor resurrects a major American novelist in his full fire and glory (book cover).
The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man’s Unlikely Path To Walden Pond by Michael Sims
Henry David Thoreau has long been an intellectual icon and folk hero. In this strikingly original profile, Michael Sims reveals how the bookish, quirky young man who kept quitting jobs evolved into the patron saint of environmentalism and nonviolent activism.Working from nineteenth-century letters and diaries by Thoreau’s family, friends, and students, Sims charts Henry’s course from his time at Harvard through the years he spent living in a cabin beside Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.Sims uncovers a previously hidden Thoreau—the rowdy boy reminiscent of Tom Sawyer, the sarcastic college iconoclast, the devoted son who kept imitating his beloved older brother’s choices in life. Thoreau was deeply influenced by his parents—his father owned a pencil factory in Concord, his mother was an abolitionist and social activist—and by Ralph Waldo Emerson, his frequent mentor. Sims relates intimate, telling moments in Thoreau’s daily life—in Emerson’s library; teaching his neighbor and friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, to row a boat; exploring the natural world and Native American culture; tutoring Emerson’s nephew on Staten Island and walking the streets of New York in the hope of launching a writing career.Returned from New York, Thoreau approached Emerson to ask if he could build a cabin on his mentor’s land on the shores of Walden Pond, anticipating the isolation would galvanize his thoughts and actions. That it did. While at the cabin, he wrote his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and refined the journal entries that formed the core of Walden. Resisting what he felt were unfair taxes, he spent the night in jail that led to his celebrated essay “Civil Disobedience,” which would inspire the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Chronicling Thoreau’s youthful transformation, Sims reveals how this decade would resonate over the rest of his life, and thereafter throughout American literature and history (book cover).