E. E. Cummings was an American poet, essayist, playwright, novelist, and painter known for his unconventional use of grammar, punctuation, and language. Though his name makes many people picture a strange-looking poem full of dashes, parentheses, and inconsistent capitalization, much of his work was more conventional in form, although his syntax was always idiosyncratic. He often coined words or evocative phrases, such as mud-luscious and candy luminous, and used language as often for its sound as for its meaning. He was one of the most popular and influential American poets of the 20th century.
Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 14 October 1894, the son of a Harvard professor and Unitarian minister, Edward, and his wife, Rebecca. His father supported his literary leanings, and he started writing poetry by the age of ten. His early poems and stories were published in his elementary school's literary magazine.
He attended Harvard from 1911 to 1916, earning a Master's degree in English and Classical Studies. During his studies, his literary works were published in the Harvard Monthly and the Harvard Advocate. In 1915, Cummings discovered the work of avant-garde writers like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, who would have significant influence on his style. He delivered a commencement address at his graduation on the subject of avant-garde poetry.
After graduation, he enlisted in a European ambulance corps, but his assignment was delayed for five weeks due to an administrative error. He spent the intervening time in Paris, for which he developed a lifelong affection. Five months after beginning work as an ambulance driver, he was arrested along with a friend, William Slater Brown, on suspicion of espionage. The two were interred in a prison camp in Normandy for three and a half months. Cummings would later write of the experience in his novel The Enormous Room.
Shortly after returning to the United States on New Year's Day 1918, Cummings was drafted into the army and served in Massachusetts for the majority of the year. During the 1920s and 30s, he became famous as a writer and traveled the world, experiencing different cultures and meeting fellow artists. He spent the majority of his time in New York and Paris, but also visited the Soviet Union, North Africa, and Mexico. During this period, he also worked on the staff of Vanity Fair as an illustrator and essayist.
In 1926, his parents were in a major car accident, and only his mother survived. He wrote about his father and his death in many of his works, as his upbringing was very influential throughout the poet's life. Not only did his father encourage his artistic efforts, but he also instilled a deep, lifelong spirituality in his son.
Cummings was briefly married twice, for nine months in 1924 to Elaine Orr and for three years to Anne Minnerly Barton beginning in 1929. He had a daughter with his first wife, named Nancy and born four years before their marriage, but he did not have contact with her for over 20 years following the divorce. In 1932, he met fashion photographer and model Marion Morehouse, and the two lived together for the rest of Cummings' life.
He was awarded a seat as honorary professor at Harvard University in 1952 and gave a series of lectures. He spent his last years traveling and speaking publicly. E. E. Cummings died on 3 September 1962. He won over ten awards for his literary work during his lifetime, and his poems continue to be popular and frequently anthologized.