Was E. E. Cummings a Racist?

Slate's Culture Blog
May 27 2011 3:33 PM

Was E. E. Cummings a Racist?

On Wednesday, the Awl published a lostpoem by your favorite poet from high school and mine, e. e. cummings . Itwas discovered by James Dempsey, aprofessor who's working on a biography of Scofield Thayer, publisher of theinfluential literary magazine The Dial andlongtime cummings supporter.

Dempsey's essayabout Thayer and Cummings' relationship is well worth reading in itsentirety. (Cummings' undergrad fan letter to Thayer is a hoot and a half.) ButI was mostly struck by the poem, "(tonite," which Awl editor Choire Sicha had teasedon Twitter by calling it "reeeaaaaltroublesome!!!"

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Thepoem , which was found in a folder of correspondence between the two men, begins:

(tonite
in nigger
street

the snow is perfectly falling,

the noiselessly snow is
sexually fingering the utterly asleep

houses)

The word nigger appearssix times in the short, single-page poem which, Dempsey notes, "perhaps givesus a clue as to why the work was never published." It goes on to portray "niggerstreet" as a place of "unsafe roofs / and dangerous stairs," of "saggingunlighted filth, within / which black bodies clutch and cuddle," and describesa complicated dream the narrator has about God, hell, black people, andJudgment Day. (I think the dream part still baffles me. Exegeses welcome in thecomments.)

Dempsey notes that nigger "is and was at the time of writing a hard word, of course, onethat was unmistakably insulting and disparaging, though not exclusively so." In1916 the year "(tonite" seems to have been written the respected (white) poet CarlSandburg had published "Nigger," asympathetic but hamfisted poem that, Dempsey points out, traffics in thekind of stereotypes cummings "largely avoids."  

So how are we supposed to contextualize this "reeeaaaaltroublesome" poem of cummings'? I emailed Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, authorof 2004's E.E.Cummings: A Biography , and he had this to say:

It's not an easy answer. I'm fairly convinced that [Cummings] was nota racist. In fact, he was one of the few of his generation who actuallyexpressed outrage at the treatment of Blacks. The term, "Nigger," of course, was in common usage. Carl Van Vechten , forinstance, 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 isfairly evident in his work as seen in his sympathetic portrayal of Jean leNegre in The Enormous Room and hischoice to create a ballet scenario based on UncleTom's Cabin . Even his private journal entries express outrage at lynchingsand 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 forAfrican-Americans. It's an unfortunate choice of words on his part but alsovery much part of his very un-PC character.

So there you have it: An unfortunate bit of juvenilia, but probablynot 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.

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