Early in her new biography of E.E. Cummings, Susan Cheever writes about the night in 1958 when she met the unrivaled modernist poet.
By Robin Jovanovich
Early in her new biography of E.E. Cummings, Susan Cheever writes about the night in 1958 when she met the unrivaled modernist poet. Her father, writer John Cheever, was dropping her back at the Westchester girls’ school she attended, when Cummings, then making “a modest living on the high-school lecture circuit,” recognized his old friend in the entrance hall and called over to him.
John Cheever offered to drive him home to Patchin Place in Greenwich Village. Susan listened while Cummings humorously excoriated her school, which she intensely disliked.
“Only a mindless moron could excel in a place like that!” Cummings proclaimed.
That night, over burgers at the White Castle in the Bronx, as Cummings did memorable imitations of members of the school’s English department, he captivated Susan Cheever’s imagination and inspired her to reach for a new goal — freedom. (In a year, she was happily situated in an alternative school in Vermont.)
While she never met Cummings again, he left a lasting impression. Many years and books later, Cheever found herself not knowing what to write about. “I was teaching at the New School and found myself in his old neighborhood,” she said in a phone interview this week. “I started talking about him to friends. I made friends with the people who now live in his old row house.”
For Cheever, most of the books she writes “begin with an obsession. When you write a biography, it’s like being married. You know your subject better than you know most people.”
Cheever was a great admirer of Cummings’ poetry long before she began the biography, but in rereading it, along with his letters and essays, and spending close to five years researching and writing, she found herself in awe of what he accomplished: “setting out to do something new, twisting poetic forms, as Picasso did with his art.”
Cummings used words “for the sound of them,” she said, reciting a few dazzling lines from different poems of his.
She will talk about Cummings’ extraordinary life and work with CBS correspondent Anthony Mason at The Osborn in Rye, Monday, February 24 at 7:30 p.m.