“the sacred things we call the humanities.”: E. E. Cummings and the Humanities Series

Edward Estlin Cummings (1894 – 1962), known as E. E. Cummings, was an American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright.

Edward Estlin Cummings (1894 – 1962), known as E. E. Cummings, was an American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright.

The renowned poet, E. E. Cummings, gave readings at Boston College on November 19th, 1959 and October 26th, 1961 as a guest of the Humanities Series. Second only to Robert Frost as the most requested American poet to speak on college campuses, Cummings, and his visits, are characterized by Father Sweeney in their correspondence as a “triumph” and “a rededication to the sacred things we call the humanities” (Humanities Series Director’s Records, Box 18, Folder 79, MS.2002.037).

E. E. Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and received both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at Harvard University. Known mostly for his innovative poetry which plays with language and creates poems as visual as well as linguistic forms, Cummings led an adventurous life after he left Cambridge. In 1917, the poet signed up as an ambulance driver with the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service in France. His brief stint working as a driver involved a close friendship with William Brown Slater, and imprisonment in the French detention center, Depot de Traige in La Ferte-Mace, where he and Slater were detained under suspicion of espionage. Thanks to his father’s insistence, Cummings was released in December of 1917 through diplomatic means and returned to the United States. After being drafted into the army and serving at Camp Devens for the remainder of World War I, Cummings moved to New York City and began his life as a poet, artist, and playwright. His work, though popular and respected, was slow to sell but he kept writing and publishing steadily throughout his lifetime. Three marriages, a daughter, a lecturer position at Harvard, various fellowships and awards, and several volumes of poetry later, (as well as two visits to BC) Cummings died of a brain hemorrhage on September 3, 1962 at the age of 67.

Letter from E. E. Cummings to Father Sweeney, Box 18, Folder 78, MS.2002.037, Humanities Series Director's Records, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Letter from E. E. Cummings to Father Sweeney, Box 18, Folder 78, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The correspondence between Father Sweeney, and E. E. Cummings, Marion Cummings, and Elizabeth Kray is characterized by small details. The exact set up that Cummings required for the stage and microphone, his anxiety over the PA system for his second visit when he was recovering from a cold, the “quiet room” he requested at the Parker House, the unsigned check that was accidentally given to the poet for his speaker fee, and even a letter from an anonymous patron of the series complaining about the audience’s behavior during one of Cummings’s appearances, all combine to create a picture of the quotidian details of a large lecture series. Father Sweeney’s letters to lecturers all begin in the same way: with a request for an appearance. The ensuing correspondence then covers a multitude of details ranging from accommodations, to dinner plans, to agreeing on terms, to final letters of thanks and congratulation.

Letter from Elizabeth Kray to Father Sweeney, Box 18, Folder 80, MS.2002.037, Humanities Series Director's Records, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Letter from Elizabeth Kray to Father Sweeney, Box 18, Folder 80, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037 John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

E. E. Cummings’s visit, and the necessary correspondence that accompanied it, has an intriguing element: most of the correspondence was conducted through Cummings’s agent, Elizabeth Kray. Kray was the personal agent for Cummings as well as many of his contemporaries, including W. H. Auden and Marianne Moore. She was also the executive director of the Academy of American Poets, the founder of the Poets-in-the-Schools program, and co-founder of Poets House (New York Times). The letters that passed between Ms. Kray and Father Sweeney are friendly and humorous and, apparently profitable, as Kray provided Father Sweeney with contacts in the poetry world. Despite miscommunications, misplaced files, and a circular correspondence with Cummings himself—“I’ve had…a letter from him all about woodchucks, delphiniums, himself as compared to cows eating green apples….but nothing, nothing, nothing about dates” (Box 18, Folder 80, MS.2002.037)—Kray and Sweeney managed to schedule both readings to much acclaim from the student body. This behind-the-scenes glimpse of how agent, artist, and institution work together exemplifies the relationships that evolved as a significant part of the Humanities Series. Kray, while gently poking fun at Cummings, was also protective of the poet and paid scrupulous attention to the details he needed in order to be comfortable during his readings. Father Sweeney and Ms. Kray’s mutual respect and admiration for the work they both did is evident from their friendly letters back and forth. Both Cummings and Kray are important figures in American poetry and their onstage and backstage involvement in the Humanities Series is a testament to the personalities, hard work, and friendships that the series developed throughout the years.

The Humanities Series Director’s Records are available for researchers at the Burns Library Reading Room. If you have questions, please contact the Burns Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu. For more information on the Humanities Series Director’s Records Collection, look at the finding aid or view this Flickr set featuring images from the Humanities Series Director’s Records Collection. The Lowell Humanities Series continues this year; a list of speakers can be found at http://www.bc.edu/offices/lowellhs/.

  • Rachel Ernst, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Ph.D. Student in the Department of English.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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