Object of the Month

A Rhinoceros Tells Tales to a Soldier: the Childhood Imaginings of E. E. Cummings

Rhinoceros sketch and poem Ink on paper

Rhinoceros sketch and poem

Image 1 of 1

Laura Lowell
Manuscript Processor

Long before Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) became known as E. E. Cummings, one of 20th-century America’s most popular poets, his words and sketches revealed a delightful childhood imagination. This youthful work, completed about 1901, displays one of Cummings’s earliest experiments with capitalization and punctuation, which would later become the poet’s trademark: THIS. RHINOCEROUS. / IS. YOUNG. / MARCHING BY A. SOLDIER. / HE TELLS-TALES TO-HIM

Growing up in Cambridge and at Joy Farm

Estlin, as he was called by his family, was the son of Edward and Rebecca Haswell Clarke Cummings. He grew up in Cambridge in a rambling house near Harvard Yard, and his father often took him to the circuses and Wild West shows that visited neighboring Boston. “The circus came every spring and pitched a huge tent in an open space outside the city of Boston,” recalled Estlin’s younger sister, Elizabeth, in her 1981 memoir. “Before I was old enough to go to the circus, I had heard my brother tell about going with my father, and had seen the pictures he drew of the animals and acrobats he had seen.”

Estlin’s father, Rev. Edward Cummings, was the minister at Boston’s South Congregational Church (Unitarian), and a well-known activist for peace and social justice. Six-foot-two with a booming voice and playful sense of humor, Rev. Cummings was a pivotal influence in his young son’s life. In his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard in 1952, Estlin declared “... no father on this earth ever loved or will love his son more profoundly.”

Rebecca Cummings encouraged her son’s imagination, reading him poetry and literature, and helping him to create scrapbooks, watercolors, and sketches of Wild West shows, circus acts, cowboys and Indians, hunting expeditions, animals of all varieties, and numerous versions of the “world’s tallest tower.”

The family spent every summer at Joy Farm, their home in Silver Lake, New Hampshire, where the mountains, the lake, and a menagerie of farm animals and pets provided an abundance of inspiration for the young artist. “It was called Joy Farm because it had belonged to a man named Ephraim Joy, but it earned the name on its own account,” wrote Elizabeth.

One of America’s Most Widely Read Poets

Cummings attended Cambridge Latin School and received his A. B. from Harvard University in 1915 and his A. M. from Harvard the following year. He served as a volunteer in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps in France during World War I, where he was imprisoned in 1917 on suspicion of anti-war views and espionage. Although he continued to paint and draw throughout his life, it was his unique poetry and writing style that elevated Cummings to one of the country’s most widely read literary figures. According to Cummings’s biographer, Richard S. Kennedy, “his visual orientation combined with his word play to produce unusual spatial arrangements of words in his poems and to allow the development of a personal style that was one of the most important contributions to the literary revolution of the twentieth century.”

Cummings’s publications include The Enormous Room (1922) about his French imprisonment; Tulips and Chimneys (1923); and numerous books of collected poetry. Among his many honors were an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard in 1952.

Cummings was married three times: in 1924 to Elaine Orr, with whom he had a daughter, Nancy T. (Andrews); to Anne Minnerly Barton in 1929; and to actress, model, and photographer Marion Morehouse, who survived him.

Estlin Cummings Wild West Show: exhibition on view until August 30

More of E. E. Cummings’s early letters, writings, and drawings, together with family portraits by Charles Sydney Hopkinson, are on display in the Society’s Treasures Gallery at our 1154 Boylston Street headquarters. Also on display this summer are: The Object of History: 18th Century Treasures from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society and “The Education of Our Children Is Never out of My Mind”: John & Abigail Adams’s Thought on Education, through 7 September.

Exhibit galleries are open to the public Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m to 4:00 p.m. There is no charge for admission. For more information, visit the Society’s website.

For additional information

The early drawings of E. E. Cummings are part of the Cummings-Clarke family papers held by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Additional early drawings may be found in the E. E. Cummings papers, 1870-1969, at the Houghton Library of Harvard University and in the E. E. Cummings collection at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

For further reading

Cohen, Milton. Poet and Painter: the Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings’ Early Work. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987.

Cummings, E. E. i: six nonlectures (Charles Eliot Norton Lectures). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright Publ. Co., 1980.

Qualey, Elizabeth Cummings. When I was a Little Girl. Privately published, 1981.

Sawyer-Laucanno, Christopher. E. E. Cummings: A Biography. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2004.


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