Thursday, April 17, 2014

Reading WWI: The Enormous Room

Reading WWI is my ongoing casual project to read more books related to the First World War during the 2014-2018 centenary 

In 1917 young Edward Estlin Cummings went to France as a volunteer with a Red Cross ambulance unit on the western front. But his free-spirited, insubordinate ways soon got him tagged as a possible enemy of La Patrie, and he was summarily tossed into a French concentration camp at La Ferte-Mace in Normandy. Under the vilest conditions, Cummings found fulfillment of his ever elusive quest for freedom. The Enormous Room, his account of his four-month confinement, reads like a latter-day Pilgrim's Progress, a journey into dispossession, to a place among the most debased and deprived of human creatures.

The Enormous Room
Cummings, E.E. (1922). [Genre: autobiographical novel] 
Source: Project Gutenburg

So, E.E Cummings is fairly well known as a poet and author. What is less well known is that during WWI he enlisted in the French ambulance corps, only to be inprisoned by his own side when the French government accused him and a friend of espionage after writing letters that drew the attention of the censors. He spent the last quarter of 1917 in a military detention camp, during which time his parents were informed he had drowned when a ship returning to the USA sank (the mistake was later corrected). 

Cummings experience forms the basis of his autobiographical novel, The Enormous Room. The novel follows him from his arrest in Paris, his travels through France under escorted guard, his imprisonment in a one-room detention camp (the 'enormous room' of the title) with detainees of varied experience and nationality, and finally his release and return to New York.  

I was looking forward to The Enormous Room, as I find the fate of P.O.W's in general fascinating and it's even more interesting when it's a historical figure who is still well-known today. On the whole though, I was disapointed. The first quarter of the novel, detailing Cumming's arrest and travel to the detention camp, the author treats as a joke. Both him and his companion 'B' seem little concerned with the circumstances of their detainment and indeed, welcome it as an escape from their unpleasant boss at the ambulance corp. The tone is almost frat-boyish and although I know that humour is one way Cumming's obviously deals with his situation, the portrayal seemed immature and disrespectful to the many that wound up in far more serious positions than he for similarly trivial reasons. 

His time in the 'enormous room' itself is devoted almost entirely to character studies of his fellow in-mates, to whom he gives descriptive nicknames. Some of these were mildly interesting, but overall I have to admit I found the use of complex nicknames confusing and the character studies a let down in comparison to what I was expecting. Very little is said about how Cummings actually felt at the time, despite his situation obviously being very serious, being ill-fed, dirty, lice-ridden and not knowing when and if he would be released. Again, Cummings hides behind making fun of those who are alongside him. 

For me, The Enormous Room added little to my knowledge of WWI. This I wasn't particularly worried about, but what was more sad is that it added little to my knowledge of the P.O.W experience. By hiding behind out-of-place humour and caricature, Cumming's denies the reader any insight into what it was actually like to be arrested and inprisoned by your own side during the great war. It is only in the last few pages, when Cummings returns to New York with obvious deep relief and gratefulness, that we get any hint his experience was more than a 4 month holiday. 

The Enormous Room is counted towards the 'Classic about War' category of the 2014 Back to the Classics Challenge 


  1. Interesting! I haven't read a lot WWI books, but have heard many WWII books. This sounds interesting, especially the part about his observations and studies of his in-mates.

    1. I'm the same. . . lots of WWII, but not so much WWI, which is why I'm making the effort to read more!