The Harvard University that Estlin Cummings entered in September 1911 was a place in the grip of enormous, conservative, regressive change.
Until 1909,. The of Harvard had been run with the aristocratic liberal rigor of Charles William Eliot, who had been its president for forty years. Eliot was a populist democrat in an elitist world who believed that any man could be educated by reading a five-foot shelf of classics – books that became the Harvard Classics. Eliot was so liberal that he had overseen the creation of Radcliffe College from what previously had been the Harvard Annex for women. Radcliffe women had their own classrooms, of course; women weren’t permitted in Harvard classes until 1943. Eliot had brought Harvard from being a provincial school to being a beacon of educational excellence for the entire country.
When Cummings got to Harvard two years after Eliot stepped down, the institution was slowly and painfully giving way to what would become the new Harvard under conservative, anti-Semitic, racist aegis of A. Lawrence Lowell, a Brahmin’s Brahmin who ran Harvard College for the next twenty-four years. Lowell “represented the conservative and exclusionary wing of the Protestant upper class as surely as Eliot represented its liberal democratic wing,” writes Jerome Karabel. He was also a brilliant fund-raiser.
Under President Lowell, the university would thrive and prosper when it came to money, enrollment, and buildings. Its endowment would go from $23 million to $123 million, its student body would double from four thousand to eight thousand, and many of the buildings that identify the Harvard campus today – the Widener Library, the Memorial Chapel – were built.
Under Lowell, the university would join the national mood of intolerance: for Jews, for homosexuals, and for women. President Lowell was distressed when the percentage of Jews in the 1922 graduating class rose to 22 from a genteel 7 in 1907. Lowell believed that democracy and the universities should be homogeneous – “homogeneous’ meaning that they should be peopled by white Protestant men. Lowell knew that his old-fashioned convictions would not be enough to change university policy or sway the disturbing liberal Board of Overseers. Instead he argued, first, that having a class that was 22 percent Jewish hurt Harvard’s applicant pool, because the right kind of parents didn’t want to send their children to a college with so many Jews.
President Lowell also argued that admitting so many Jews might add to anti-Semitism; his stated theory was that the more Jewish students were at Harvard, the greater the prejudice against them might be! “The anti-Semitic feeling among students is increasing, and it grows in proportion to the increase in the number of Jews. If their number should become forty per cent of the student body, the race feeling would become intense,” he wrote. President Lowell decided that Harvard should institute a 15 per cent quota system for admitting Jewish students. He was also against letting African-American students live in the freshman dorms, where, beginning in 1915, all freshman were required to live. This confused policy was quickly abolished. His policy regarding Jewish students was not so easy to resolve.
Lowell received a great deal of public criticism for his suggestion of a quota, particularly in the Boston press. Later, his rectitude was further tested when he served on a three-member commission appointed by Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller to review the convictions of Sacco and Vanzetti. Lowell’s commission found that the two anarchists had been justly tried and sentenced. His role in sending Sacco and Vanzetti to their execution on August 23, 1927, is one of the ways he lives in history.
In response to Lowell’s quota suggestions, Harvard’s overseers appointed a thirteen-member committee, which included three Jews, to study the university’s “Jewish problem.” The committee rejected a Jewish quota but agreed that ‘geographical diversity” in the student body was desirable. At the same time the theoretically defeated President Lowell changed the application requirements to include a photograph and, if possible, an interview. As students began being admitted from the western and Midwestern states, the student body became once again predominantly Anglo-Saxon. By the time Lowell retired in 1933, Jewish students constituted less than 10 per cent of the Harvard student body.
Of course, during these decades there was no discussion of a group that was even more definitely barred from the precincts of the country’s most prestigious university –women. During the years when Cummings was at Harvard, in fact, women did not even have the vote. They had been campaigning for nit since 1848. In 1914, by which time women had become one fifth of the American work force, a suffragette named Alice Paul pushed the movement into militant tactics, which were brutally repelled with the consent of President Woodrow Wilson. Women were stripped and jailed, locked in solitary, and starved – all for the sin of demonstrating on behalf of women having the vote.
Lowell was not alone in his general intolerance or his ant-Semitism in particular. The freshman E. E. Cumming’s favorite professor, Theodore Miller – his first Greek instructor and later a close friend – took a job at Princeton in Cumming’s third year at Harvard. Miller visited the Cummings camp in N. H. and introduced Cummings to a world of poetry – Shelley, Keats, Sappho – that the young New Englander had not read. It was through miller that Cummings discovered Greek literature as well as the Greek restaurants of Boston, it was under Miller’s tutelage that he first started working on the art of translation and the fragments of Sappho that appear in different patterns on the page.. Miller directed Cummings to a letter from Keats that became a credo for the young poets: “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination.”
Yet even Dory Miller was immersed I and influenced by the repulsive anti-Semitic environment in this country at the turn of the century. After he went south to teach at Princeton, Miller wrote Cummings that he was glad to have moved, because at Harvard he had to teach poetry with students like Cummings “sitting next to some little rough-neck Irish Catholic or Polish Jew.” Miller, who had been his mentor in his early years at Harvard, came to represent parts of the university that Cummings despised. There was accepted Anti-Semitism in education and accepted anti-Semitism in literature. The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton’s best-selling 1905 novel, features a slimy Jewish character named Simon Rosedale who is described as having the unattractive characteristics of his race. In The Age of Innocence, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 19212, Wharton deploys the same character in the form of Julius Beaufort. Although Cummings was disturbed by anti-Semitism at Harvard and in Cambridge, and this was one reason he left, later in his own career the charge of anti-Semitism would be leveled at him and his work.
Another group that drew Lowell’s furious drive for homogeneity was homosexuals. A purge of homosexuals on the Harvard campus was carried out when Lowell convened a secret tribunal that interviewed thirty students and expelled the ones accused. At a time when homosexuality was illegal in many states, it was so condemned that few people were courageous enough to admit it. In those days, men like Cumming’s favorite Uncle George, for instance, were ‘unmarried” or “perennial bachelors,” as if even homosexuality had to be defined in relation to heterosexual marriage.
Cummings himself certainly had bisexual yearnings – yearnings that were so unthinkable as to be entirely suppressed. Although he dutifully wrote poems to women, the great devotions of his early life were to men – to his Harvard friends SD. Foster Damon and Scofield Thayer and especially to the tall,, handsome James Sibley Watson Jr, a senior a wealthy Rochester, New York, family who with his wife would become Cumming’s lifelong patron and friend. Watson’s wife reported in her memoir that when she met him Watson was already thrillingly scandalous in his hometown,. “He is interested in rather depraved, even degenerate literature – reads Baudelaire, you know, that sort of thing,” she was told before they met. During the course of dozens of wildly drunken evenings, Cummings and Watson seem to have become physically as well as emotionally close to each other. “Homosexual feelings towards Watson,” Cummings wrote in his journals. “time we drove fr. Boston –NY all night . . .”
Harvard was at a crossroads during Cummings’s five years there, and so was Cummings. When he entered the college, he was younger than most freshman – sixteen- and a slight 5’8” and looked even slighter standing next to his bulky father, who was more than six feet tall. A blond with refined, narrow features, he was painfully self-conscious about his body and his persistent acne. In public he often his behind a newspaper. Because he commuted from home, ( just a few blocks from Memorial Hall and across the street from William James- who had introduced his future parents to one another), he joined none of the clubs or fraternities that characterized most Harvard student’s time in the Yard.
At the same time his writing lost its conscientiousness, conventional pleasingness and began to lurch and jump with a manic, angry energy . . . began to be rebellious, rule-breaking and provocative. Formerly neatly dressed, he wore dirty clothes and forgot to shave. His behavior changed from that of a rule follower and believer in the Unitarian Church and all its puritanical precepts, as embodied in his powerful, hulking father, to being a trickster, a Loki, a character like a poetic coyote, the character who was always working below the surface to challenge authority and blow up the foundations of the comfortable world.