The Enormous Room: A Classic Book Worth Revisiting

A good book doesn’t need to be plot based. A good book doesn’t need a shocking twist at the end to tickle your inner detective and guarantee a rereading. A good book doesn’t need a happy ending, or even an ending that ties up all the characters’ plotlines. This is most evident in the first literary appearance of E.E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room. This book is able to not only showcase the literary genius of Cummings, but also shows how a book can truly make you care for a character without deep backgrounds, excessive dialogue, or constant flashbacks.

The book is based around the unjust imprisonment of E.E. Cummings while he was working for the volunteer ambulance brigade in WWI. The reason for his imprisonment is because his friend, B.(whose name is never directly used for his sake), wrote a letter back to America which was deemed traitorous. Cummings is eventually placed in a traitors’ jail called La Ferte, where he spends several months with some of the most extraordinary characters. Cummings also meets four people that were the most interesting and pure people he had ever met, who he deemed “The Delectable Mountains“ because of how they stood out from all men he had met before. It is this aspect of the story that will most surprise you.

In the book, Cummings tends to focus more on character development then a grounded overarching story. Each character is given many details about their physique, personality, habits, and mannerisms to help the reader gain a better picture of the character as a whole. Cummings spends entire chapters focusing on the exploits of a single person rather than chronologically describing every day he spent in the prison. The end result is that the readers care a lot more about these characters, as if they have known them for years. This causes the book to seem slow at first, but if you dedicate yourself to the characters, you will definitely get a lot out of it.

Another overarching design of the story is Cummings’ poetic style of storytelling. Because this book was made before Cummings was known for his poetical genius, this aspect of the book was commonly overlooked when it was first released. On reflection, one can certainly see the ebb and flow of each paragraph that few writers can pull off. One good example is the author’s description of a man named Jean le Nigre’, ”O yes, Jean: I do not forget, I remember plenty; the snow’s coming, the snow will throw again a very big and gentle shadow into The Enormous Room and into the eyes of you and me walking always and wonderfully up and down…”. Although the book isn’t constantly in this style of writing, Cummings does it just enough to whet your appetite for an interesting lyrical phrase.

These individual ideas and styles come together to form a delightfully complex package, allowing for a book that pulls you in and introduces you to a problem with war that is not always touched upon. In war, most assume that a man will fight tooth and nail for the symbolic ideal of “his country,” and that every soldier has a good reason to hold contempt for other human beings they haven’t met. Cummings stands against this idea, continuously referencing the fact that he bears no sense of rivalry towards the Germans. Being a true story, it most certainly does not promise a happy ending for anyone involved, and the reader should be prepared to see the life and soul of a character crumble right on the page. It is an experience that is certain to change your outlook on the world around you, if at least for a few days. Although the book does have a fair amount of French in it, that is no excuse for missing a book that pushes the boundaries of how strong a connection a person can have with a character whom they have only met through pen and paper.

Review by Will E., Uni High School

Link to books by and about E.E. Cummings
Link to E.E. Cummings' biography at Poets.org

The Enormous Room, book cover

The Enormous Room
by E. E. Cummings

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