Brain Pickings

Vintage Illustrations for the Fairy Tales E. E. Cummings Wrote for His Only Daughter, Whom He Almost Abandoned

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What elephants and butterflies have to do with the failures and redemptions of fatherhood.

In 1916, at the peak of WWI and shortly after graduating from Harvard, beloved poet E. E. Cummings penned an epithalamion — a poem celebrating nuptials — for his classmate and close friend Scofield Thayer’s marriage to his fiancé Elaine Orr. The newlyweds moved to Chicago and Cummings was drafted to serve in France, where he spent some months in prison for his unapologetic anti-war views. By the time he returned to New York in 1918, the Thayers were living in two separate apartments at Washington Square. Cummings’s old friend, who had risen to an influential position in literary circles, became the poet’s patron, supporting his poetry and even purchasing his paintings — a context that makes the affair Cummings undertook with Elaine all the more morally suspect, even though the poet knew his friend’s insistence on wanting to focus on work was merely a veil for his loss of interest in his wife. In May of 1919, Elaine became pregnant with Cummings’s child — something that threw an even more destabilizing curveball in what was already a triangle of impending disaster. To make matters worse, Cummings shirked his responsibility as a father and abandoned Elaine. Thayer, even though he knew the truth of paternity, stepped in to raise little Nancy once she was born on December 20, 1919. It took Cummings nearly a year to come around — in October of 1920, once it became clear that the Thayers were divorcing, he rekindled his relationship with Elaine and began seeing his daughter, who came to call him Mopsy, daily. The following year, the three moved to Paris, but Elaine, supported by Thayer’s alimony, lived comfortably in a large apartment, while Cummings, having lost his patron but bent on keeping the remnants of his dignity, lived the classic poor-writer’s life in his own humble quarters. He did, however, set out to build a relationship with his baby daughter, his only child, which he did the best way he knew how — by telling her original stories he made up for her.

In 1965, three years after Cummings’s death, four of these stories — “The Elephant & the Butterfly,” “The Little Girl Named I,” “The House That Ate Mosquito Pie,” and “The Old Man Who Said ‘Why?’” — were collected in a slim volume simply titled Fairy Tales (public library) — a fine addition to the little-known children’s books of famous authors, including gems by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

The stories, while closer to fables than to fairy tales, are nonetheless charming and doubly so thanks to the gorgeous illustrations by Canadian artist John Eaton. I’ve tracked down a surviving copy of the original edition for our shared enjoyment:

Complement Cummings’s Fairy Tales with 17 whimsical songs based on his poetry.

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