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e.e. cummings’s Tom: A Ballet and Uncle Tom’s Doll-Dance of Modernism

December 3, 2013

Experimentalism notwithstanding, some modernist dramas betray lingering investments in the racial essentialisms of nineteenth-century realism and sentimentalism. In the rarely-studied case of E. E. Cummings’ Tom: A Ballet (1935), formal experimentalism becomes the very language through which such investments achieve articulation.

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Recasting Harriet Beecher Stowe’s characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) as so many toy-like dancers, Cummings creates an expressive world of gyration in Tom. It is a world of ballet and poetry, and it makes sense only in light of the adapted plot, if it is to make sense at all.

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Like his other contributions to futurist avant-garde theater, Tom was never performed in Cummings’ lifetime (Him of 1927 being the exception). Yet unlike Anthropos: or the Future of Art (1930) or Santa Claus, A Morality (1946), Cummings went to great lengths to prepare his ballet, Tom, for theatrical performance.

Balanchine

Balanchine

Guided by ballet patron Lincoln Kirstein, Ballets Russes choreographer George Balanchine set out to orchestrate Tom‘s dances while social realist artist Ben Shahn rendered its title character for the frontispiece of a first and only publication. That edition ran a mere fifteen hundred copies.

In its tertiary review of Stowe’s representation of slavery and “the published text of George Aiken’s stage version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (Kennedy 373), Cummings’ ballet is less concerned with the experiential dimension of race than with its inaccessibility.

George Balanchine, for one, encountered the shadow of this inaccessibility in Cummings’ language. Balanchine rejected the project soon after reading the script. Whereas the writing caused Balanchine’s withdrawal, a signed edition of the play held in the special collections of Dartmouth College’s Rauner Library suggests that there must have been something in the artwork from which Cummings sought to distance himself. Below an otherwise “Happy New Year” wish to Philip Brooks in 1959, the inscription states:

Not responsible for frontispiece” (emphasis in original).

What is it about Ben Shan’s image of Tom that inspired Cummings’ denial?

At a glance, its dominant theme points to a reversal of scale. Eyes gazing heavenward, Ben Shahn’s Uncle Tom dwarfs the mansion he stands before. The figure overshadows the building’s claim to spatial authority. In tow, and by implication, Tom resists the domestic, national and implicitly racial authority that the building symbolizes. Rooted Tom_smponderously with arms stiff at his sides and menacingly huge in shabby raiment, Shahn’s Tom is both monumental and monument. He does not simply rise above the power structures that constrain him, as Stowe narrates, he becomes a statue before them. Awed to fixity by the magnitude of all that lies beyond his own ossified corporeality, this Tom seems perfectly appropriate as the frontispiece to Cummings’ ballet. Indeed, Shahn’s visual oxymoron of grandeur and lifelessness resonates with Cummings’ transformative vision of Stowe’s characters as puppets and dolls. Evidence for this automation of Stowe’s types abounds in Cummings’ descriptions of motionless slaves as a “ring of corpses” (147), Eliza’s baby as a “doll” (154), Topsy as a “totally black doll-like phenomenon” (152), George as a “puppet” (166) and–most significantly– Tom as a “Tomdoll” (167).

If a frontispiece is meant to have some reflective correspondence to the text it accompanies, then surely this one has hit its mark. Based upon the 1959 inscription, however, Cummings appears not to have thought so. Or perhaps Cummings found Shahn’s piece so appropriate that he was obliged to decline responsibility for it when inscribing the play to friends, particularly those who were aware of his other talents as a visual artist.

Without risking unfounded assertions of intention, it is safe to assume that the underlined negation—“Not responsible for frontispiece”—opens this particular copy of the ballet in a space of contradiction difficult to overlook. I like to think that there is yet a symptomatic lesson to be learned from this particular copy that usefully sheds light on Cummings’ adaptation more generally. In a way, Cummings is responsible for a spectacle of lifeless black grandeur comparable to Shahn’s, regardless of his assertions to the contrary in private notes.

But why the denial at all? What makes the writing inappropriate to the choreographer? Why is the illustration a matter of renunciation for the writer? And how does the figure of poor Uncle Tom signify amidst all of these recusals?

Scarcely motivated to ask let alone answer these questions, the few critics who interpret Tom succumb to the fallacy of seeking in the play’s text exactly what the historical archive furnishes in large measure already: dramatic evidence of failure to secure a publisher after fourteen attempts or a composer after several swiftly withdraw upon encountering Cummings’ difficult “poetry”. Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, for example, attributes Tom’s failure to an inflexible and, for Cummings, uncharacteristic reliance “on the historical aspects of Stowe’s text” (377), to a poetry that “plays better on the ear than on the eye” (378) and to Cummings’ inability to translate his deep knowledge of ballet or his strong identification with blacks into a viable scenario.

A more sensitive analysis of the poetic instructions for the ballet reveals a tedious but no less impassioned effort to incorporate music under the aegis of language and to carve out a cosmology of difference — racial, spiritual and aesthetic — through a sustained division of traditional reportage and experimental wordplay. In tracing the discord that surrounds this ballet, I propose that its “failure” arises symptomatically. It burbles up from the cultural depths, as it were, but not from Cummings’ or anyone else’s irascibility merely. No. The symptomatic failure, that constellation of rejection and recusal, clings to the ballet like bad weather–inevitable winds of history, if you will.  They blow in by way of a vexatious politics of meaning that converge around a number of modernist topoi — the primitive, simulated humanity or automata, and the tension between the artifice of the implicitly white actor and the expressive efficacy of the raced body of dance.

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<Originally published in Journal of Modern Literature Volume 34, Number 2 (2011)>

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