Writer E.E. Cummings might be equally known for writing his name in all lowercase. But did he really expect us to refer to him that way?
There are school children who couldn’t name a single poem or other work E.E. Cummings ever created. But some of them could name one other fact about him: We often see his name styled as e.e. cummings.
Yes. All lowercase. No capitals.
There’s something of a rebelliousness when a writer breaks such a basic rule of grammar. Wikipedia puts it this way, citing a biography by Irene Fairley:
Cummings’ works often do not follow the conventional rules that generate typical English sentences, or what Fairley identifies as “ungrammar.”
We’re always supposed to capitalize proper names. But he often didn’t. He didn’t always capitalize his own name. So many school children first saw references to him as “e.e. cummings,” rather than “E.E. Cummings.”
To a young student, particularly one who receives red marks on grammar papers, these things stand out.
Some of us wonder who this guy was. We wondered why he got away with calling himself e.e. instead of E.E. We didn’t get to skip capitalization…so why should he?
That, you see, is the artist in the art. Once an artist proves his talent, the world seems to allow a bit of eccentricity that the rest of us do not yet possess.
Cummings didn’t always skip capital letters
His use of lowercase letters — particularly for his own name — was not universal. The most obvious example remains his signature. He clearly used capital Es in his signature.
Some book editors seemed so conflicted about whether to capitalize that they used his signature on the front of the book. That avoided the debate altogether. After all, if he chose to write his name with capital Es, that was good enough for the editors.
Norman Friedman, who wrote about him, even shared letters between himself and his editors discussing the “problem.” One editor wrote this:
In going over the jacket design for your book on Cummings—and looking back over the galleys—I find myself perplexed by the problem of decapitalizing Cummings’ name.
Should it be done consistently throughout? Please give me a rubric, if you can.
Rather than provide anything as official as a rubric, Friedman advised the editor that after reviewing several works, he found “no consistency” in how to print the name. But he added that he preferred the capitalized version.
Given that the writer himself used capitals, he apparently did as well.
Benjamin Dreyer, in his entertaining grammar book Dreyer’s English, says not only should the Es be capitalized but that there should be a space between the initials: E. E., not E.E.
“…The writer himself far more often than not favored standard capitalization insofar as his name was concerned,” Dreyer says.
If proper capitalization was good enough for Edward Estlin Cummings, Dreyer says, it should be good enough for us as well.