James Dempsey Talks About
The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer* 

by Rob Couteau.

Listen to this interview on youtube.

The recipient of awards from the Associated Press and United Press International, James Dempsey teaches journalism, writing, and English literature at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts. He’s also the author of The Court Poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Facing-page Translation in Modern English and the novels Zakary’s Zombies and Murphy’s American Dream. This is his first biography.

Rob Couteau: I’m in love with your book. You’ve created something so important, I think.

James Dempsey: It took me a long time, so I’m really gratified to hear you say that.

RC: How many years did it take you?

JD: I was working on it for nine years. Not all the time, obviously. It was mostly summers of research, here and there. Mostly at Yale, but there was also plenty of material at New York Public Library, Georgetown University, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, and the Boston Athenaeum.

RC: Good books do take a long time, you know?

JD: Well, this one sure did!

RC: How did you mentor yourself in learning to master the craft of biography? How do you go about assembling a life story?

JD: I had no idea when I started, to be honest. And I just started putting together all the research I had. I put it into a chronological timeline, but, as I went along, I found that little parts of it were starting to cohere, and you begin to see themes coming out of it. And that’s what turns into chapters, eventually. And when there isn’t any theme, you basically just go with the chronology. So, I guess I was trying to emphasize what seemed to me the most important aspects. But by the same token, when you’re a biographer you’re at the mercy of your materials, and you can only write about what you have and what you know. And there’s so much you don’t know. It’s kind of a ballsy thing, or a stupid thing, to do a biography, because you’re really saying: Well, this is this guy’s life. That’s a very arrogant thing to do, in some ways.

RC: It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. And I think you did a good job with it.

JD: [Laughs]

RC: One of the things I liked about it, and about your writing, is that I sensed the great empathy you had for this very tormented soul. You’ve said that Scofield didn’t get what he deserved in terms of his accomplishments, and you wanted to “give him his due.” Who was Scofield Thayer, and what was his legacy?

JD: I think the two things, really. One is the Dial, and the other was his art collection. And the interesting thing is that he didn’t regard the Dial as his life work. He always felt the Dial was getting in the way of his own writing. And it was, because it takes a lot of work to edit a magazine. You know, somebody once said that we are not who we think we are but what we do every day. And that’s what he did every day. What he produced was really remarkable. Even though it pissed him off to have to do it.

And then there was the art collection, which was also a passion of his. He put together a folio of reproductions called Living Art that represented what he thought was the best of modern art at the time, that he sold in this country. He was a real … “impresario” might be a little too vulgar, but he did believe in spreading art and art’s ideas around as much as he could.

RC: The Dial was originally founded by Emerson in 1840, I believe, and published as a transcendentalist magazine. Tell us about the history of the Dial before it came under Scofield’s control.

JD: Well, you’re right about that. I think it lasted about four or five years. Margaret Fuller was the editor of the Dial when Emerson was running it. There was an attempt to bring back a magazine called The Dial in 1860 that failed, and then another one in 1880, in Chicago, and this is the one that took. I think it was Francis Browne who was the publisher and the editor. It became a mid-West beacon of culture and aesthetics. It was very well thought of, if a little …

RC: Stodgy?


JD: Yes, stolid but stodgy. You know, if you read it, you’ll find that the literature usually amounts to maybe a review or two. Or something in the letters column about some obscure pronunciation of a Shakespearean word, or something like that. But it wasn’t really up to date. And there were one or two pieces poking fun at the rising modernist ideas, such as free verse. And then, of course, they adjoined it while it was in Chicago, and they were part of it when it made the transition to New York City.

RC: Thayer’s Dial was tremendously successful as a booster and promulgator of modernism in America, yet it also suffered tremendous financial loses. You estimate that Scofield sacrificed about 100,000 dollars a year to keep it afloat. Who were some of the artists and writers, both traditional and avant-garde, that he published? What were the keynotes of the Dial during his tenure?

JD: If you’d have asked him at the time, I think he would have said that he wasn’t pushing any particular ism: that he just wanted quality material. But because they were looking at, and willing to look at, a lot of avant-garde material and material by young writers and consider it on the same level as that of established writers, it gave more prestige to the modernist movement in a lot of ways. You know, it made Cummings’s career. No doubt about that.

RC: Absolutely. Scofield was tremendously helpful to him.

JD: And Marion Moore did well because of it, too. But they also published a lot of the more established folk. The first person to receive the Dial Award was Sherwood Anderson, who was of the generation before. They also published Joseph Conrad, William Butler Yeats. You know, these writers that were not modernist or weren’t really in the front of the avant-garde, but you couldn’t deny that they were important writers.

RC: I understand that he was the first to publish “The Waste Land” in the United States.

JD: He was, yes, but they decided not to go with the notes to the “Waste Land.” Thayer probably insisted on it. Of course, as you know, Thayer was not happy with the poem. He thought it was very disappointing.

RC: In some of your other interviews, people have brought up the fact that he had an “ambivalent” relationship with some of the modernist writing. Yet, at the same time, we could speculate and say, well, perhaps his vision was so forward looking that, to him, things like Joyce’s Ulysses and the “Waste Land” were too traditional. Maybe he saw something more forward moving in the painting of the era, for example. I mean, it’s a difficult call to make, right?

JD: It is. For what we think of as modernism, there’s no doubt that his taste as regards to art was much more avant-garde than it was regarding literature. But he was up-to-date there, too. I mean, he was a big fan of the German novelist and playwright, Arthur Schnitzler. And Schnitzler is not so well known in that he was one of the first people to use the stream of consciousness. And so, Thayer was very much aware of the various techniques of modernism. He just wasn’t impressed by them.

RC: Exactly. And, you know, perhaps to some young writers today, or fifty years from now, looking at Ulysses, or the “Waste Land,” they may find it a bit stodgy.

JD: Well, I know some of my students do. [Laughs] “Why does it have to be so difficult?”

RC: There’s no record of Scofield attending school until he was ten years old, and you say, “Thayer suffered from some kind of serious sickness or traumatic event in his fourth year, which perhaps affected his education.” Do you have any idea what may have happened to him, or do you harbor any sort of speculation that you didn’t want to mention in print without more specific evidence?


JD: I would love to know, Rob; I really would. And my speculation might be wholly off key, too. I just wasn’t able to find any evidence of his education before then. And considering that he was such a packrat, that he did keep, you know, every paper that he wrote from middle-school on, I would imagine that, had he gone, he would have said something.

RC: I’m actually referring more to what the trauma might have been, rather than the education.

JD: There’s only one mention of that, and that comes from him. He talks about the incident that took place in his fourth year, and that’s all we learn about it. He’s frustratingly obtuse, sometimes, in his writing.

RC: It could have been something extremely embarrassing, as well.

JD: Yes, indeed.

RC: Thayer said: “My father’s eyes showed hatred + detestation of me.” And he imagined his “mother’s heart as having electric-lighted plate-glass windows in it. Not necessarily intimate.” Wonderful understatement there.

JD: [Laughs] Right.

RC: Like many of those who are later diagnosed as schizophrenic, Thayer had an extremely contentious relationship with his parents. What do you think their overall influence on Thayer was, for better or worse?

JD: That’s a really good question. He was the only child. So, you know, if anyone was going to carry the flag of the Thayer name forward, it was he, both in terms of producing children and also running his father’s empire, which was really extensive. But of course, he showed no interest in that whatsoever. And his father died when he was seventeen, so he really wasn’t around to guide him as a young adult. It seems that the mother was somewhat scared of him, and he went around doing more or less what he wanted. He did hide a lot of things from his mother. He would hide the fact that he was buying certain paintings. He didn’t speak to her about being in therapy with Freud. So, you know, there was a sensitivity there. But I think, by and large, he was the more dominating one of the two. And so, he did what he wanted.

RC: The death of the father might have been one of the best things that ever happened to him.

JD: It could have been, yes.

RC: You know, based on his descriptions of the father. And also the fact that, if the father was around, he might not have had all that wealth to play with, and to create the Dial, I would assume.

JD: Indeed. And the father seems to be very much a kind of engineering man. You know, the classic Dickensian “Mr. Gradgrind,” who understand machines beautifully but doesn’t get on with people too well.

RC: In another one of his great understatements, Thayer said something like: My father has no grasp of human psychology.

JD: Right. Or even when it comes to animals, he said, he’s got no sense of psychology.*

RC: We also find a very high percentage of childhood sexual abuse in schizophrenia. Did you ever have a sense that something like this may have happened to him?

JD: There’s no doubt that his sexual life was … There was some kind of damage in it somewhere. Exactly what it was, I was never able to find out. I’m editing a journal coming out next year; it’s called the Worcester Review. They’re giving me an issue to do a “Scofield Thayer and the Dial thing. And I got a really interesting essay from an Oxford prof, who was looking at a Cummings drawing in the Dial, and talking about paganism and the pagan poets, which is how many of them were viewed at the time. And how the immature view of the rampant satyr running after the virginal nymph was a classic paradigm for them. She suggests that most men would outgrow that. But for Thayer, it seemed to become more and more powerful as he went deeper into his insanity. You know, he did “like them young,” as they say.


RC: Thayer was born into a tremendously wealthy family. And you say that, at Harvard, he learned about the “connection … between money and between sex.” You say: “Serial marriages comprised a form of prostitution … by which a woman could become wealthy in exchange for allowing her body to be enjoyed by more than one man.” And in Scofield’s words: “American girls enjoy the distinction of being the only members of the animal kingdom which – thanks to the American system of frequent and advantageous divorces and remarriages – pull themselves up by the cunt.” When I read that I thought: Thayer may have missed his calling as an eccentric social commentator.

JD: [Laughs] It’s quite a quotation, isn’t that?

RC: It really is. Maybe he should have been writing more nonfiction than poetry, because it’s very 1960s, 1970s in diction, that kind of remark, I thought.

JD: Yes, indeed. I read most of his comments for the Dial. And most of his poetry, which was OK; it was uneven. But reading his notebooks is just fascinating, because he would touch on people of the time, and he’d be talking about social movements, and social aesthetics, and his opinions were just really interesting.

RC: Some of them are similar to this remark; they’re intensely subjective, but contain an element of truth, a grain of truth quite often, and bizarrely funny. It would be interesting to publish some of this stuff.

JD: Definitely.

RC: Going back to what we were talking about before, he felt that, in general, women were too much of a pushover for a man of wealth, and he later developed a fetish for women who put up more of a resistance. Was this a key aspect of his attraction to adolescent virgins?

JD: I don’t know. And it’s conflicted, because just about every woman who was close to him was very, very fond of him. And the affection is really unfeigned.

Alyse Gregory was probably his closest friend. And much, much later, she got into a bit of a fight with Santayana, because Santayana had made a reference to Thayer in a letter that he’d sent to Gregory’s husband at the time. This was probably fifteen or twenty years after Thayer had been removed from public life. And she was furiously and adamantly defending Thayer. So, it’s difficult. At the same time, he talks about not being able to enjoy a woman unless there’s resistance that he can overcome. And how that figures in with the younger, maybe even prepubescent girls that he seemed to be attracted to, certainly young girls, I don’t really know.

RC: I had the impression that, as a hyperintellectual who was often out of touch with his feeling function, he was only able to safely express his emotions with much younger women. Another way of saying this is that his emotional life was somewhat on the level of a twelve- or thirteen-year old girl. Although inappropriate, his relationships with adolescents may have served an important psychological function in terms of keeping him emotionally grounded. Would you agree?

JD: Yes, it’s an interesting point. It reminds me a little bit of the way Humbert Humbert defends himself in Lolita.

RC: I was just going to bring that up.

JD: When one reads Lolita, one of the chilling things about it is how well you understand where Humbert is coming from. And he’s such a smooth talker; he just pulls you right in. And you don’t quite see the monstrousness of it.

RC: It’s funny because, next week, I’m interviewing my friend Robert Roper, who just published a book called Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita. So, Lolita’s been very much on my mind. And it’s going to be a very interesting tie-in: from your interview, then to his.

JD: I can’t wait to get around to reading that book; it sounds great.

RC: What you just said possibly also applies – not in terms of his overt sexual life, but in terms of his hyperintellectualism – to Nabokov himself. There always has to be a reason why you end up writing a particular novel, and I think it’s perhaps not uncommon for someone who’s so cerebral on the one hand to be somewhat out of touch with his emotions. And this constellates, somehow, the image of the young, virginal, pure, feminine, vulnerable girl as carrying the symbol of that undeveloped emotional life.

JD: It’s a fascinating thing. And I think all kinds of young men go through that period when we think it would be so simple if our partner was, you know, we could just sexually objectify them and that was the end of it. [Laughs] But you know, life is not like that. It’s much more complex.

RC: There’s always the other person to consider.

JD: Right! It’s a human being, man! [Laughs] But if you’ve got tons of money, you can get away with much more than you might otherwise.

RC: And also, in this time period, the whole issue of pedophilia in general was less in the forefront of the collective consciousness than it is today. It even went to the other extreme in the 1980s, when teachers who were quite innocent of anything were being arrested and thrown into jail and so on; it was kind of a witch hunt. But in Scofield’s time, it was much less in the forefront of people’s awareness that older men might be abusing younger girls.

JD: Right. Definitely.


RC: Ever since their years together at university, Scofield was enormously helpful to the poet E. E. Cummings. Maybe you could tell us a little about their relationship, and how he helped Estlin, and the incredibly baroque tale of Nancy.

JD: They met at Harvard. When they first met, it was Thayer who was very much a mentor. Cummings was eager to get on the staff of the Harvard Monthly and to start publishing his poetry, and Thayer helped him do that. There seems to have been a pretty real friendship that formed between the two. He seems to be the single male that had the longest, most profound relationship with Thayer. Even though he was certainly not above making fun of Thayer when Thayer wasn’t present.

And I think the first time Cummings met Elaine, he realized that he just wanted her. He immediately started writing to her, even at her finishing school. I think that he had a crush on her from the very, very beginning. And that may have been part of what made him want to stay close to Thayer, too. And then, later, of course, when Thayer started the magazine, Cummings boasted to his parents that, with Sibley Watson and Thayer’s magazine, he basically had his own publishing house, you know?

RC: He really had the launch of his entire career through the Dial magazine, yes?

JD: Yes, indeed.

RC: Thayer also purchased a number of Cummings’s paintings. What do you think of Cummings as a painter?

JD: I’m not an art historian, but I rather like some of them, I must say. Especially his figures and some of his landscapes. Others seem derivative of the modernist techniques. But when he goes for the representational stuff, which I much prefer, I rather like his stuff.

RC: What did Scofield Thayer think of Cummings as a painter?

JD: I don’t know; I’m not sure that he actually wrote that down anywhere. He was fond of his drawings, and he published a lot of them in the Dial.

RC: Yes. I believe in the first issue that he took control of the Dial, there are Cummings’s poems along with some of his drawings. I’m not sure if I’m remembering that correctly; is that right?

JD: Yes, there was. Six poems and several drawings.


RC: The relationship between Elaine, Estlin, and Scofield is quite interesting and a bit bizarre. When I first read the biography of Estlin Cummings, I had the sense that Scofield was really pushing Elaine and Estlin together. And then, of course, there’s the very strange story of Nancy, and how she didn’t realize that Cummings was her real father, and so on.

JD: Until she found herself getting a crush on him. [Laughs[

RC: Right! As an adult, she befriended Cummings, ended up modeling for him, felt in love with him during the course of posing, and, according to one version of the story, confessed her love, and was only then was told by Cummings that he was her real father. When I first read about this, I thought it resembled an ancient Greek drama. It’s a very unusual story, no?

JD: I think Elaine would have been right at home as one of those strong female figures in Greek tragedy. Because she was a very powerful woman who controlled the world around her very well and used what she had to get on. You know, the way she dumped Cummings three months after marrying him, and then marrying somebody who was quite wealthy, and then bringing up Nancy with these varying stories about her father. First of all, that her father was dead. Then, that the father wasn’t dead but was insane, and there was no point in trying to get in touch with him. She was determined to stamp her own version of reality on what was around her. She was a very strong woman in that sense, because it worked a great deal of the time.

RC: Would you say that she became, or was forced to become, a very strong woman as a counterpoint to her earlier life, when she seemed very weak and vulnerable, and even misused a bit by Scofield? I mean, in the descriptions that I read, she’s almost like a borderline personality: very unformed, and very much under the control of Scofield until it finally all breaks apart. And then, she becomes a kind of horrific control freak.

JD: Yes. But we really only have her through the vision of Thayer and Cummings, so there’s bias, certainly, in how we view her. There’s a whole trove of letters at the Beinecke Library that were embargoed until 2012. And I was convinced that these would show me all the secrets of Thayer, you know? Whether he was homosexual; what the incident in Vienna was about; or the young boy in New York.* And when I got to them, it turned out that there were countless letters between Thayer and Elaine going through their whole lives. I mean, right up until the point when Thayer was declared insane. And they were striking in how affectionate they were, on both sides. So, she had a fondness for him. And then she had that quote. I think that quote is actually through Cummings, and it’s in a play that is obviously based on this triangle. She says something like: “Thayer taught me the lesson of my life. I owe everything to him.” I don’t know what that lesson was. Was it: You’ve got to look out for yourself, and make that the first thing? Or what? What was it?


RC: So many mysteries in this story.

JD: Mm, there certainly are.

RC: Sigmund Freud had much more experience with so-called neurotic patients than he did with schizophrenics; and his approach to art and creativity was rather reductionist and materialistic. Everything was ultimately rooted in sexuality, for example, and any artistic product was merely a sublimation. Conversely, Freud’s rival, Jung, cut his teeth in the Burgholzli Psychiatric Hospital working largely with destitute schizophrenics, and he later published an entire book on schizophrenia and sent it to Freud, which led to their brief but intense friendship. Jung viewed art and creatively in a more spiritual and holistic way, often citing artists and writers as avatars and visionaries who were, as Pound said, the antennae of the race. For all these reasons, I found it somewhat ironic that Thayer ended up with Freud and only seems to mention Jung as a way to draw Freud’s jealousy and ire.

JD: Yes, isn’t it? [Laughs] I didn’t know that Jung had such experience with schizophrenics, but that’s really interesting. It would have been fascinating to see what would have happened if Jung had taken him on as a patient rather than Freud.

RC: There’s also some reference in your book where you say that one of Thayer’s friends was trying to convince him to go to see Jung. So, he was aware of Jung.

JD: He was indeed. He was very up-to-date on the whole movement of psychoanalysis, which was a hot topic at the time for the intellectual. He was right on top of what was going on. He did manage to get an article out of Freud. That didn’t get published, and it’s uncertain as to what exactly happened. I got the impression that Watson and Kenneth Burke, who was then editing the Dial, either didn’t like it, didn’t want to translate it, or something. But it never got in there. It sounds like a very decent article, too.

RC: That’s amazing, that they would turn down an article by Freud in the Dial!

JD: [Laughs] Indeed.

RC: Especially since the ego structure is so fragile and delicate a membrane in the case of schizophrenia, any sort of tension or stress can easily result in a psychotic episode. And quite often, as a result, schizophrenics are incapable of dealing with criticism or self-critique. As the illness progresses, the fault for any sort of problem becomes increasingly projected upon others in what appears to be an act of self-preservation. But this is also accompanied by increasing paranoia, since it’s always “the others” who are to blame rather than oneself. How did this play itself out in Thayer’s life?

JD: I don’t know if that’s something you wrote, or got from somewhere else, but I think that’s fascinating.

RC: It’s just off the top of my head, yeah. [Laughs]

JD: Well, that’s wonderful. The paranoia is a kind of defense mechanism, in that it puts all the bad stuff outside of oneself. Then all you have to do is fight it. But of course, the paradox is that it’s all coming from inside yourself. So, you’re fighting yourself, without really knowing what’s going on. You know, Barnes was the big bogeyman for Thayer. And he’s the one who crops up again and again in the more paranoid writings we have. And it’s a damn shame; although, what little I know of Barnes, it seems that he was a bully, and he certainly wasn’t above using physicality to get what he wanted. I think that was something that Thayer was quite timid about. He wasn’t a physical guy who would get into a brawl in a bar. You know, he’d send somebody else in to do the fighting for him.

RC: And, as you say, his wealth really protected him in so many ways. I can think of many incidents that you describe in the book: the way he ran the Dial where, if there was any little typo, they’d have a big meeting and find out who was to blame. That sort of thing. And Barnes, being probably equally wealthy and very influential, powerful, pugnacious, and a real bully, would be one of the few  who could try to call Scofield to task and create the kind of stress that would really provoke a horrendous psychic tension within him.

JD: Yes. And it got to the point, I think, where, no matter what happened, Barnes was blamed for it. Whether it was the wood creaking at night, or somebody poisoning the water of his home.


RC: How did Scofield’s friend and business partner, James Sibley Watson, help to keep him grounded during their time together? And how was Watson’s influence felt at the Dial, in terms of the art and writing that was published?

JD: Watson was a much quieter fellow. And because of that, he doesn’t really get as much credit as he might otherwise. As I mention in the book, he was very much a Francophile. Thayer was much more in favor of the German artists and writers. And they disagreed a great deal. But if it hadn’t been for Watson, “The Waste Land” wouldn’t have been in the Dial; The Cantos would not have been in the Dial; lots of stuff that we think of as the high points of modernism wouldn’t have made it because it wasn’t to Thayer’s taste. And, of course, he was very much down to earth, and he was very involved with the family when the discussions were going on about what to do with Scofield when Scofield was running, and rampaging through Europe, and having breakdowns left, right, and center. And Watson went on to a really interesting career as a filmmaker.

RC: You just mentioned Europe. One of the most inspiring and enduring relationships that Thayer experienced was his love affair with Europe itself, and with the art that he adored and collected there. When he left New York for his final trip to the Continent, Marianne Moore said: “I am afraid, Mr. Thayer, you are a spiritual expatriate.” I thought this was a very resonant phrase that described him in so many ways. What do you think she meant by that, and how would you interpret it yourself, knowing Thayer as you do?

JD: When he quoted that, he was very pleased; he was very happy to have had that said of him, because he thought it was something admirable. I think, in the beginning, Europe, and especially England, was seen as almost the mother country. That’s why he had to go to Oxford: to round out his education. There was also, at the time, the notion of transnationalism, which was a really big idea for Randolph Bourne: his friend who died in the influenza epidemic. And the idea of transnationalism was for everyone to rise above a petty nationalism and to see a more global brotherhood of man. I think Thayer very much bought into that, but his preference was certainly for the European Western tradition and canon. Very much so. He wasn’t too fond of … He had his orientalism period; there’s no doubt about that. He decorated his apartment in a very Asian style, and he had a Japanese valet. But the interest, for example, in African masks that a lot of the modernist painters began to show at the time: he was not interested in that at all.

RC: One of the great tragedies of Thayer’s life is that he found such a succoring, fulfilling reality in the world of modern art, and yet he felt completely unmoored and ungrounded in the everyday, mundane world. This is also reflected in the title of your book: The Tortured Life. Even well before his illness forced him to withdraw from any active social life, photos of Thayer reveal an incredible tension and intensity in his gaze. Yet despite all these challenges, he made an invaluable contribution to the spiritual world of art and literature. His taste was impeccable and visionary. Were you also struck by how he managed to accomplish so much despite the pain that he carried in his soul?

JD: Yes. And I’m constantly admiring of the way people with mental illness get stuff done. I don’t know if it’s a distraction from the illness, or if they are simply heroic in the effort that they have to overcome it. But he managed to do it; there’s no doubt about it. And, you know, as he said himself, he was talking with Marianne Moore, and she was mentioning to him how he seemed bored in social situations. And he said: “Not bored, in torture.” I don’t know if that meant he was socially awkward. Lots of stories from his younger years show that he was anything but socially awkward; he was very gregarious and sociable. But maybe all that was just a front; maybe he was just putting on a face for the world.

RC: It makes me think of the incredible mind he had, which may have eclipsed some more fundamental emotional sensibility. He seemed to have a difficult time in just relaxing and connecting in a simple emotional way with the people around him. Unless it was a young girl, or unless it was someone equally intellectual. But there seemed to be little middle ground.

JD: I think sex was a real release for him, because it reduced life to a physical urge. And for somebody whose brain is just going nonstop, there is a certain respite in being able to achieve that.

RC: I thought that this note, which describes Elaine Orr’s reaction to a difficult moment during their honeymoon, was unwittingly prophetic of what would befall Thayer’s own soul. He says: “Elaine Orr’s cry at the Potter [Hotel] was not only the cry of a broken virgin, it was also the cry of the lost soul when, driven backwards, without the strength of backbone to withstand the Devil’s push […] it feels the earth give way and only air beneath it.” He adds: “The eyes opened wide like windows to break.”


JD: It’s kind of a beautiful impressionistic poem about something. [Laughs] It seems to be a mixing of the taking of a maidenhead with the fight between the angels up in heaven, when Lucifer gets thrust down to hell, you know? It’s an astonishing thing for him to say. The broken back is an image that comes up several times when he describes her after the honeymoon. And this is something that this other academic that I was mentioning noted: That it’s as if he was done with her, you know? She was like a snake with a broken back; she was useless. Once he had had what he wanted, that was the end of it. But the quote you just read is much more … There’s such great drama in it.

RC: The sense of utter helplessness is sort of what happens to him later on, you know?

JD: Yes, and he becomes an angel, too. When he describes himself after one of his breakdowns in the hospital, he compares himself, I think, to Keats’s angel: beating his wings helplessly against the bars.

RC: I remember you quoting that in your book, and it made me flash back to this quote about Elaine. And there’s also, “The eyes opened wide like windows to break.” Earlier, he describes his mother as “plate-glass windows.” Again, there’s this strange connection with the glass, as a symbol of separation and so on.

JD: Yes, And also the conflation of mother and wife.

RC: Yes. Scofield assembled an amazing body of artwork that was later donated to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Who are some of the artists represented in the Scofield Thayer art collection?

JD: Picasso; Matisse; Chagall; Lachaise, the sculptor …

RC: Who did a beautiful bust of Thayer.

JD: Yes. Demuth, the American artist, and a ton of work by the German, Egon Schiele. A lot of which is very erotic.

RC: Beautiful, sensual figures.

JD: Yes, indeed.

RC: Thanks so much for your time today; this was just a wonderful talk.

JD: Thank you, Rob. It’s always a pleasure to talk with someone as gifted and as knowledgeable as yourself. I think what you’re doing is really important, getting stuff and putting it out there for people. Whether they want it or not!


* This interview was conducted on 17 July 2015.

* “Despite his Edward Thayer’s great material success, his son held low opinions of his father’s sensitivity and intelligence. His father, he wrote, ‘ignored psychology, even the psychology of animals.’” James Dempsey, The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2014), p. 13.

* In 1926, a distraught father showed up at the door of E. E. Cummings in Patchin Place, claiming that Thayer had sexually abused his sixteen-year-old son.


See also:

Read my essay, over a year in the making, on Marion Morehouse: The first supermodel, the Muse of the art photographer Edward Steichen, and the lifelong companion of the poet E. E. Cumming: On the Trail of the ‘Elusive’ Lillian and Marion Morehouse, by Rob Couteau (2015)

An interview with Professor Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno, the renowned biographer of E. E. Cummings. The year 2022 marks the hundredth anniversary of Cummings’s avant-garde World War One memoir, Besides remaining enduringly modern, "The Enormous Room" continues to pose essential questions about free speech in a post-9/11 world: 'When Feeling is First.' A Conversation with Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno About E. E. Cummings's Prose Masterpiece, The Enormous Room,' by Rob Couteau (2015)


Since: 30 July 2015 | Copyright © 2015 Rob Couteau
key words: The Modernist movement, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, modernism, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, the Dial magazine, James Sibley Watson, James Dempsey, Scofield Thayer