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E. E. Cummings's Tom: A Ballet and Uncle Tom's Doll-Dance of Modernism

Michael A. Chaney
Journal of Modern Literature
Vol. 34, No. 2 (Winter 2011), pp. 22-44
Published by: Indiana University Press
DOI: 10.2979/jmodelite.34.2.22
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jmodelite.34.2.22
Page Count: 23
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E. E. Cummings's <em>Tom: A Ballet</em> and Uncle Tom's Doll-Dance of Modernism


This essay analyzes Cummings's rarely-studied, never-performed ballet based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Through close reading and a historical contextualization of the ballet's commission and subsequent failures of collaboration, the essay explores the various ways that modernist notions of the primitive and the automaton imbue the ballet and its implied relationship of influence between Cummings and Stowe. Throughout this discussion, the essay attempts to resist the predictable binary that yokes sentimentalism and the avant-garde in a state of irreconcilable enmity, or which pits Stowe, sentimentalism's apotheosis, against the more ambivalent, modernist aesthetics of Cummings. Rather, the essay shows how the ballet scenario relies upon tensions of literary sensibility, perhaps playfully. The essay begins with an examination of Cummings's verbal representation of the ballet's anticipated dances. By emphasizing his own linguistic mastery in the scenario's descriptions of these dances, which are more like poems than performances, Cummings rejects Kleist's famous thesis that the apex of puppetry is achieved only when the puppeteer surrenders his skill to the unseen gravity that moves his puppets. Later sections of the essay show how the doll motif also obscures Cummings's historicism, in true Kleistean fashion, relegating all such commentary on slavery and whatever reflections about it the modern viewer may be induced to have to an unknowable, unseen gravity —— the cosmic force of comic resemblance.

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