Trains to Moscow: A Comparison of Lewis Carroll’s Russian Journal and E. E. Cummings’ Eimi

I first presented the following paper on [need to confirm date; probably May of 1998], in a shorter form, at the American Literature Association conference in San Francisco, and again on 7 November 1998 for a national meeting of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). First published in Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society #8, October 1999, pages 114–121. Initially written in August of 1997, and updated before and after presentation and publication until June of 2006.

 

In January of 1898, a popular nonsense writer we know as Lewis Carroll died in Guildford, Surrey; he was an idiosyncratic icon of the Victorian age. Four years earlier and a continent away, Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, spending his life overturning and escaping his Victorian New England upbringing. Both men wrote poetry. Both wrote verse enjoyed by children. Both delighted in visual poetry, word play, humour, word inventions, and individualistic rule-breaking. Both also excelled in other arts—Carroll as one of Victorian England’s preeminent amateur photographers, and Cummings as an abstract and expressionist painter. And while Cummings disliked children and thus differed from Carroll, whose fondness for little girls is well known, Cummings nevertheless valued childlikeness throughout his life.

        In addition to their affinities, both men published diaries of trips to Russia. Carroll’s diary was first published in 1928 as Tour in 1867 by C. L. Dodgson (not under the pen name of Lewis Carroll), and then in 1935 as The Russian Journal and Other Selections from the Works of Lewis Carroll, edited by John Francis McDermott. Carroll’s diary, written about his 1867 trip (from July 12 to September 13—nine weeks), is somewhat pedestrian and noninventive, yet remains consistently readable and engaging. The account reveals his passion for theatre, churches and other religious establishments, and the tourist’s typical interest in cultural or physical differences. For example, contrasting with the narrow streets in some cities, Carroll notes the wide streets in St. Petersburg [86], and biographer Morton N. Cohen emphasizes that Carroll’s diary contains “reports of encounters with simple people—a waiter, a droshky driver, a shopkeeper” [273].

        Cummings described his 1931 trip (from May 10 to June 14—five weeks) in Eimi, published in 1933, and his book is more involved and inventive than Carroll’s. It is also much longer—432 pages in the 1958 edition from Grove, compared with just 49 pages for Carroll’s account in both the original edition of 1935 and the 1977 Dover reprint. Cummings’ multilingual book has also been called a difficult read, along the lines of Finnegans Wake or Ulysses or the poet’s own The Enormous Room. Cummings biographer Richard S. Kennedy says that Cummings’ Russian chronicle is “much too long” and “highly idiosyncratic” [328]. Nevertheless, much like Carroll’s report, Eimi reveals not just an awareness of religious institutions and the expression of faith but a passion for theatre and cultural differences. Indeed, the poet was curious not only about the Soviet sociological experiment, but about rumours of the new Russian theatre.

        Cummings’ finished book (roughly a ten-fold expansion of the original diary written in secret while travelling) is given a mythic framework, much as The Enormous Room followed a Pilgrim’s Progress motif. Accordingly, Eimi depicts the trip to Russia as a visit to the underworld, à la Dante’s Inferno (Lenin’s tomb is characterized as a glimpse of Satan, for example). In contrast, though Carroll presents a straightforward and amusing account, he asserts no overarching literary design, which indicates that his diary was originally written with no intent of publication—and indeed, it was not published until thirty years after his death, within a few years of when Cummings’ book was first published. Both Carroll and Cummings took trains to Moscow, and the nature of the similarities between their two chronicles, though separated by 64 years, reveals both writers and their affinities. More than just a common mode of transportation links these two travellers.

Similarities and Differences

Carroll and Cummings might at first seem to be unlikely bedfellows, coming as they do from divergent centuries, yet it could be argued that both were subversive, both breaking new ground—in literature for children and in poetry, respectively. Yet they also share the curiosity of both visiting Russia and preserving their trips in diaries—the only trip Carroll took outside England, and the only trip Cummings made to the Soviet Union. The two men came from and visited very different worlds, yet the worlds each writer carried with him are also similar. A study of The Russian Journal and Eimi shows not only the similarities and contrasts in pre- and post-revolutionary Russia, but also the similarities and differences between Lewis Carroll and E. E. Cummings.

        Both Carroll and Cummings travelled through Russia with a sense of superiority—Carroll’s an assumed superiority based on nationalism, Cummings’ an ideological superiority (a growing rejection of socialist ideals). Carroll comes away educated and entertained by his travels, but fundamentally unchanged. Cummings, however, comes away changed, more resolute in his beliefs in individualism, and the trip becomes a turning point in the poet’s maturation. By the time he returns from “hell” to the paradise of the West, he has solidified his personal beliefs after witnessing the effects of communism, always depicted in negative terms. Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, in his 2004 biography of Cummings, describes Eimi as a “satiric account” that is “idiosyncratic, engaging, even at times highly amusing.” He also calls it “challenging . . . linguistically” and “an important statement on the role and rights of the individual in society” [xii].

        Where Carroll began with a religious predisposition, Cummings gains a religious sympathy, no doubt because the American visited a religiously oppressed society, which was not nearly the case when the Englishman made his visit. In seeing the expression of religious beliefs, suppressed though they were in communist Russia, Cummings saw a mirror for his own expression of feeling and individuality. The word “eimi,” after all, is Greek for “I am,” and the book becomes an expression of who the poet is. Cummings saw not only American culture more clearly by seeing another culture and ideology; he also saw himself more clearly by witnessing the Russian or at least Soviet asphyxiation of certain ideas he believed in, and thus reached a point of self-definition in moving from the underworld of Russia back to the real world, from was to is and, in Eimi’s opening and closing words, from shut to open.

        A key difference between the two reports, of course, is indeed that Carroll’s journal documents Czarist Russia, while Cummings’ book depicts a post-revolutionary nation in the throes of communism (Cummings calls Soviet Russia the “Unworld”). Cummings paints a sensual portrait of the Soviet Union, but his depiction was negative enough that American radicals who viewed the Soviet experiment as a mecca of modern sociological development disowned Cummings despite previously championing the modernist poet. As a consequence, many early reviews of Eimi came out against it. This “raw critique of the Soviet Union,” Sawyer-Lauçanno notes, “lost him a good many supporters among the left-leaning critics” [xvi]. Carroll’s journal, of course, had no political subtext (despite mentions of omnipresent soldiers), although its depiction of a lack of radical ideologies notably reflects old-world traditions.

Carroll’s Worldly Visit

Political comparisons and undertones are the subject of another study. Instead, this discussion focuses on a simpler comparison, starting with the 1867 journey. Carroll’s trip to Russia seems to be a typical tourist extravaganza. He is not taking a traditionally luxurious European “Grand Tour,” but he does remark when conditions are less than prime. Carroll is hardly so pretentious, though, as to not immediately adapt to whatever situation is at hand (he walks in the rain from one train to another across a footbridge because floods have washed out the train bridge, for example, and on one overnight train trip he sleeps on the floor because there aren’t enough beds).

        Carroll spends much of his time visiting galleries, museums, the theatre, climbing up towers to see the views, shopping for mementos, and the like. He and his travel companion, fellow preacher Henry Parry Liddon (who proposed the trip), travel primarily by train, but also by ferry (across the channel and back), steamer (on the Gulf of Finland and along the Rhine), on horse, on foot (much walking, wherever they visit), as well as by carriage. They enjoy gardens, notice the architecture, take in the scenery. They listen to various music concerts wherever they go, and frequently take part in church services, regardless of the day of the week, the religion, or the language involved. (Here it is worth noting that Liddon was not only one of England’s most prominent preachers, but also Catholic. In contrast, Carroll was Anglican, and even ordained as an Anglican priest. On more than one occasion, the two men argued over points of religious belief and practice, to the point that they stayed in separate hotels on the last two nights of their trip, and returned across the English Channel on separate boats, though only a dozen hours apart. However, as Cohen reports, “No permanent breach occurred” [273], and Liddon’s name was “among the guests at a dinner party” [274] Carroll had a year later.)

        Wherever the two preachers visit, Carroll notices the children. Although he later refers to the Russian youngsters as uniformly “ugly” compared to the German children seen on their return trip, the Russian children are nevertheless a focus for him while he is there. The mentions of children in Carroll’s narration might pass as unremarkable if the journal were by, say, Disraeli. But we know Carroll made many photographs of nude girls, thus we notice his mention of children, especially little girls. On observing a wedding in Cologne, for example, Carroll chooses to say that “many children” are in attendance, at other times he drew pictures of children he saw, and in one interesting portion of the narrative, he describes the acquisition of a photograph of a child, despite the father’s initial apprehension. Perhaps this interest is not something of which to be suspicious, as we are wont to be in our pedophilia-condemning society, but might be seen as charmingly innocent. Carroll’s love of children is surely the very characteristic that enabled him to write the classic Alice stories that have proved continuously popular.

        As most tourists do, if they write journals, Carroll wrote observations in terms of comparison to other countries or cultures (not necessarily England), often noting superlatives (he describes one edifice, for example, as “the most beautiful of all churches I have ever seen, or can imagine” [76]). He freely quotes foreign terms, even using foreign alphabets (such as Cyrillic, as does Cummings in his journal), and twice includes small freehand drawings. (Cummings, by comparison, took pains to study Russian before his trip, compiling a personal phrase book to ease the journey’s language burden, and often includes terms from other languages in his narrative.)

        Much of the Carroll diary also centers on the hotels where the travellers stay, as well as the locations and menus of their dinner excursions. True to Carroll’s mathematical nature, precise numbers are carefully noted (“I measured one of the reception rooms by stepping, & made it 80 yards long,” he reported of a palace in Moscow [94], and elsewhere counts 380 steps up to the top of a tower view [98]). Children are likely to count things in this manner, so we also see Carroll’s childlikeness in these details. In the meantime, his occupation as an Oxford math lecturer and his fame (then just starting) as writer of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland never come up. He and Liddon meet nobility and royalty (Cummings also proffers letters of introduction on his trip), and cohort with the leading bishops and archdeacons when they visit churches. These opportunities often transpired through Liddon’s Catholic connections, and Carroll remains silent during some of the meetings, perhaps because of language limitations, although not without great interest in the proceedings. Liddon was a far more prominent clergyman than Carroll, of course, and clerical hobnobbing was not a motive for the trip as it was for Liddon, so it was no wonder Carroll was demure. He remains more of a tourist, and maintains a simpler spiritual feeling, whereas Liddon had a religious agenda. Of the difference, Cohen writes that “Where Liddon [in his own diary of the trip] describes religious ceremonies, vestments, and church architecture with a fervor that reflects his spiritual and emotional commitment to the externals as representing the eternal, Charles [Carroll] views the same manifestations as an aesthetic rather than a spiritual experience. The same applies to much of the architecture and the visual arts. Charles took in the heady ceremonials but was more interested in the congregation—whether the people participated in the ritual, whether the devotion was genuine or mechanical” [273].

        Carroll’s account delivers a gentle if occasional humour, as well as moments of close observation and careful description (such as the detail in a monument’s carving). There is no pretense to this trip (Carroll refers to himself as a “sight-seer,” not too far from the “heroless hero” as Cummings refers to himself in his account), yet the travellers in both centuries maintain a consistently cultured focus. Carroll and Liddon deal with the ongoing challenges of language barriers and other travel difficulties, although only once near the beginning, in humour, is their luggage ever mentioned. Carroll is bold, assertive, yet gentlemanly in his dealings with natives (he barters for a reduced cab fare with unexpected aplomb).

        Carroll also attends the theatre numerous times, mostly in Russia, plays chess with others using his own travelling chess board (losing to a Scot named Muir three times on one train journey), and enjoys native food and drink with grace and no hint of hesitation. He notices the soldiers in Russia, the peasants and children everywhere. The weather is mentioned only occasionally, if distinctive; and throughout, the narrative is crisp, engaging, honest. Throughout, indeed, the author reveals his curiosity and wonder. It is a simple and unpretentious entertainment.

Cummings’ Unworldly Visit

Cummings’ tale, on the other hand, is mired in obscurity, as numerous critics have opined. The anticipated annotated version of Eimi, soon to be published, will therefore be most welcome. Cummings’ Russia is a hellish “world of Was—everything shoddy;everywhere dirt and cracked fingernails” [8]. Where Carroll’s world is peopled by real characters, Cummings’ takes artistic license with nicknames for his characters (and does so also to protect their identities in a society in fear of the Secret Police).

        Of particular interest in the two trips, of course, is drama. The theatrical performances Carroll makes a record of seeing are as follows, by location, title, and language:

 

Königsberg       “Anno 66” (in German) [84]

Nijni                     “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” (burlesque, in Russian) [97]

                              “Cochin China” (in Russian) [97]

                              “The Hussar’s Daughter” (in Russian) [97]

Moscow             “The Burgomaster’s Wedding” (in Russian) [98]

                              “A Woman’s Secret” (in Russian) [98]

Dresden             [unnamed] (in German) [116]

                              “Wonder-Fountain” (in German) [117]

Paris                    “Mignon” (comic opera, in French) [120]

 

Not knowing the language, Carroll resorts to commenting on the acting, the tone, and the mood of the performance, or the stage settings or costumes. Cummings, in contrast, appears to know more of the language (or the guides he befriends are able to interpret). In Moscow, for example, the poet sees a slapstick play called “The Necktie” [32, 33] and describes not just the visual humour of the action, but also subtleties of its propagandist plot (that “It’s not things that matter,comrade,it’s how you make use of things that matters : thus even a necktie,that symbol of bourgeois idiocy,may end as nothing less than a proletarian banner” [33]). Cummings attends other propagandist plays, such as the melodrama, “Roar China” [58] (recall the “Cochin China” that Carroll saw), and other unnamed plays. (“I take MY theatre very , very SERIOUSLY,” Cummings explains [94], and Sawyer-Lauçanno refers to Eimi itself as “a series of sketches reminiscent of vaudeville” [358].)

        Cummings also takes in operas, movies, the Bolshoy, burlesque, meets writers and play directors (rather than royalty and well-known clergy as did Carroll), and generally partakes in the Russian manifestation of the Bohemian lifestyle. He is helped along in these endeavors through a chance meeting of a Cambridge acquaintance, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, in Russia to study its new theatre, and also through the connections of two other Americans, Charles and Joan Malamuth (Joan was Jack London’s daughter). Thus Cummings is less concerned about seeing the sites, or the museums and galleries, and we encounter none of the curmudgeonly quaintness of counting the steps to the tops of church spires.

        Cummings does visit churches, however. In one case he describes the action of a service in patient detail (“a rustystoled leanness is reading from a dark book : behind him guttering low candle-like pillars . . . Kissing of the dark book : then the priest turns—. . . . Kissing of the little cross. . .the baby won’t kiss it! he smiles” [250]). And here, in the cathedrals, Cummings finds human sanctity amid dehumanization. “The churches,” the poet recounts, “are drowning with stars , everywhere stars blossom , frank and gold and keen. Among these starry miracles time stops , lives a silence which thought cannot capture” [265]. Thus Cummings finds solace in the tolerated religion of Soviet Russia, perhaps to the point of appreciating religion more in this context because it is seemingly not taken for granted. But it is not religion for its own sake that attracts Cummings, but its quiet sedition against the Marxist state, its individualistic rebellion against the “noo ruhligion” of communism, its moments of openness in a shut world. Cummings notes emphatically that “these stars eternally and all their cathedrals march to some harmony beyond themselves(here the lone star of socialism dies ; defeated by all stars)” [265].

Conclusion: Shut or Open

While Cummings is usually seen as rejecting his upbringing, his journey to Russia reawakens his sense of heritage—including a fierce New-England sense of self-determination—and he re-encounters the transcendentalist muse of individuality and creativity. Thus Cummings moves from shut to open. Carroll, on the other hand, either remains shut or remains open. He simply waxes nostalgic for “the white cliffs of old England” that came to be “visible at last in the grey twilight” [121] as his ferry took him home from Calais. Carroll’s return was not an epiphany, but merely a relief from travel. Cummings’ return was not a relief, but a revelation. The description of Carroll’s journey, however, was accessible and immediate. Cummings’ was dense and sometimes impenetrable. It’s intriguing how the same trains took these travellers to the same place, yet also to such different places—and seemingly also to differing internal places on their return. These were their trains to Moscow.

 

Works Consulted

Carroll, Lewis. The Russian Journal and Other Selections from the Works of Lewis Carroll. John Francis McDermott, ed. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1935.

Carroll, Lewis. The Russian Journal and Other Selections from the Works of Lewis Carroll. John Francis McDermott, ed. New York: Dover, 1935, 1977.

Cohen, Morton N. Lewis Carroll: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Cummings, E. E. Eimi. New York: Grove, 1933, 1958.

Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1980, 1994.

Sawyer-Lauçanno, Christopher. E. E. Cummings: A Biography. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, 2004.