A Tribute to Norman Friedman

For many years, Norman Friedman led the E. E. Cummings Society, and edited its venerable journal, Spring, for which I’m a contributing editor. When he retired from both positions, the journal’s new editor, Michael Webster, invited tributes to Norman, who also wrote several definitive books on Cummings. This is my tribute to Norman, written in July of 2007, which also traces my path to Cummings and the society, published in Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society #14/15, October 2006 [actually published in summer 2008], pages 26–28.

 

Like many people, I was first attracted to the poetry of E. E. Cummings in high school, around 1976. Here was poetry that spoke to me as a teenager and young adult, that flew in the face of “tradition” (I’ve since learned how traditional Cummings can actually be). I quickly grew to love many of his poems. For more than a decade, though, I wondered if there might be a Cummings Society, and did much repeated research to try and find out, all without success. This was in the days before the Internet, and even searches of printed directories and other resources at large public and academic libraries yielded nothing. Even numerous librarians couldn’t find out anything for me. I remember an afternoon spent at a Claremont Graduate School library, roughly around 1990, in which I printed out reams of dot-matrix listings of their Cummings books, but finding nothing about a society. A year or so later, I got an email account with AOL (back when there were fewer than 100,000 members), but Internet searching was still in its infancy. Around 1992, in an AOL poetry or writing chat room, I happened to talk with well-known poetry therapist John Fox (we later had lunch together at a restaurant in Palo Alto, California). In discussing our various poetic interests, such as haiku, I mentioned Cummings, and casually said that I was wondering if there was a Cummings Society. “Yes there is,” I remember John saying immediately. He knew Arthur Lerner through poetry therapy, and knew that Arthur was involved with the Cummings Society. After nearly a decade of searching, with one quick online contact, I finally knew that the society existed. And with information that I believe John got from Arthur, one email message later I had the address of Norman Friedman and finally confirmed that the Cummings Society really existed.

        This was not my first knowledge of Norman, of course, as I had copies of his books about Cummings. While various commentators had different and valuable things to say, Norman’s commentary had always struck me as most in tune with how I felt about Cummings and his work, so it was easy to appreciate. I don’t recall the nature of my first correspondence with Norman, but it was probably overly eager and gushing in my enthusiasm for Cummings. I very soon had a copy of the new series of Spring, in early 1993. In the year that followed, I was truly flattered by Norman’s generosity in having me present a paper (“The Haiku Sensibilities of E. E. Cummings”) at the 1994 American Literature Association conference in San Diego, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the poet’s birth. I have since seen his welcoming support of other new and young scholars, even if some of us are much less experienced than he and other writers whose elegant and well-researched prose has graced the pages of Spring. I believe this encouragement of new writers and scholars is vital to the continued success of the society, and Norman has shown this wisdom—and generous support—in spades.

        In 1995 I started helping Norman with the production and some editing of Spring, and I began to see Norman’s fine editorial touches on the papers accepted for publication. He neither dug too deeply nor accepted lack of clarity, and I learned something about organizational and developmental editing, as well as detailed fact clarification and careful typography (especially a concern when presenting Cummings’ poems) from seeing Norman’s edits and questions as I typed up numerous papers.

        I am not enough of a scholar to be able to comment authoritatively on Norman’s critical writing on Cummings, but his connection to Cummings scholarship will surely remain solid for as long as Cummings himself is respected, appreciated, and studied. Norman has rightly been called the “dean of E. E. Cummings studies.” I have appreciated his commitment to Cummings scholarship, his passion for his subject (as well as sufficient detachment), and his selfless dedication in keeping the society and Spring going for so many years (no doubt contributing financial support too). It is easy to just receive the annual publication each year, but quite another task to pull together all of the content not only in each issue, but to coordinate the ALA panels from which the essays are frequently drawn.

        And speaking of ALA conferences, which I’ve been able to attend several times in San Diego, San Francisco, and Cambridge, I’ve always enjoyed seeing Norman at these events with his wife Zelda. They have struck me as still deeply in love with each other, sparkling even like newlyweds, with a warmth and affection that I hope I can match with my own wife in my golden years. Surely Zelda has played a significant role in supporting Norman and his writing over so many decades—not just in connection with Cummings, but with Norman’s Gestalt studies and his therapy practice. Members of the Cummings Society are deeply in the debt of Norman and Zelda for their public and private support of E. E. Cummings. Together, both Norman and Zelda have been a bridge directly to E. E. Cummings himself, yet even without this connection, it is an honor and pleasure to know them both.