Modernism is an artistic movement that began in the early twentieth century, reached its zenith during the 1920 and 1930s (coincidentally cummings’s most prolific years), and remained a prominent movement well into the middle of the century. Modernism was prominent in both literature and the visual arts, beginning in Europe and later making its way to the United States. Several cultural upheavals gave rise to the movement. In nineteenth-century Western Europe, the dominant ideal exalted the progress of humanity over the concerns of the individual. But this began to change early in the twentieth century, in no small part accelerated by the unprecedented carnage of World War I. Arguably the world’s first truly mechanized war, World War I caused artists to question the values of patriotism and politics, and they looked instead to the experience of the individual as a singular being (rather than a representative or part of mankind at large). This theme was also motivated by the question of what it meant to be a human in an increasingly mechanized world. Psychological writings by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were also influential, as were philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche (although Nietzsche lived in an earlier period, his last work appearing in 1888) and Jean-Paul Sartre. This paradigm shift in cultural and social values had widespread implications, resulting in new and varying approaches to the perception of reality, and thus to new and exciting modes of expression. For instance, authors such as James Joyce and William Faulkner were pioneers of the stream-of-consciousness style of writing. Writers such as Gertrude Stein and cummings challenged the very structure of language. Painters such as Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall produced canvases that turned accepted modes of visual expression on their heads. Other influential modernist writers include Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, and many more. The movement was so widespread and continuous that it is perhaps better described as an umbrella to several smaller movements, including imagism, surrealism, and cubism.
Though cummings’s work was thoroughly modernist in its style, it was often transcendental in its themes and content. Transcendentalism was particularly widespread in New England from 1830 to 1850. Given that cummings was born in New England in the late nineteenth century, it is extremely likely that he was familiar with transcendental writings and themes. Like modernism, transcendentalism was largely concerned with the experience of the individual, though from a far more spiritual angle. Transcendentalists believed in the innate divinity of the natural world and of humankind. Thus, they stressed the individual’s insight and intuition as opposed to logical thought or organized religion. Furthermore, the idea that man was essentially divine was a stark departure from the reigning Calvinist philosophy of the day, which posited belief in original sin and man’s inherently sinful nature. Prominent transcendental writers include Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, e. e. cummings, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009