The Incarceration of E.E. Cummings and William Slater Brown in France during World War I as Reflected in Department of State Records: Part I – E.E. Cummings

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives at College Park.

E.E. Cummings (Edward Estlin Cummings) is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest poets.  A 1915 graduate of Harvard University, during World War I he volunteered for the ambulance service operated by the American Red Cross in France.  On the voyage across the Atlantic, he met and became fast friends with William Slater Brown, a fellow resident of Massachusetts.  While in France, Brown wrote several letters home that were intercepted by French censorship authorities.  Those letters contained statements that raised serious suspicions and Brown and Cummings were consequently incarcerated by French authorities in September 1917 before being releasedCummings subsequently penned the book The Enormous Room about his incarceration experience.

In August 2020, the New York Times Book Review featured a new book on E.E. Cummings and World War I.[1]  The Beauty of Living: E.E. Cummings in the Great War is by J. Alison Rosenblitt, the director of studies in classics at Regent Park College at Oxford University.  The review noted that Cummings’s father had managed to elicit diplomatic action on behalf of his son.  Based on that casual comment, I decided to see if there is any documentation in the files of the Department of State.  Unlike many such expeditions into the records, this one bore fruit. 

To avoid having my impression and understanding of events from being influenced by Professor Rosenblitt’s account, I prepared the following narrative of the Cummings/Brown incident as revealed in Department of State records before reading Professor Rosenblitt’s book.  After reading the pertinent parts of the book, I added information in the notes to clarify certain points and correct errors in the book.  While Professor Rosenblitt refers to some of the Department of State documents on the case, she did not access them directly.  Rather, she relied on copies of documents among the personal papers of another scholar who wrote a biography of Cummings many years ago.[2]  Based on the text and notes in Professor Rosenblitt’s work, it appears that the collection she saw does not include all the pertinent Department of State documents. 


The earliest mention of E.E. Cummings’s predicament found in the central file of the Department of State comes in a telegram of November 8, 1917.  At the request of George W. Anderson, a commissioner on the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Department of State sent this telegram.  Anderson was a friend of the Reverend Edward Cummings, the father of E.E.[3]

telegram reporting the arrest of EE Cummings on Oct 3, 1917 for letters he wrote
Telegram 2789, Dept of State to US Embassy France, Nov 8, 1917 (NAID 302021)

The subject, however, was not new to the embassy.  In a letter of October 29, Richard Norton, Director of the Red Cross Ambulance Service, contacted the embassy about Cummings, enclosing a letter he hoped could be forwarded to him.  Norton also noted that on the same day he had received a telegram from the Reverend Cummings “asking what can be done.”  Norton said he replied, counseling patience and informing him that everybody would have to wait for the French to act.  Arthur Hugh Frazier, First Secretary of the embassy, replied to Norton with this letter.[4]

letter stating Cummings and another person were detained for statements found in their letters written to their parents
Letter from Arthur Frazier to Richard Norton, Oct 30, 1917 (NAID 657151)

The embassy was handling hundreds of protection-of-interest cases.  Although Frazier took care of the initial contact, responsibility for the case soon fell to a young John C. Wiley.  Wiley, a Second Secretary of the embassy, became what today would be called the action officer for the case.  In that capacity, he had the responsibility for handling the day-to-day activities on this, and numerous other cases and other matters, under the supervision of his superiors.[5]

Shortly after sending its telegram to the embassy, the Department received the first of a number of communications from a lawyer representing the families of Brown and Cummings.  On November 12, 1917, noted attorney Sherman L. Whipple, of the Boston firm Whipple, Sears, and Ogden, contacted Secretary of State Robert Lansing.  In a letter oozing with social superiority and national arrogance, Whipple wrote to bring to the Department’s attention “a situation in France affecting the sons of two citizens of our Commonwealth which seems to require prompt and effective action.”  He noted that the parents had heard nothing directly, only that the two young men were being held incommunicado in a camp because of letters they had written.  The following are the key paragraphs from Whipple’s letter.[6] 

excerpt from letter vouching for the integrity of Cummings and Brown
excerpt alluding to bitter feelings that may result from this incident in detaining Cummings and Brown
Excerpts from Letter from Sherman Whipple to Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Nov 12, 1917 (NAID 302021)

An example of what Brown wrote follows.  It is understandable why French officials reacted as they did.  The war was not going well.  The situation on the Western Front was stalemated and there had been mutinies in the French army earlier in the year.  While the U.S. was now in the war on the side of the Allies, its presence was more theoretical than real at this point.[7]

paragraphs of Slater Brown saying he looks forward to a revolution in France, reporting low morale of French soldiers, showing no support in American troops fighting the war
Excerpt of Letter from W. Slater Brown to Dr. Lower, Aug 29, 1917 (NAID 302021)

While Whipple’s letter was working its way through the Department, the following telegram from the embassy in France arrived in response to the one engendered by Anderson’s inquiry.  Cummings was in the clear, but Brown remained in custody.[8] 

reporting Cummings and Brown were detained for writing letters that expressed Germanophile sentiments, Cummings was released but Brown remained
Telegram 2755 US Embassy France to Dept of State, Nov 16, 1917 (NAID 302021)

On November 19, Assistant Secretary of State William Phillips spoke with George Anderson on the phone and read him a paraphrase of the telegram.  Later in the day, Phillips sent Anderson a paraphrase of the message and assured him that he would be kept advised if more information was received.[9]  Two days later, based on information provided by the embassy, Anderson was informed that Cummings had set sail for the U.S. on the ship SS Antilles.  He also reported that the ship was sunk and Cummings was reported among the lost.[10]  On November 23, the Department informed the embassy that it had received information that Cummings was found innocent and was to be released shortly.  It asked for verification and, if need be, correction of the report of his death.[11]  The Department’s telegram likely crossed paths with one from the embassy reporting that it was H.H. Cummings, not E.E. Cummings who was lost on the Antilles.  That information was immediately conveyed to Cummings’s father.[12]

In the meantime, Richard Norton spoke with Ambassador William Sharp on November 20, and followed up with a letter two days later.  He asked the Ambassador to look into the situation of Cummings and Brown.  He wrote that John Wiley “tells me that he has been informed that Cummings was to be liberated but that Brown was to be interned, the difference in treatment being that Cummings’ only fault was his friend ship for Brown.”  Wiley had also shown Norton the copies of the letters in possession of the embassy.  The latter wrote “they are unquestionably foolish” but still believed it would be a mistake if Brown was interned.[13] 

On November 28, Breckinridge Long, the Third Assistant Secretary of State, responded to Whipple’s letter of the 12th.  In his letter, Long provided a paraphrase of the embassy’s telegram of November 16, and noted that once the Department had received complete reports, it would make “such representations to the appropriate authorities of the French government as the circumstances may warrant.”  He concluded by inviting additional information, particularly about Brown.[14] 

Impatient for action and indignant about the situation, on December 8, the Reverend Cummings sent a letter to President Woodrow Wilson.  The letter, received at the White House on December 12, was referred to the Department as a routine matter, not even benefiting from a cover transmission memo.[15]

At the same time, the Department’s other correspondents interested in this matter continued their advocacy campaign.  On December 8, Sherman Whipple acknowledged Long’s letter of November 28 and, taking Long up on his invitation for additional information, forwarded to the Department a letter from Spalding Bartlett, Treasurer and Director of the Slater Mills, the uncle of William Slater Brown, and former neighbor of Cummings.  Whipple noted that Bartlett’s letter showed that “these two young men . . . are and have been for some months suffering a grave injustice inflicted upon them by the French Government.”  He also raised the issue of possible reparations.[16]

On December 11, George Anderson, following up on his earlier contact, sent Assistant Secretary of State Phillips a letter about Cummings.  He noted that the Reverend Cummings had heard through unofficial channels that “there was absolutely nothing against his son,” yet he remained incarcerated.  Anderson thought it unjust that “because one of them wrote something that some suspicious censor didn’t like . . . [they] should be treated like a couple of German suspects.”  He closed by urging action “to indicate that this is not the way American citizens fighting in France for the French cause should be treated.”[17] 

After waiting almost a month for the information promised in the embassy’s telegram of November 16, and in the interim receiving the referral from the White House and an inquiry from an outside source, the Department sent this telegram on December 15.[18]

telegram from Dept of State about the Embassy in Paris failing to follow up promptly in the matter of Cummings and Brown
Telegram 2952, Dept of State to US Embassy France, Dec 15, 1917 (NAID 302021)

The embassy responded to the Department’s telegram with this message.  Brown was to be held and Cummings released.[19]

telegram reporting Cummings is released and Brown is being held at Forte Mace. Cummings sailing for the US on the Espagne
Telegram 2926, US Embassy France to Dept of State, Dec 20, 1917 (NAID 302021)

When the telegram arrived on December 21, the Department took immediate action.  Assistant Secretary of State Phillips read the telegram to George Anderson, presumably over the telephone as in their earlier exchange.  Anderson asked that a copy be sent to the Reverend Cummings and Phillips sent a paraphrase that same day.  In response, the Reverend sent a telegram on Christmas Eve.[20]

EE Cummings father welcomes news from the Embassy, wishes holiday greetings
Telegram from Edward Cumming to Asst Secretary of State William Phillips, Dec 24, 1917 (NAID 302021)

Cummings departed France on December 22 aboard the ship Espagne.  With that, he virtually disappears from the documentation.[21]

Next: The fate of William Slater Brown


[1] David Bromwich, “The Room Where It Happened: How World War I shaped the poetry of E.E. Cummings,” The New York Times Book Review, August 9, 2020, p. 10.

[2] J. Alison Rosenblitt The Beauty of Living: E.E. Cummings in the Great War (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020), pp. 307-308.

[3] Department of State to U.S. Embassy France, Telegram 2789, November 8, 1917, file 351.11/1589, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[4] Richard Norton to Mr. Fraser [sic], Letter, October 29, 1917, and Arthur Hugh Frazier to Richard Norton, Letter, October 30, 1917, file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1917, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.

[5] In 1917, today’s Foreign Service did not exist.  Rather, American representation overseas was split between the Diplomatic Service and the Consular Service, which were combined in 1924 to create the Foreign Service.  John Wiley was born in Bordeaux of American parents in 1893.  He began his diplomatic career as a clerk in the Paris embassy in 1915.  In 1916, he was appointed as a Secretary of Embassy or Legation.  A secretary in the Diplomatic Service held a position of importance.  Secretaries performed substantive work, not clerical duties, under the direction of the chief of mission.  For more on Wiley, see Melissa Jane Taylor “‘Raging Rumors’: American Diplomats’ Reportage from Latvia and Estonia, 1938-1940” The International History Review Vol 40, no. 1, pp. 155-176.

[6] Sherman L. Whipple to Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Letter, November 12, 1917, file 351.112B81/-, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[7] W. Slater Brown to Dr. Lower, Letter, August 29, 1917, enclosed with U.S. Embassy France to Department of State, Despatch 5889, December 21, 1917, file 351.112B81/7, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  The texts of Brown’s letters were not available in the United States until early January 1918.  An extract from one letter is included here to provide readers an example of the reason for French action.

[8] U.S. Embassy France to Department of State, Telegram 2755, November 16, 1917, file 351.112B81/1, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[9] Assistant Secretary of State William Phillips to George V. Anderson, Letter, November 19, 1917, file 351.112B81/6, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  The Department sent a paraphrase of the telegram because the original was sent in code.  As a security measure, the Department did not share the true text of coded telegrams with private individuals.

[10] U.S. Embassy France to Department of State, Telegram 2774, November 20, 1917 and Assistant Secretary of State William Phillips to George V. Anderson, Telegram, November 21, 1917, file 351.112B81/2, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. 

[11] Department of State to U.S. Embassy France, Telegram 2845, November 23, 1917, file 351.112B81/3, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[12] U.S. Embassy France to Department of State, Telegram 2788, November 23, 1917 and Assistant Secretary of State William Phillips to Reverend Edward Cummings, Telegram, November 24, 1917, file 351.112B81/3, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[13] Richard Norton to the American Ambassador, Letter (handwritten), November 22, 1917, file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1917, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.  The file does not include a reply to this letter.

[14] Third Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long to Sherman L. Whipple, Letter, November 28, 1917, file 351.112B81/-, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  While it took the Department two weeks to respond, there clearly were more important foreign policy issues at hand that demanded attention.  Furthermore, the bureaucracy just moved slower then.  Even though he held the lowly-sounding position of Third Assistant Secretary of State, Long was a senior official of the Department.  At that time, the Assistant Secretaries did not have the functional titles so familiar today.  Moreover, those positions were at the third level in the hierarchy of the Department.  The Secretary of State was at the top, followed by the Counselor for the Department of State at the second level, and the three Assistant Secretaries at the third level.  Their formal titles were Assistant Secretary of State, Second Assistant Secretary of State, and Third Assistant Secretary of State.  For more information about Long, see here.

[15] Edward Cummings to President Woodrow Wilson, Letter, December 8, 1917, file 351.11/5, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  The White House routinely referred many hundreds of letters on foreign affairs issues to the Department for reply.

[16] Sherman L. Whipple to Third Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, Letter, December 8, 1917, enclosing S[paulding] Bartlett to Sherman L. Whipple, Letter, December 7, 1917, file 351.112B81/4, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[17] George V. Anderson to Assistant Secretary of State William Phillips, Letter, December 11, 1917, file 351.112B81/6, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  This letter, on official I.C.C. stationery, was brought to the attention of the Counselor of the Department.  

[18] Department of State to U.S. Embassy France, Telegram 2952, December 15, 1917, file 351.11/1614a, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  All official telegrams went out over the “signature” of the Secretary of State or the person acting in his stead when he was absent.  Most telegrams were “signed” with his name by a subordinate official.  Secretary of State Lansing signed this one himself indicating the issue had been brought to his attention.  Second Assistant Secretary of State Alvee Adee also reviewed the telegram before dispatch.  The delay in sending a copy of the report and correspondence to the Department stemmed from bureaucratic inefficiency.  The embassy received the report on November 12 but it was misplaced, as on November 26, Frazier wrote and asked for another copy.  The original was eventually found; the copy in the file is marked as being received on November 12.  See J.G. Harbord, Chief of Staff, American Expeditionary Forces, to the United States Ambassador, November 8, 1917, Memorandum enclosing report, and Arthur Hugh Frazier to Col. [Frank] Parker, Letter, November 26, 1917, file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1917, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.    

[19] U.S. Embassy France to Department of State, Telegram 2926, December 20, 1917, file 351.11/1617, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  John Wiley drafted this telegram.  The embassy’s efforts on behalf of Cummings are documented in several memorandums Wiley wrote and placed in the file.  For some reason, they are in French.  The memos indicate that Wiley made several contacts with French officials.  On December 4, he was informed that Brown was interned at Ferte-Mace and that Cummings would be freed.  See memorandums of November 29, December 3 (two memos), and December 4, file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1917, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.  Professor Rosenblitt discusses a December 20 visit by Cummings to the embassy where he met with John Wiley.  She ascribes much importance to this meeting.  It seems Wiley did not as he made no record of it nor did he refer to it in any subsequent document in the file.  See Rosenblitt The Beauty of Living, p. 219.    

[20] Assistant Secretary of State William Phillips to Edward Cummings, Letter, December 21, 1917, 1917, file 351.11/1625, and Edward Cummings to Assistant Secretary of State William Phillips, Telegram, December 24, 1917, file 351.11/1625, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  This is the earliest example of the use of “XMAS” for “Christmas” that I have seen.

[21] U.S. Embassy France to Department of State, Despatch 5889, December 21, 1917, file 351.112B81/7, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. 

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