In late August 1917 William Slater Brown, an American volunteer with the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, was arrested and jailed by French authorities as the result of anti-war sentiments that he had expressed in several letters. When questioned his friend and fellow ambulance driver E. E. Cummings defended him and was also arrested. On September 21 both men found themselves charged with espionage and incarcerated in Le Dépôt de Triage at La Ferté-Macé. In a twist of fate the examining commissioners had just completed their sessions at La Ferté and were not expected back until November. Their case was finally heard in early December and both men were given unconditional release and returned to the United States.
Cummings was to use his experience of that four months spent in La Ferté as the inspiration for his semi-autobiographical novel The Enormous Room. The title refers to the large common barracks which Cummings and Brown shared as sleeping quarters with at least 30 others. Cummings was to encounter many “characters” and unusual events while in the prison and used his equally unusual writing style to recount the absurd situation he found himself in. Thought the title may refer to the physical setting of much of his book it also serves as an allegory for the expansive memory of the people he encountered in Cummings’ mind.
American composer David Diamond was to take inspiration from Cummings’ book and write his orchestral fantasy The Enormous Room (1948). Diamond was one of the major American composers of the 1940-50s however with the advent of atonal music he joined a generation of composers who are largely forgotten today. I heard this recording by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra* under Gerard Schwarz a few days ago and was immediately taken by it.
And of course it has led me to start into Cummings’ novel. Should you wish to read the book that inspired Diamond’s music it is available at:
*Diamond was the honorary composer-in-residence at the Seattle Symphony for many years.