2010-2011

WPI Professor Discovers Lost E. E. Cummings Poem

The discovery of the controversial poem and the story of the characters behind its creation have captured the attention of the national media.

While working on a biography of the publisher Scofield Thayer last year, James Dempsey, adjunct instructor of English at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), discovered a previously unknown E. E. Cummings poem called "(tonite."     

Dempsey subsequently wrote an article chronicling his discovery, which appeared on the website The Awl on May 25, 2011. In the article, he goes into great detail regarding the fascinating relationship between Cummings and Thayer. Dempsey explained that Thayer fiscally supported his friend Cummings, with whom he shared a great passion for art and literature, so that he could paint and write. Thayer eventually launched Cummings’s writing career by publishing his works in The Dial. On a personal level, and with the full knowledge of Thayer, Cummings wound up pursuing, impregnating, and subsequently marrying his financier/editor's wife. 

The discovery of the controversial poem and the story of the characters behind its creation—and possible suppression—have captured the attention of such media as NPR (which tweeted about it) and mediabistro.com. It should be noted that the brief poem itself contains several uses of one particularly offensive racist word. Writing on slate.com, Nina Shen Rastogi discusses Cummings's use of the word in the poem and Dempsey’s take on it. Film critic Roger Ebert also weighed in on the discovery and its implications on the blog he writes for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Dempsey came to WPI following two decades in print journalism, during which time he worked as metro columnist for the (Worcester) Telegram & Gazette. There, he published thousands of columns on myriad topics, winning awards from the Associated Press and United Press International. He was also the writing coach at the newspaper, leading seminars for editors and reporters. In addition to his research on the life and writings of Scofield Thayer, Dempsey has published a book on Geoffrey Chaucer, The Court Poetry of Chaucer, and a novel, Zakary's Zombies: A Fairy Tale.

"WPI gives me much-appreciated support for my research," Dempsey said, "and it's a joy to discover something like this that brings the discussion of literature into the public marketplace."

The humanities and arts play a critical role in the WPI education. The goal of the university is to provide for and develop students into individuals with well-rounded interests and skills for lifelong learning. WPI's innovative Humanities and Arts Requirement gives students the flexibility to select their own in-depth course of study in such areas as music, theatre, writing, art, architecture, history, foreign languages, literature, philosophy, or religion. The department also offers a variety of minors, concentrations, and double majors.

June 1, 2011

Contact: Eileen Brangan Mell, Director of Public Relations, +1-508-831-6785, ebmell@wpi.edu