English 2013: Introduction to American Literature
Assignment Eleven-- The Absence of Love

Edward Estlin Cummings

The thematic focus of the literature that we are examining in assignments nine through the twelve is love. This eleventh assignment focuses on the absence of love.

You are assigned to read work written by three twentieth-century fiction writers --Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever and John Updike -- and two twentieth-century poets -- Thomas Stearns Eliot and Edward Estlin (e.e.) Cummings. In some of these works the failure of love seems to reflect the emptiness and inauthenticity of modern existence

John Cheever and John Updike each became noted for the stories they published in New Yorker magazine. Each author focused on the suburban region outside New York City, exploring the problems faced by white upper-class or middle-class men and their families.

John Cheever
Cheever's "The Swimmer" slowly reveals the delusion of its protagonist, the affluent and successul Neddy Merrill, whose life we discover has been destroyed by his alcoholism. Cheever employs surrealism and symbolism to reflect Neddy's disturbed state of mind and to comment on the unreality of the privileged life that Neddy had led.

Updike's "Separating" is, at least on its surface, more straightforward. It describes how Richard and Joan, a long-married couple, inform their children that they are separating. Beneath the story's controlled, almost emotionless surface, the reader senses dark layers of emotional damage.

John Updike


Zora Neale Hurston moved to Harlem to pursue a literary career in the 1920's during the expansion of African-American art of all types that has been called the Harlem Renaissance, but her most important work, including her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) was published during the 1930's. Her story "Sweat" is a disturbing and violent depcition of an abusive marriage.



Zora Neale Hurston

T. S. Eliot and E. E. Cummings both experiemented with poetic style. Eliot wrote intellectual poetry that combined allusions to classical literature, ancient myth, with popular culture. His fragmented approach forces the reader to piece together meaning. Cummings' approach is more radical and more musical, ignoring ordinary rules of grammar, punctuation and diction, but employing traditional poetic devices such as rhyme and meter in unusual ways.

Thomas Stearns Eliot

Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" immerses its reader in the anxious thoughts of an aging, middle-class man who fears that his need for love will be unfulfilled. In the poem Prufrock's need for passion and romance is buried beneath the superficial formality of a tea party and restrained by his own inability to express his needs. The poem suggests that Prufrock's situation mirrors the sterility of post-World-War -II society in general.

Cummings' "anyone lived in a pretty how town" displays a disdain for the artificiality of much existence that parallel's Eliot's. The "anyone" in Cummings' poem lives a repetitious life devoid of passion or love. Despite the playful and almost childish sound of the poem, Cummings' message is a serious demand that people live more aware and immediate lives. The Modern American Poetry page "On 'anyone lived in a pretty how town'" presents seven brief commentaries onthe poem.

Yusef Komunyakaa's poem "My Father's Love Letters" concerns a broken marriage as well as the relationship of a child to his parents. Kommunyakaa ws born James Willie Brown, Jr., son of an illiterate carpenter in Bogalusa, Louisiana. He served in Vietnam and began studying and writing poetry after leaving the military. Komunyakaa has taught creative writing at Indiana University, Princeton University, and New York Univeristy. The Poetry Foundation's page on Komunyakaa summarizes his writing career.

updated: June 15, 2018