McSorley's Lithograph, Ellison Hoover
McSorley's ca. 1935,  lithograph by aritst Ellison Hoover. Reproduced with permission from the Museum of the City of New York. For a higher resolution image please contact the Museum of the City of New York directly.

e.e. cummings - "i was sitting in mcsorley's"

Edward Estlin Cummings was one of the most innovative and prolific writers in American history, creating, among other genres, roughly 3,000 works of poetry.  More commonly known as e.e. cummings, the lower case punctuation characteristic of his personal style, he was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  After completing both his B.A. in 1915 and M.A. in 1916 at Harvard University, cummings eventually settled in Greenwich Village, New York.

As a young man living in Greenwich Village, and very intimately involved in the local art scene, cummings is known to have frequented McSorley’s Old Ale House.  Among his extensive collection of writings is a poem titled “i was sitting in mcsorley’s.”  Although this poem is the only piece cummings’ wrote referencing the popular saloon, it speaks volumes about his experiences there.  The poem is written in cummings’ characteristically eccentric style making use of unusual word combinations, inconsistent grammar and punctuation, and bizarre transitions between stanzas.  His deliberate disregard for proper sentence structure and language helps to convey the contradictory feelings of comfort within and repulsion of McSorley's.

Written many decades before women were allowed entry, cummings' poem seems to capture the essense of McSorley's during its heyday as a men's only saloon, a place where droves of men sought camaraderie and relaxation over fine foods and attentive staff.

The first line of the poem reads, “i was sitting in mcsorley’s.  outside it was New York and beautifully snowing.”  Immediately cummings has established a distinction between the beauty of the world outside and the comparatively unremarkable nature of the alehouse's interior.  However, his placement inside McSorley’s rather than the wintery weather establishes a level of comfort inherently offered by the alehouse.  He goes on, “Inside snug and evil.  the slobbering walls filthily push witless creases of screaming warmth;” his words begin to emphasize the dichotomy between his feelings of comfort, familiarity, and distaste.

To a reader unfamiliar with the history of McSorley’s or e.e. cummings’ unique poetic style, “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” may seem like a disjointed and generally unpleasant depiction of an alehouse.  However, the “squirting taps,” “hopping sawdust,” and “the ale, which never lets you grow” all speak to the intrinsic charm of this particular alehouse as well as an experience had by a (possibly very drunk) patron.