Although he was born in Cumberland, Maryland, in 1911, James Vincent Cunningham’s earliest recollections were of Billings, Montana, where the family settled when he was about four years old. After growing up in Montana and in Denver, Colorado, and briefly attending St. Mary’s College in Kansas, he earned his A.B. and Ph.D. at Stanford University, where he also taught English.
From 1945, when he achieved his doctorate, until 1953, he taught at the Universities of Hawaii, Chicago, and Virginia, publishing two books of poetry and a book on Shakespearean tragedy during this period. Recognition followed at Brandeis University, where Cunningham taught from 1953 until his retirement in 1982.
Married and divorced twice earlier, Cunningham was married to Jessie MacGregor Campbell in 1950. Following his appointment to Brandeis, the Cunninghams settled in Sudbury, Massachusetts, between Waltham and Worcester, where she taught English at Clark University. He died on March 30, 1985, at the age of seventy-three.