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.
James Vincent Cunningham was born in western Maryland in 1911. He attended Stanford University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1934 and a doctorate in 1945. At Stanford, he studied under Yvor Winters, the American poet and critic. After completing his education, Cunningham was to spend the rest of his life teaching in American universities; he acquired the reputation as an inspiring teacher who demanded excellence from his students. During his teaching years he wrote the elegant and spare poems and the uncompromising criticism that made his reputation as a poet and a scholar.
Cunningham taught mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles, during World War II, but his most important efforts lay in his teaching literature and criticism at a number of universities. He taught English at Stanford from 1937 to 1943 while completing his Ph.D. and taught for a year as an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu.
Cunningham published his first book of poetry, The Helmsman, in 1942 while a graduate student at Stanford. The poems in this collection are not typical of Cunningham’s work; they are extended poems, and a few are odes. However, the book does use classical sources and models, as his later poetry was to do. He published another collection of poems, The Judge Is Fury, in 1947. There is a marked change in style in this book. There are none of the classical allusions, and there is no archaic diction. The imagery, as can be seen in “Montana Pastoral,” is taken from nature rather than art, and it counterpoints the traditional pastoral with an unlikely American location.
While he was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, Cunningham published an important collection of poems titled Doctor Drink. In this book Cunningham displays his typical style and subject matter in the epigrams of which he was a master. The Roman poet Martial supplied the classical model for the epigram, and Cunningham translated a number of poems by Martial into idiomatic English. Cunningham’s own epigrams are truly contemporary, although they use an ancient form.
During the years Cunningham was producing poetry, he was also teaching literature in a number of American universities and writing books of criticism. The first critical book, Woe or Wonder: The Emotional Effect of Shakespearean Tragedy, used William Shakespeare’s words and the concepts of the period to trace the proper emotions of Shakespearean tragedy. The book remains an important formulation of a central problem in the study of tragedy. Cunningham later collected a number of his essays into a 1960 volume titled Tradition and Poetic Structure. The title suggests Cunningham’s critical interests: the historically based traditions that inform and create poetic form. The essays are pithy and completely convincing as he comes to terms with the forms of earlier poets such as Thomas Nashe and more recent ones such as Wallace Stevens.
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