Michael Cunningham, whose novels have won both critical acclaim and the loyalty of a wide popular audience, may owe a measure of his success to a background familiar in its broad contours to many members of the vast baby-boom generation. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the midst of those prosperous years following World War II. Cunningham’s father, who worked in advertising, moved his family to Europe briefly and then, when Michael was ten, to Pasadena, California, at just the time that many other American families were leaving the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest and heading to California. If Cunningham’s father and homemaker mother provided a measure of stability for Michael and his younger sister, other voices, those of “rock ’n’ roll and rebellion,” (as one of Cunningham’s interviewers, Michael Coffey, characterized them in 1998), were also making themselves heard in the culture at large. These, too, would come to influence Cunningham’s writing.
In the Coffey interview, Cunningham admitted, “I do seem to have some kind of fixation on the whole notion of family, which is something of a surprise to me.” Indeed, characters who feel simultaneous deep loyalty to and deep dissatisfaction with their families recur often in Cunningham’s work; such conflict constitutes one of the author’s principal themes. As well, Cunningham’s novels feature characters who are gay, and the heightened anxieties gays often feel in the presence of family, at least as “family” has traditionally been defined, constitutes another of Cunningham’s key themes. In the wake of the weakening of the American nuclear family, many of Cunningham’s characters, and perhaps most poignantly those who are gay, search—sometimes with success, sometimes with less—to create viable, sustaining alternatives. As Cunningham put it, he remained obsessed, perhaps even subconsciously, with “the specter of the queer, extended, post-nuclear family.”
Just as Cunningham’s early years seem to have been typical of his generation, his path toward becoming a writer also followed familiar patterns. The self-described “not especially precocious fifteen-year old” did later attend Stanford University, from which he earned his bachelor of arts degree in 1975. Then, after a period of bartending, wandering the West, and thinking of himself primarily as a painter, he sent some stories to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to which he was admitted in 1978. His tenure at the University of Iowa’s graduate creative writing program, with which many of the United States’ finest writers of Cunningham’s generation have been affiliated, was instrumental to his artistic development. He published stories in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly and Paris Review, acquired a literary agent, and benefited from the encouragement of his teachers, especially Hilma Wolitzer. He joked that his early streaks of luck gave him the false impression that his life as a writer was going to be easy: “I would just write things and publish them. Boy, was I mistaken!”
Indeed, the next few years of Cunningham’s career were...
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