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 unspectacular. At about the time of his graduation from Iowa in 1980, he wrote his first novel, Golden States, which was not published until 1984. The coming-of-age story of a twelve-year-old Southern California boy was respectfully reviewed, but what Cunningham called his journeyman effort sold poorly and was generally considered more a promising beginner’s effort than a fully mature work. Cunningham spent much of the 1980’s bartending, waiting tables, and traveling. In 1986 he began working in New York for the Carnegie Corporation, a philanthropic foundation for which he wrote public relations pieces, where he remained until 1990. He and his companion, Ken Corbett, initiated their relationship in 1988.
Corbett was, in fact, partly responsible for...
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Cunningham’s breakthrough success. Cunningham, wanting to prove to Corbett the difficulties of a writer’s life, sent a chapter from a novel in progress,A Home at the End of the World, to The New Yorker, the idea being that it would be instructive to see how quickly the piece was rejected. The editor who read the story was impressed, however, and the story was published as “The White Angel,” in 1988.
Cunningham’s successes may have been slow in coming, but they began to compound exponentially after the publication of “The White Angel,” which was republished in the 1989 edition of The Best American Short Stories. A 1988 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts helped him complete A Home at the End of the World, which was published to generous acclaim and nominated for the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize in 1991. The novel, a compelling portrait of three friends, two men and a woman, whose entangled relationships with one another do not prevent them from ultimately creating a nontraditional family structure for themselves in rural New York, was viewed as a powerful character study and inspired portrayal of both American family life and American gay life during a time of rapidly changing notions of gender identity and greater integration of gays into the mainstream culture.
Cunningham’s next novel, Flesh and Blood, was published in 1995. A family saga encompassing the lives of several generations of a Greek American family living in New Jersey, this novel earned much of the same high praise that greeted A Home at the End of the World. Some reviewers thought that the new, longer book represented an expansion of Cunningham’s artistic scope. A few dissenters found it less compelling than A Home at the End of the World, but it seemed clear by then that Michael Cunningham was a writer to be taken seriously. His presence on the American literary landscape was no longer in question, and he was beginning to accrue important recognition of his talent, such as a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993 and the Lambda Literary Award for gay men’s fiction in 1995.
An even greater triumph was to come in 1998, with Cunningham’s publication of The Hours, which won two of the most prestigious American literary awards in 1999, the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. The Hours, which was made into a film starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman, was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925). The principal characters in Cunningham’s work, one of them Woolf herself, are connected to Woolf’s novel in different ways, and The Hours explores brief episodes in all of those lives, using some of the same experimental techniques Woolf used in the early twentieth century. Woolf wrote in the aftermath of World War I of a society in which everything seemed to have changed, in which the old received truths and values no longer held sway. Cunningham, writing in the aftermath of the initial devastation of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic, was to a degree also writing about a fundamentally altered society.
In addition to his remarkable achievements as a writer of fiction, Cunningham’s career included travel writing and teaching. His first major nonfiction work, Land’s End: A Walk Through Provincetown, appeared in 2002, and that book, too, looks at the lives of people on the margins of mainstream American culture—the assortment of gays, ex-hippies, and eccentrics who have, for at least a century, been attracted to that town on Massachusetts’s Cape Cod. Also, after years of teaching in Columbia University’s master of fine arts program, Cunningham was in 2001 named Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, where he had been previously awarded the Donald I. Fine Professorship in Creative Writing at that college’s MFA program. In all, it seems accurate to say that Michael Cunningham, while managing to retain the loyalty of the gay readers who have long admired his work, has moved into the mainstream of American letters without abandoning the vision that accounted for his early successes.