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Michael Cunningham is an author whose work portrays the struggles of family life, and who is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours, a unique re-imagining of Virginia Woolfs 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway featuring the author herself as one of the main characters.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Painting to Writing
Cunningham was born on November 6, 1952, in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Don and Dorothy Cunningham. Don Cunningham’s advertising career led the family to make several moves, including a four-year residence in Germany, before they ultimately settled in Pasadena, California, when Cunningham was ten. In his teenage years Cunningham began to develop an interest in serious literature, reading works by Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot. In 1972 he entered Stanford University, intending to study painting but eventually focusing on literature courses. He graduated from Stan ford in 1976 with a degree in English. Two years later he entered the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, graduating with a master of fine arts degree in 1980. At the University of Iowa, Cunningham was able to study with talented writers and teachers, including novelist Hilma Wolitzer, and to work at refining his style. While in the program, he began to submit stories and quickly had several accepted for publication in periodicals such as Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, and Redbook.
After leaving the University of Iowa in 1980, Cunningham accepted a one-year residency at the Province-town Fine Arts Work Center; after this residency he began working in New York City for the Carnegie Corporation, where he wrote annual reports and press releases. During the early 1980s he became frustrated because his initial success had not endured, and finding publishers for his material was no longer as easy as it had been a few years before. Intent upon finishing a novel before he reached the age of thirty, Cunningham wrote his first novel, Golden States (1984), a work that he has referred to as ”a journeyman effort.”
Novels about Family Establish a Literary Reputation
Cunningham’s writing focuses on the family unit, from traditional to radical, and includes deaths, divorces, homosexuality, adultery, and suicide. The beginnings of Cunningham’s central literary concerns can be seen in his early stories. His first published story, ”Cleaving” (1981), tells the story of Bobby, a gay man who has just ended one relationship and unsuccessfully attempts to begin a new one with a son he has never met. In ”Bedrock” (1981), a recently divorced man retreats to his parents’ house to heal, only to be encouraged to reengage in life again. In each of these early stories the importance of family to individuals serves as the focal point.
Golden States is a coming-of-age story about a young boy who feels it is his duty to protect his mother and sisters after the family has been abandoned by father-figures. Published in 1990, A Home at the End of the World chronicles several decades and various incarnations of family life, this time focusing on two friends and the life they create together.
As Cunningham moved on to his third novel, he imagined a trajectory of a broadening scope in the progression of his works. He explained in an interview with Philip Gambone that he views Golden States as the story of a single character, while A Home at the End of the World is ”a big step . . . in terms of scale because it is ”about more lives. It s a bigger picture. He called his third novel, Flesh and Blood (1995), ”another step forward along those lines because of its magnitude. Certainly, in its attempt to chronicle three generations of a single Greek American family over a hundred-year period, Flesh and Blood became Cunningham s most ambitious work and perhaps his most extensive examination of the essence of American families.
Seeming to depart from the subject matter of his first three novels, Cunningham turned to one of his literary heroes, Woolf, for his next work. Cunningham’s lifelong fascination with Woolf began as teenage admiration but eventually developed into a careful study of her work. At one point he planned to write a biography of the author, and he has written an introduction to a 2000 edition of her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915). His admiration most clearly reveals itself, however, in his novel The Hours, which was Woolf s initial title for her novel Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham s novel serves as an homage to Woolf and her famous work but also as a larger meditation on suicide and living. The narrative follows three women through a single day of their lives. One of these characters is Woolf herself, depicted in the prologue to the novel on the 1941 day when she filled her pockets with stones and walked into a river, ending her life out of the fear of both artistic failure and madness. Response to The Hours was enthusiastic. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1999 and became an Oscar-winning Hollywood film in 2002.
Gay Activism and Literary Reputation
Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, Cunningham was involved in gay activist politics ranging from publishing confrontational pieces in The New York Times and Mother Jones to participating in radical political demonstrations arguing for more government funding for AIDS research. He chained himself to a White House gate and later was arrested for interrupting a speech by President George H. W. Bush. He helped to engineer an on-air disturbance of the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour in 1991. Both the gay content of his work and his personal activism overshad owed Cunningham’s early work, and he rarely transcended this designation as a gay writer.
However, during the mid 1990s Cunningham’s reception began to change. For example, Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times called Cunningham ”perhaps the most brilliant of the many novelists who have dealt with gay themes over the past dozen years, and one of our very best writers, in any case, on any theme.” Cunningham won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Hours. He has taught creative writing at Brooklyn College and continues to write in his studio in Greenwich Village.
Works in Literary Context
The Meaning of Family
Many writers challenge the ideals that have come to define America—ideals such as equal opportunity for all and unlimited potential for wealth. At the heart of the American persona is the image of a nuclear family, consisting of two heterosexual, middle class, Caucasian parents living with their children in a suburban environment. In this portrait, the mother generally stays home to raise the children while the father goes out to work. This ”perfect” family has been taken apart by many artists in order to show that no family is perfect, and that families can appear in many different forms. Cunningham’s novels present many different kinds of alternative families, from those without fathers, to those with members dying of AIDS, to those without any members actually related to each other. For instance, A Home at the End of the World follows two boyhood friends as they create various types of families amidst homosexual and heterosexual relationships, AIDS, child birth, and abandonment. Flesh and Blood further questions the family structure as the Stassos family is an all-American family in appearance only. In reality the husband’s selfishness slowly tears the family apart, leaving the children to find lives separate from each other. In the end, Cunningham’s writing focuses on the love and support a family unit can offer its members despite the always tenuous nature of relationships.
Homosexuality in Fiction and Coming Out Stories
While homosexual relationships have been portrayed in literature since the earliest Greek texts, the late twentieth-century fight for gay rights in the U.S. has created many more fictional representations of homosexuality. The term ”coming out” refers to the process by which a gay individual comes to recognize his or her difference and then expresses that homosexual identity to family and community. Cunningham’s novels portray a variety of coming out stories, some more primary to the main plotline than others. Critic Tim Gauthier mentions that in general, Cunningham tackles different—and controversial—topics powerfully, and ”the manner in which Cunningham subtly inserts the many references to homosexuality has an effortless, natural quality.” He continues, ”This is no longer the ‘fearful closet’ novel of the 1960s nor the ‘defiant ghetto’ writing of the 1970s, rather it is fiction that treats homosexuality … as just one subject among many.” Gauthier also noted that Cunningham’s characters are not just mere representations in a story; they are also very powerful ones. They have a ”nagging suspicion that they are not living the lives they should be, that they are engaged in acts of ‘impersonation’ that belittle their true selfhood.”
Works in Critical Context
Cunningham’s writing received considerable critical recognition before he achieved popular success. His early works were praised for their careful writing style and fully developed characters, and Cunningham rarely received many negative reviews despite slow sales. About his second book, A Home at the End of the World, for instance, Nation’s David Kaufman noted the author’s ”exquisite way with words” and declared, ”This is quite simply one of those rare novels imbued with graceful insights on every page.” A review of Flesh and Blood by Paul Burston included the claim that ”Michael Cunningham is one of the most gifted writers around.”
Cunningham’s deep connection to Virginia Woolfs novel Mrs. Dalloway and Woolfs tragic life led to the author’s most successful work to date. Robert Plunket of the Advocate wrote, ” The Hours is one of the best books I’ve read in years, profoundly sad, perhaps, but always exhilarating.” Plunket went on to write, ”And best of all, it’s a real book. It could never, ever be a movie.” Plunket’s declaration notwithstanding, the novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999, was adapted to film in 2002 by Stephen Daldry and earned actress Nicole Kidman an Academy Award for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf.
- Gambone, Philip. ”Michael Cunningham.” In Something Inside: Conversations with Gay Fiction Writers. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
- Donahue, Deidre. “Specimen is Much More Than Its Parts.” USA Today (June 9, 2005): D5.
- Eder, Richard. ”The Greater Risk” (Book Review). Los Angeles Times (Apr 9, 1995).
- Kauffman, David. Book Review. Nation (July 1, 1991): 21-24.
- Plunkett, Robert. Book Review. Advocate (Dec 8, 1998): 87.
- Gauthier, Tim. Michael Cunningham Biography. Retrieved September 21, 2008, from http://biography.jrank.org/pages/4244/Cunningham-Michael.html.
- net. Michael Cunningham. Retrieved September 15, 2008, from http://literati.net/Cunningham.
- The Official Website of Michael Cunningham. Retrieved September 15, 2008, from http://www.mkhaelcunninghamwriter.com.
- Guardian Unlimited. Paul Burston’s Favorite Gay Fiction.” Retrieved September 20, 2008, from http://books.guardian.co.uk/top10s/top10/0,6109,523071,00.html.
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