Cunningham, Michael 1952–
Cunningham, Michael 1952–
ADDRESSES: Home—New York, NY. Agent—Barclay Agency, 12 Western Ave., Petaluma, CA 94952.
CAREER: Writer. Worked for Carnegie Corp., New York, NY, beginning 1986; Brooklyn College, NY, fiction instructor. Producer of feature film, Evening, 2007.
AWARDS, HONORS: Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize nomination, 1991; Guggenheim fellowship, 1993; Lambda Literary Award for gay men's fiction, 1995 and 1996, for Flesh and Blood; PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, both 1999, both for The Hours.
Golden States, Crown (New York, NY), 1984.
A Home at the End of the World, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1990.
Flesh and Blood, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
The Hours, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
Specimen Days, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2005.
(Author of text) I Am Not This Body: Photographs, photographs by Barbara Ess, Aperture (New York, NY), 2001.
Land's End: A Walk through Provincetown, Crown (New York, NY), 2002.
Michael Hare, The Hours: A Screenplay, Faber and Faber (London, England), 2003.
(Editor) Walt Whitman, Laws for Creation, Picador (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor of fiction and nonfiction to periodicals, including New Yorker, Atlantic, Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, and Paris Review. Contributor of fiction to anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, 1989. Writer of screenplays, including A Home at the End of the World, 2004, and Evening, 2007.
ADAPTATIONS: The Hours was adapted for a film of the same title. The movie, directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep, was released by Miramax, 2002; A Home at the End of the World was adapted for a film of the same title, Warner Independent, 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Michael Cunningham has won critical acclaim, commercial success, and major literary awards for his novels. His works frequently feature homosexual characters and themes, but they do not lose sight of the world beyond the gay community. "Homosexuality is a lens through which the world is viewed, not a world unto itself," stated Joseph M. Eagan in Gay and Lesbian Literature. In novels that explore themes of family, friendship, identity, and commitment, he "places his gay and bisexual characters in the mainstream of American life, [viewing] their homosexuality as only one aspect of their identity," according to Eagan. The critic further noted that Cunningham has "been widely praised for his prose, sense of place, use of imagery, and psychological insight into his characters."
In 1984 Cunningham published his first novel, Golden States, which concerns an adolescent boy coming of age in southern California. The boy, twelve-year-old David Stark, is initially portrayed as a victim of his own preoccupations and manias. Living with his mother, older stepsister, and tirelessly obnoxious younger sister, David seems obsessed with safeguarding his home and family. At one point, he even sojourns, with an unloaded pistol, to San Francisco in a harebrained scheme to "save" his stepsister from her presumably dangerous fiancé. Eventually, David begins to understand and control his fears and anxieties even though his life becomes one of increasing isolation and domestic instability. Though abandoned by his father and rejected by his best friend, David develops a sense of security and self-understanding. Ever the protector, however, he continues to guard his suburban neighborhood home from prowling coyotes.
Golden States was generally perceived as a successful first venture into novel writing. Elizabeth Royte, writing in the Village Voice, deemed Cunningham's debut "a sweetly appealing book," while Alice F. Wittels declared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that the work was "exceedingly well-written." Wittels objected only to the end, which she claimed "left a bad taste," but conceded that the book's "first seven-eighths was terrific." Ruth Doan MacDougall was more enthusiastic in her Christian Science Monitor appraisal. "However much one might object to the theme of the protection of women, one cannot help savoring every moment of this novel," she wrote. "Funny, tender, [Golden States] is a joy to read."
Despite the favorable reviews, Golden States only "sold seven or eight copies," the author joked to Publishers Weekly interviewer Michael Coffey. His real breakthrough came with his second novel, A Home at the End of the World, a story about sexual liberation in the age of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The novel provides perspectives on four characters—Jonathan, Bobby, Clare, and Alice—in detailing the complexities of a childhood friendship that develops into romantic love. Jonathan and Bobby meet as young boys in Cleveland, and in the ensuing years they become close friends. When Jonathan leaves for college in New York City, Bobby, whose own family life is empty, becomes a mainstay in his friend's family home. There, Bobby grows particularly close to Jonathan's mother, Alice, whose marriage is collapsing. Eventually, Bobby and Jonathan are reunited in New York City, where they begin living together. They are eventually joined in their quarters by Clare, a young divorced woman who is still rebelling against her wealthy family. Clare hopes to bear Jonathan's child. Instead, she bears Bobby's, a daughter. Jonathan becomes jealous of Bobby and Clare's relationship, but soon all three adults, plus child, begin living together in upstate New York. This idyll is undone, however, when one of Jonathan's former lovers arrives stricken with AIDS.
A Home at the End of the World has earned praise as a compelling portrait of modern times. In the New York Times Book Review Joyce Reiser Kornblatt likened Cunningham to Charles Dickens and E.M. Forster, and she hailed Cunningham's work as one of power and depth. She found A Home at the End of the World "memorable and accomplished." Another enthusiast, Richard Eder, was particularly impressed with Cunningham's craft, affirming in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that the novelist "writes with power and delicacy" and adding that the entire book "is beautifully written." And Patrick Gale, in his review for the Washington Post Book World, noted both the profundity of Cunningham's work and the subtlety with which he wrote it. Observing that the theme of the novel is nothing less than "the family and its alternatives in the overlapping aftermaths of sexual liberation and AIDS," Gale continued by commending Cunningham for his work's "careful structure." Especially successful to Gale is the use of memory, which enables A Home at the End of the World to provide readers with "a pleasing sense … of resolution, even if the characters are no less happy at the close than they were before."
Flesh and Blood, published in 1995, demonstrates Cunningham's continuing concerns for honoring all kinds of unconventional family units. This long, multigenerational saga centers around a Greek immigrant and his family. On the surface, Constantine and his wife, Mary, seem to have achieved the American dream: a nice house in the suburbs and three children. But Mary cannot curb her compulsion to shoplift, nor can Constantine resist the beauty of his eldest daughter. A cross-dressing son and a drug-using daughter who raises her illegitimate child with a transvestite partner fill out the picture. All the characters and their troubles "ring true, heartbreakingly true. And beautiful in a way no camera could capture," praised Kelli Pryor in Entertainment Weekly. A Publishers Weekly reviewer affirmed that, as in A Home at the End of the World, Cunningham's prose "is again rich, graceful and luminous, and he exhibits a remarkable maturity of vision and understanding of the human condition." The book was also praised by Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman, who called it "empathic and searing," and concluded: "Cunningham, in a remarkable performance, inhabits the psyche of each of his striking characters."
Remarkably, Cunningham received even higher praise for his 1998 publication, The Hours. This book, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a prestigious PEN/Faulkner award, and was adapted as a successful feature film, is a complex tribute to author Virginia Woolf and her classic novel Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf is a character in the book, which is strongly influenced by her unique style. A day in Woolf's life is skillfully meshed with brief episodes from two other lives: a lonely homemaker who escapes her family for a day to read Mrs. Dalloway, and a Greenwich Village lesbian who is called "Mrs. Dalloway" by her dying lover. Advocate contributor Robert Plunket confided, "I have a very low tolerance for arty writers who publish stories in the New Yorker and then write novels that turn out to be homages to Virginia Woolf, which makes my reaction to Michael Cunningham's new novel … all the more remarkable…. Reading this book, I was overwhelmed by the possibilities of art." A Publishers Weekly reviewer declared that Cunningham's book "makes a reader believe in the possibility and depth of a communality based on great literature, literature that has shown people how to live and what to ask of life." Similarly, Booklist contributor Donna Seaman called The Hours "a graceful and passionate homage to Virginia Woolf."
After this success, Cunningham turned to screenwriting, with adaptations of The Hours and A Home at the End of the World. He also wrote the nonfiction work, Land's End: A Walk through Provincetown. In 2005, he returned to the novel with Specimen Days, a book with a similar structure and theme to The Hours. Again, Cunningham weaves three separate stories around a literary figure; this time the writer is American poet Walt Whitman. Specifically, it is Whitman's long poem, Leaves of Grass, which links the three novellas While Susan H. Greenberg, writing in Newsweek, felt that "Cunningham's writing is as lyrically evocative as ever," she also complained that Specimen Days was a "strained and familiar novel that doesn't quite work." Similarly, Joseph O'Neill, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, called Cunningham "one of the most humane and moving writers we have," while at the same time despairing that the plots of the three novellas ultimately "reduced to melodrama." Theo Tait, writing in the New Statesman, was also unimpressed by Specimen Days, finding it "as muddled, and as silly, as it sounds." However, other critics had a more positive assessment of Cunningham's novel. Booklist contributor Donna Seaman, for example, thought it was "galvanizing," as well as a "genuine literary event." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly critic called it "daring, memorable fiction," while Library Journal contributor Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., noted that the author's "vivid prose captures the intricate weave of love and expectation that propels the hopes of one generation as it fades into another."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 34, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985, pp. 40-42.
Gay and Lesbian Literature, Volume 2, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Advocate, June 13, 1995, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 62; December 8, 1998, Robert Plunket, "Imagining Woolf," p. 87; May 25, 1999, Robert L. Pela, "Pulitzer Surprise," p. 83.
Atlantic Monthly, June, 2005, Joseph O'Neill, review of Specimen Days, p. 113.
Best Sellers, June, 1984, review of Golden States, p. 87.
Booklist, March 15, 1984, review of Golden States, p. 1027; January 15, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 868; September 15, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of The Hours, 173; May 1, 2005, Donna Seaman, review of Specimen Days, p. 1501.
Bookseller, August 12, 2005, review of Specimen Days, p. 38.
Chicago, July, 1984, review of Golden States, p. 156.
Christian Science Monitor, May 4, 1984, Ruth Doan MacDougall, review of Golden States, p. 20.
Christopher Street, Volume 13, number 9, 1990, review of A Home at the End of the World, pp. 4-5.
Criterion, June, 1999, Brooke Allen, review of The Hours, p. 81.
Entertainment Weekly, May 8, 1992, review of A Home at the End of the World, p. 52; April 14, 1995, Kelli Pryor, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 59.
Glamour, November, 1990, review of A Home at the End of the World, p. 174; April, 1995, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 198.
Harper's, June, 1999, Jonathan Dee, review of The Hours, p. 76.
Interview, August, 2004, John Beatty, review of A Home at the End of the World, p. 78.
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1998, review of The Hours; May 1, 2002, review of Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown, p. 632.
Lambda Book Report, May-June, 1995, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 14; January, 1999, Sarah Van Arsdale, review of The Hours, p. 14.
Library Journal, April 1, 1984, review of Golden States, p. 732; October 15, 1990, review of A Home at the End of the World, p. 102; April 15, 1995, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 112; October 1, 1998, Marc A. Kloszewski, review of The Hours, p. 131; May 15, 2005, Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., review of Specimen Days, p. 104.
London Review of Books, February 22, 1996, review of Flesh and Blood, pp. 27-31.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 22, 1984, Alice F. Wittels, review of Golden States, p. 6; November 18, 1990, Richard Eder, review of A Home at the End of the World, pp. 3, 12; April 9, 1995, review of Flesh and Blood, pp. 3, 7.
Nation, July 1, 1991, David Kaufman, review of A Home at the End of the World, pp. 21-25.
New Leader, May-June, 2005, Angeline Goreau, review of Specimen Days, p. 39.
New Republic, August 8, 2005, Deborah Friedell, review of Specimen Days, p. 35.
New Statesman, August 29, 2005, Theo Tait, review of Specimen Days, p. 38.
Newsweek, June 13, 2005, Susan H. Greenberg, review of Specimen Days, p. 75.
New York, November 12, 1990, review of A Home at the End of the World, p. 30; April 10, 1995, review of Flesh and Blood, pp. 72-73.
New Yorker, April 30, 1984, review of Golden States, p. 118; October 5, 1998, review of The Hours, p. 107.
New York Times Book Review, November 11, 1990, Joyce Reiser Kornblatt, review of A Home at the End of the World, pp. 12-13; April 16, 1995, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 13; November 22, 1998, review of The Hours, p. 6.
People, May 7, 1984, review of Golden States, p. 19; February 19, 2003, Allison Adato, "Man of the Hours," p. 105; June 20, 2005, Jonathan Durbin, review of Specimen Days, p. 49.
Publishers Weekly, February 3, 1984, review of Golden States, p. 393; August 17, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of A Home at the End of the World, p. 52; January 23, 1995, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 60; August 31, 1998, review of The Hours, p. 46; November 2, 1998, interview with Michael Coffey, "Michael Cunningham: New Family Outings," p. 53; May 20, 2002, review of Land's End, p. 55; May 9, 2005, review of Specimen Days, p. 44.
School Library Journal, October, 2005, Matthew L. Moffett, review of Specimen Days, p. 200.
Times Literary Supplement, August 11, 1995, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 20.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), November 4, 1990, review of A Home at the End of the World, p. 6.
Vanity Fair, May, 1995, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 96.
Village Voice, September 4, 1984, Elizabeth Royte, review of Golden States, p. 52.
Vogue, January, 1989, review of A Home at the End of the World, p. 62; November, 1998, review of The Hours, p. 247.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1984, review of Golden States, p. 196.
Washington Post Book World, December 9, 1990, Patrick Thomson Gale, review of A Home at the End of the World, p. 7; April 2, 1995, review of Flesh and Blood, pp. 72-73.
Barclay Agency Web site, http://www.barclayagency.com/ (October 16, 2006), "Michael Cunningham."
Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/ (October 16, 2006), "Michael Cunningham."
Literati.net, http://www.literati.net/ (October 16, 2006), "Michael Cunningham."
Michael Cunningham Home Page, http://www.michaelcunninghamwriter.com (October 16, 2006).
Powell's.com, http://www.powells.com/ (October 16, 2006), Dave Weich, "The Same Old, Brand New Michael Cunningham."
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (November 10, 1998), Georgia Jones-Davis, review of The Hours.