Michael Cunningham

February 11–12, 2002


Michael Cunningham was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1952 and grew up in Pasedena, California. He received his B.A. in English literature from Stanford University and his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. His novel At Home at the End of the World was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1990 to wide acclaim. Flesh and Blood, another novel, followed in 1995. His work appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Redbook, Esquire, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Vogue, and Metropolitan Home. His story "White Angel" was chosen for Best American Short Stories 1989.

Michael Cunningham received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award, both for The Hours, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1988, and a Michener Fellowship from the University of Iowa in 1982. He currently lives in New York City. A film version of The Hours is in production, directed by Stephen Daldry. It will feature Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep.

"Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours is that rare combination: a smashing literary tour de force and an utterly invigorating reading experience. If this book does not make you jump up from the sofa, looking at life and literature in new ways, check to see if you have a pulse."

--- USA Today

February 12 Discussion Segmented by Topic

Introduction by Dan Fishback

I signed up for this class in a kind of prideless, bumbling squirt -- I emailed Al, "Cunningham is my personal Jesus, you have to let me in, you have to, you have to." But then I calmed down, because I realized I'd be taking these books into the realm of other people -- and new perspectives seemed dangerous somehow. Just before I came to college, I read A Home at the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, and The Hours; and they were like...vaccines. They were like concentrated, distilled domestic strife, youthful confusion, and aging grief, bound together with prose that just slid into my mind like a daydream. With these three books in my bloodstream, I kept life's flaws from consuming me, and its awesome joys from obliterating me entirely. They supplied me with a catalogue of images and apparent truths to dissolve the simple sadnesses in the satisfaction of being. My experience of having read these books was already perfect -- I felt duly enlightened in a very Cunningham way -- so I was petrified to bring all that to the table, to let someone -- God forbid -- disagree with me, to talk about these books with words like "modernism" and "diachronic narrative"-- an academic analysis seemed entirely out of sync with the spirit that flows through these words -- a spirit of simple, child-like awe. In The Hours, Clarissa Vaughn, "simply enjoys without reason the houses, the church, the man, and the dog. It's childish, she knows. It lacks edge. If she were to express it publicly (now, at her age), this love of hers would consign her to the realm of the duped and the simpleminded, Christians with acoustic guitars or wives who've agreed to be harmless in exchange for their keep." But wives we're not -- we're students, so we whipped out the "modernism" and the "diachronic narrative" and the whole kitchen sink of English class jargon, and, to my grateful surprise, there was more here than a simple, indiscriminate love of everything. There was a keen, almost scientific perception of social force, of networks of power and domination -- a whole subterranean discourse on literature, on art, on conformism, on radicalism, and after every complexity was laid as bare as we could possibly lay it, and I walked home from class with the books in my arms, each and every infinitely particular insight... amounted back to Clarissa's simple, indiscriminate love -- a love that "feels entirely serious to her, as if everything in the world is part of a vast, inscrutable intention and everything in the world has its own secret name, a name that cannot be conveyed in language but is simply the sight and feel of the thing itself." In lieu of the thing, we have these books. And now, in addition to these books, we have Michael Cunningham -- right here. And it's my pleasure to welcome him to Writers House.

Critical response to Cunningham's At Home in the World by Adrienne Mishkin

Though Cunningham’s first book did not meet with the same level of publicity that The Hours did, it received generally positive and optimistic reviews. Sybil Steinberg reviewed it for Publishers Weekly in August of 1990, and proclaimed the book to be “one of a kind,” for its particular way of handling the homosexual component of the characters’ relationships and for a general ability to hone in on people’s relationships in general. Steinberg also praised his work for the way it “evokes fleeting thoughts and states of consciousness.” I think Cunningham later utilized his ability to do this in The Hours, perhaps more effectively even than in this book. Sybil described his book as having a musical quality, which obviously fits in with the theme of music throughout the story (I won’t elaborate for those of you who aren’t finished yet!) Steinberg commented that though the narrative was enhanced by the fact that each chapter is told through a different voice, it was surprising how similar the voices could be, especially surprising with “such fully realized characters.” Yet she saw this work as evidence of a writer with “real promise and power.”

Another one of the reviews I read was published in The Nation, in July of 1991, and was written by David Kaufman. I liked this review a lot because it articulated exactly my sentiments about A Home at the End of the World. The story can seem “familiar or banal,” wrote Kaufman, but what is important about the book is Cunningham’s “exquisite way with words and …his uncanny felicity in conveying both his characters and theirs story…This is quite simply one of those rare novel imbued with graceful insights on every page.” Kaufman went on to guess at the reasons for the changes of voice throughout the novel, suggesting that this characteristic was related to the sociopolitical upheavals going on in the time period of the story. He also praised Cunningham’s ability to tie the characters motives and needs together, even though all of them are coming from very different points of view. Kaufman also lauded Cunningham for being as sensitive to the peripheral characters as to those at the center of the intrigue; even characters mentioned only quickly seem relatively developed, especially for a book where all of the chapters are written in the first person.

Of about nine review articles I scanned, most rated this novel an “A,” one gave it a “B” and a few didn’t have that type of rating, but clearly the critics thought highly of this work, making it surprising that Cunningham didn’t receive more attention at the time. These ratings perhaps foreshadowed Michael’s future success. (P.S. I loved this book.)

"Distinctiveness of the East Village" by Susie Cook

The mecca for the creative, the rebellious, the bohemian, the East Village traces its historical roots with that of its mother area, Greenwich Village. I went the East Village once this summer, lost in its small streets with vendors in and out of doors, on a mission from my boss to return a movie to Kim's Video on 8th and Christopher. I had come from my dorm in the West Village.

The West was, like a fraternal culture twin, similar, but not really, to the East.

Kenneth Jackson in his Encyclopedia of New York City defines the East: "The East Village, from about 14th Street to Houston Street on the east side of Manhattan, is the place to go for any tattoos, piercings, or crazy hair colors you've been wanting for over half a century [it] has been ground zero for bohemian and avant-garde culture in NYC"(2). Meanwhile, Robert Heide and John Gilman in Greenwich Village describe the West: "The West Village has become more stylish with jazz clubs and sparkling new coffee shop emporiums opening all the time"(4). In my trip to the East Village, I was safe and entranced but felt, in Gap khakis and a white tee, kind of like a very sore thumb.

First, though, here is the history of both: of Greenwich Village. After the Dutch bought Manhattan Island from the natives in 1626, what we know as Greenwich Village was a woodland, soon to become a prosperous tobacco plantation. In 1731 English warship commander Sir Peter Warren purchased the plantation and built a large mansion on Perry and West 4th Streets. In the 1750s and 60s the "Greenwich" area attracted well-to-do families who built grand country-style homes. When smallpox hit the still-distant New York City in 1822, families fled to the Village, and the country village became a thriving town unto itself with new banks and businesses and merchants who built grand townhouses around Washington Square Park in the Village's center. By the end of the century, though, wealthier residents started moving uptown to more "fashionable areas" while their houses became run down and run by absentee landlords. The low rent attracted artists, or, as Gilman and Heide put it, "radical and intellectual rebels who saw the Village as an adjunct to Paris"(2).

In the early 1900s the Village was the place to live "the free life." It was, at one point or another, home to Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Jackson Pollock, and visited by Hemingway and many others. The Village became a symbol of the repudiation of traditional values during World War I and in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s was considered the tail-end of Bohemian life: "In the 1950s Beat poets and coffee house existentialists intermingled with a new breed of intellectually oriented rebel actors who studied the "Method" with Lee Strasberg at the Actor's Studio"(2). In the 1970s, the furor of off-Broadway counter-culture and angry coffee house poetry continued, though with new fuel: the reverberations of the Stonewall Rebellion, the "sexual revolution," the era of gay liberation and women's rights. The Village housed a strong homosexual community, and became a rallying place for antiwar protesters in the seventies and AIDs activists in the eighties.

The distinction of the East Village from the West is a rather current phenomenon. By the 1980s, because of rising real estate costs and Yuppie invasion, the artists who could indulge in the free experiences and artistic experimentation could no longer afford to live in the city. Still, many artists moved the East Village and Alphabet City, where a storefront gallery movement in the 1980s seemed to nurture new artists. A movement called East Village Expressionism from 1980-1987 further clarified and reflected the East Village's soul of anarchy and experimentation, defining it laundry-list style as "Alphabet City, punk music, the discovery of the Vesuvuiana machine which produced espresso as a volcano would, disco palaces, black spandex and nail polish, trips to Italy, passion, weight-lifting, installying Robert Rauschenberg's performance exhibit and wearing his plastic suit to the openingGraffitti, German Expressionismurban squalor; culminating in an actual near death experience"(Trudang 1).

Even in the 1990s, the original Bohemian atmosphere and youth-culture so inherent in Greenwich Village life continued to shift eastward to rock-clubs like the Pyramid, the Continental and C.B.G.B.'s and towards East Village oddball shops like Little Ricky's and Atomic Passion (4). Today, the East thrives too on small bookstores, inexpensive thrift shops, restaurants, and Kim's Video, where if you asked about Uncle Buck or Field of Dreams, well, the pierced man behind the counter would tell you to look on a shelf, dusty, hidden practically, on the third floor in the corner-if they were there at all. Most Village chroniclers describe today's East as a haven for under thirty, Gen-X types along with "rebellious get-back-at-your-parents skinheads, some with shaved heads or others with purple or fuchsia dyed hair stiffed straight-up into points with gel and hair spray who also sport nose, eyebrow and cheek rings" (Gilman 4).

Often it helps too to define places or things by what they are not-and the East Village is not a neighborhood like its West partner, or Soho, Noho, Times Square, Broadway, or Lincoln Center. This past summer I lived in the West Village at an NYU dorm a block away from Washington Square Park. The West is more "stylish": little cafes and coffeehouses on every corner, classy wine houses, and jazz clubs to the south. Well-dressed couples love weekend nights. A famous streetball court is a block down, its McDonald's neighbor neighbored by Italian restaurants, a Bananna Republic, more outdoor seating and coffee on the sidewalk. It is not an urban punk wonderland, though it remains its central flavor of bohmia and beat. In Washington Square, I was entertained by some rather eclectic performances-a fire juggler on a surfboard in the middle of the fountain, an old bag lady who danced with her ballerina string-puppet to scratchy classical tunes from the radio beside her, a Bob Dylan impersonator who yelled at onlookers to spare change. By July I discovered that the Jamaican men who played chess all day at the far end of the park were also the most respected marijuana dealers in the city. Beautiful white and brick rowhouses and NYU surround this park of people-watchers, dogwalkers, and tourists.

Broadway and Lincoln Center could hardly be called edgy or bohemian--no one in the East Village wears suits and overcoats to see a show. SoHo (short for south of Houston Street), which is south of East Village, offers the ultimate in Manhattan shopping and New York and European hip-but unlike the East is very trendy and pricey. NoHo shares the East's fine cuisines but is more state-of-the-art and home to expensive furniture artists. What separates the East from the West, and the East from other districts, is the East's embrace of its buzzing, anarchic, ornery surrounds. I can say with certainty I was better prepared the second trip back.

Works Cited:

Gilman, John and Robert Heide, Greenwich Village. http://www.greenwich-village.com/history. 9 January 2002.

Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. Yale University Press, 1995: pp. 506-509. Edited excerpt by Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. http://www.preserv.org/gvshp/history. 9 January 2002.

http://www.trudang.com/arts/meve.html: "East Village Expressionism, 1980-87."