By Stacey Pontoriero
Michael Cunningham inspired readers and moviegoers alike with a day in the life of Virginia Woolf in his 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours, later made into an Academy Award-winning film in 2003. In his newest best-seller Specimen Days, he summons the voice of poet Walt Whitman to echo the struggles and hopes of humanity. During his Writers at Rutgers visit in October, Mr. Cunningham read from the novel, discussed his interest in Whitman, and described his own admiration for humanity’s extraordinary capacity for empathy.
Professor Michael Warner introduced Mr. Cunningham as one of several accomplished authors whose first few novels in the 1990s identified them as “gay writers.” His early books, A Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood, drew an audience of readers who knew from the start that Mr. Cunningham was a talented novelist, and garnered him a series of awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship. What has been interesting about his career since then, Professor Warner noted, is that even as the author has been an outspoken advocate of gay rights and an encouraging friend to many young gay artists, his novels have ranged widely in their subject matter.
Specimen Days serves as an easy example of Mr. Cunningham’s versatility as a writer. It begins with the story of a child factory-worker in the 1860s who is obsessed with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and as if by fate, unexpectedly encounters the legendary poet on the streets of New York. A middle section, set in the present, follows a woman psychologist as she tracks a cell of child terrorists who cite Whitman as their inspiration. The novel ends with a tale of a humanoid cyborg, more than a hundred years in the future, who is also obsessed with Whitman’s poetry and who falls in love with the lizard-like female alien who helps him escape from the law. Common elements appear in all three stories – Whitman, an antique bowl, main characters’ names – but the plot and the style of each section is distinct.
At his reading for Writers at Rutgers, Mr. Cunningham shared portions of the first and second parts. The audience laughed at jokes about the cyborg/lizard tale, which sounds like science fiction but, according to the author, is very much in keeping with his usual concerns. “Human happiness is only interesting to me in its ability to survive disaster,” he has written, “so I write about people who are either undergoing some kind of terrible change in their outer lives or some kind of inner crisis.”
In the question and answer period after the reading, Mr. Cunningham described Whitman as representing “that part of humanity that could find beauty anywhere, even in the filthy, crime-ridden streets of 1860s New York.” What he admires most about Whitman is the poet’s ability to feel for others. “What separates us from other living things goes way beyond opposable thumbs,” he said, “because the human capacity for empathy is amazing.” He also praised Whitman as a writer for his “outward absence of self-seriousness.” Whitman managed to create poetry that was both profound yet accessible, and he wanted it to be read by everyone. Mr. Cunningham made it a point to honor the poet’s modesty, even while recognizing his importance as a literary “mischief-maker.”
Like Whitman, Mr. Cunningham also hopes to connect with a diverse audience through his writing, and welcomes the different routes such an endeavor may take. The transition from print to big screen ran smoothly for The Hours (which starred Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore) partly because Mr. Cunningham trusted the director and screenwriter and did not feel like his artistic integrity was being compromised by Hollywood. “People treat a book like one would treat the fingernail of a saint,” he said, “but the purpose of a film adaptation is to give the story new life, new rhythm, and a new look of its own. It’s a joy to see someone else take what you’ve written, and move it in a new direction.”
Judging by his books, Michael Cunningham is an author who is not afraid of new directions. His visit to Writers at Rutgers was a lively, entertaining, and intellectually stimulating night for the Rutgers community, and we eagerly anticipate his future work.
Michael Cunningham's website
Writers at Rutgers