The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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Michael Cunningham | Biography


Early Life

Michael Cunningham was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 6, 1952. When he was 10 years old, his father, who worked in advertising, moved the family to Pasadena, California.

Education and Early Writings

Cunningham enrolled at Stanford University in Stanford, California, near Palo Alto, and earned his bachelor's degree in literature in 1975. After graduating, Cunningham thought of becoming a painter. Then in 1978 he applied for a spot at the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop and was accepted. He enrolled in the University of Iowa's graduate program in writing. He received his MFA in 1980; by the time he was 30, he'd written his first novel, Golden States (1984). The novel was well reviewed but not widely read.

Perhaps stung by the critical reviews, Cunningham engaged in a life of wandering, bartending, and waiting tables in restaurants. By 1986 he began working for the Carnegie Corporation. During this period Cunningham met his longtime romantic partner, Ken Corbett. In a roundabout way, Ken helped launch Cunningham's career. To prove to Ken how hard it was to get a piece of fiction published, Cunningham sent an excerpt from the novel he was working on, A Home at the End of the World, to the New Yorker. Cunningham was sure it would be rejected immediately, but to his amazement, the highly respected magazine published it as " White Angel" in 1988. The story was republished in the 1989 edition of The Best American Short Stories.

Acclaimed Writer

"White Angel" established Cunningham as a serious and talented writer. In 1988 he was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and this grant gave him the time he needed to finish A Home at the End of the World (1990). Critics and readers alike praised the novel. Critics noted Cunningham's "exquisite way with words and ... his uncanny felicity in conveying both his characters and their story." A Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993 allowed Cunningham to finish his next novel, Flesh and Blood (1995). That same year he won the Lambda Literary Award for gay men's fiction. His next novel, The Hours (1998), earned Cunningham universal acclaim and prestigious literary awards, including the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1999 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. An Oscar-winning film version of The Hours was released in 2002, starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman.

Cunningham took a break from fiction and wrote a nonfiction travel book about Provincetown, Massachusetts, called Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown (2002). Cunningham also taught at colleges and universities, first at Columbia University in New York City and later at Brooklyn College, where in 2001 he was given the title of distinguished professor of English and taught in the graduate creative writing program. He then became a senior lecturer in English at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. While teaching creative writing, Cunningham resumed writing novels, including Specimen Days (2005), By Nightfall (2010), and The Snow Queen (2014). In addition to the New Yorker, his short fiction has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the Paris Review, and other respected literary periodicals.

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