The Highbrow

I Celebrate Walt

Michael Cunningham takes on Whitman in his new novel.

Book cover.

Remarkably enough, Michael Cunningham’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours—a rewriting of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway—wasn’t just a parlor trick. It actually illuminated Woolf’s revolutionary study of postwar English society, while offering its own resonant portrait of the devastation of gay artistic communities by AIDS. It was, you might say, a justified act of literary vivisection: Cunningham carved up another’s body (of work) and peered into it, to see what he, and by implication we, could learn—not only about the remains on the table but about ourselves. The critical and commercial success of The Hours heralded a wave of historically self-conscious novels about writers and artists, among them Colm Tóibín’s * The Master (Henry James), Kate Moses’ Wintering (Sylvia Plath), Colum McCann’s Dancer (Rudolf Nureyev), and Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club. These days even detective novels are following suit, as evidenced by a new Louisa May Alcott mystery series. If ours is the age of what the New York Times called “literary cannibalism,” Cunningham is its avatar.

In 2003, Cunningham told an interviewer, “What I must not do is write ‘The Hours’ again.” But Specimen Days, his first novel since the Pulitzer, looks an awful lot like The Hours. Like its predecessor, it recounts three stories set in three different eras, all of which are presided over by a literary genius—one who can be found just a little to the left of Woolf on the library shelf: Walt Whitman. But there is one notable difference between the two books. Most of what Cunningham did well in The Hours he has done poorly in Specimen Days. The tension between Whitman’s audacious, renegade transcendentalism and Cunningham’s orthodox redemption-seeking makes Specimen Days a flawed book, at once underimagined and overdetermined. And it prompts larger questions about the project of invoking lost masters. In theory such borrowing is a source of rich inspiration, but in Cunningham’s second novel it comes across as a symptom of novelistic anxiety about the status of high literature in an information-obsessed society. 

How did Cunningham end up as the leader of this literary pack? Cunningham has always had a taste for exploring social issues. Before The Hours, he dissected the dilemmas of the post-nuclear family in Flesh and Blood. In following up, he might easily have aimed to compose another big fat novel of the sort that typified American literary fiction in the late 1990s—something like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. But he seems to have sensed that he didn’t have the knack for this grueling work; Flesh and Blood lacked the, well, flesh and blood required to bring a social portrait to messy life. Cunningham clearly also saw himself as something of an outsider, a writer praised for tackling “gay themes”; and, like many of his peers, gay or not, he longed for the pedigree of an older literary tradition, for a time when highbrow novelists were far more secure about their influence on the elite. And so as he began to write The Hours, originally a story about a day in the life of a gay man, he invoked Woolf as a guardian presence, as if to remind us (and himself) that not too long ago the life of an ordinary woman wasn’t considered the stuff of great literature. His decision, you might say, wasn’t motivated by the anxiety of influence, but by a need for the reassurance of influence. Borrowing from the old masters was a way Cunningham saw to solve the question of importance and relevance without having to write a “big” or “mainstream” book.

It turned out to be a good way. Woolf was not a far-fetched muse. As the novelist who had first inspired Cunningham to start writing, she was a figure with whom he clearly felt aesthetic kinship; more important, her brand of minute social observation had just the deft structural precision that a blunter writer like Cunningham could benefit from. Reviewers of his earlier novels had accused him of a “shameless parading of issues” and of writing a “thesis novel.” By contrast, The Hours invoked the tragedy of AIDS with a light touch—and a usefully historicizing one, too. The Pulitzer committee, charged with giving the fiction award to a book on an “American theme,” chose the slim novel over sprawling American epics by Russell Banks and Barbara Kingsolver, to Cunningham’s own surprise.

Whitman and Cunningham: a bad match. Click image to expand.
Whitman and Cunningham: a bad match

Why in the world, then, would Cunningham turn to Whitman—arguably the most amorphous, sprawling, and inimitable of American writers—in his follow-up? Specimen Days is a critique of industrialization and a paean to the human essence that unites us all. But not far beneath the surface it’s also a post-9/11 novel—“the danger that had infected the air for the last few years was stirred up now; people could smell it”—in which all characters long for a “home” somewhere in the wilderness, safe from urban violence. The first section is a ghost story awkwardly constructed to show how a family has been destroyed by the demands of industrialization. In it, a Whitman-quoting deformed boy sacrifices himself to a machine to save a woman from dying in a factory fire. The second is a post-9/11 CSI-inspired fantasia, laboriously crafted to expose the deadening effect of office life. In it, a black tough-gal cop who “hadn’t pictured a life that would so closely resemble working for a corporation, dutifully performing her little piece of it all,” races to put a stop to a rash of Whitman-quoting child suicide bombers, who are so warped as not to be recognizably human. The third, set more than a century from now, is a Blade Runner-esque fantasy about “post-meltdown” America in which lawlessness reigns and the federal government has been destroyed. It follows a “humanoid” (yet another Whitman-quoter) who wants to escape the wilderness of “Old New York” to find his creator in the West. Setting out to write these set pieces, Cunningham surely thought Whitman would be a useful guide—and foil—for the thematic questions on his mind: Can life in a city be anything but dehumanizing? How do we find it within us to love those who want to hurt us—or, having been hurt, how do we love those who simply aren’t like us? What does it mean to be part of what Whitman called, in a passage Cunningham takes as his epigram, “a queer, queer race”?

But the primary problem with Specimen Days is that writer and muse are fundamentally mismatched. Whitman is an unwieldy writer of such strangeness that he makes Cunningham’s attempts to be imaginative—his genre-dabbling—look stilted and formulaic by comparison. The Whitmanian resonances here are ploddingly mechanical themselves. Where the three stories in The Hours were artfully intertwined, in Specimen Days they are served up like meat, vegetables, and potatoes segregated on a fussy eater’s plate. What were deft thematic resonances in The Hours are made all too obvious here. The effect is patronizing and dulling rather than delicate and clever.

The deeper problem is that unlike Whitman’s, Cunningham’s broader sociopolitical outlook is anything but radical. For Whitman to cry that “every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you”—a line Cunningham frequently reprises—was fairly radical. The Civil War was about to take place. Women didn’t have the vote. For the most part, homosexuality wasn’t an open topic. Today, such a sentiment is far less risky. Indeed, you might even say it’s a sentimental one—especially in light of the subterranean terrorist violence that haunts the book. Cunningham’s protagonists all want a home in beauty. They’re even willing to take terrorists into their homes, in one instance, believing that redemption is at least partly possible if only we free ourselves from the industrial automation that leads to closed minds. But if this brand of pessimistic wishfulness is to work, it requires, for ballast, the kind of energizing linguistic strangeness that was Whitman’s. Cunningham can only translate it poorly. Take this dutiful reprisal of the poet’s theme of interconnectivity: “He hoped rather to take his place on a chain of losses and gains, an ongoing mystery of payments made and payments received, money given from hand to hand, to satisfy some ancient debt that had always existed and might be finally repaid in some unforeseeable future.”

There is an obvious irony in the fact that Walt Whitman serves as the muse for what is finally a rather cautious, conservative novel. Whitman revised Leaves of Grass obsessively, until it became more network than poem; like kudzu it grew and grew, whereas Cunningham’s book feels as worked over and forced as a patio plot. The disjunction is partly intentional: Cunningham self-consciously invokes Whitman, the romantic bard of industrialization, as a foil for the novel’s own dark—and rather narrow—view of history. But this is a misguided choice. To ask Whitman to serve as tonic to our own sense of smallness, of our own historicity, is one thing when we are reading him privately. To ask Whitman to serve as the stimulating antidote to a novel of an anti-industrial bent seems somehow cheap.

Cheap and oddly counterproductive. The accumulation of Whitman-quoting misfits has an effect I doubt Cunningham intended—which is to seem to pathologize poetry. The only people for whom poetry truly matters in this novel are those who are spiritually deformed. They rely on it as a cripple might rely on a crutch; it gets them through the day by relieving them of their sense of alienation. (At least one person understands them, they think.) The implication is that poetry is both an expression of and a tonic to all that is ill in us—a kind of medicine that wakes us up to our own humanity. But surely poetry, and Whitman in particular, is sometimes just a pleasing pastime—something healthy people read for simple pleasure.

The Hours thoughtfully transposed Woolf’s preoccupations onto Cunningham’s—and ours—and in so doing enlarged our understanding of both. But Specimen Days onlyrecycles the most rote aspects of Whitman—”he celebrated everything”—and doesn’t add to our reading of him. In startling contrast to The Hours, here Cunningham has torn open a living, breathing piece of work—”I celebrate myself!” Whitman cried in Leaves of Grass—and pulled out a clockwork heart.

Correction, June 8: The original version of this article had Tóibin’s name misspelled. Return to the corrected sentence.