This Week in Literary History: Nov. 2-8

Recognizing the birthdays of Colson Whitehead and Michael Cunningham

Hello reader, here’s your latest This Week in Literary History. Your list of notable literary births and events for this week is below. Enjoy!


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Colson Whitehead’s Always Had Zombies On the Brain

It was another night in front of the TV. This time "20/20" was on, revealing its findings on defective escalators. Colson Whitehead had just read through a pile of detective novels, so his mind was inclined to play with the mysteries of an escalator inspector. Escalators became elevators, and one night in 1996 became nine months of Whitehead writing his first acclaimed novel, "The Intuitionist."

"I was an incredibly strange creature the year I wrote my first novel," Whitehead said in an interview for TIME magazine earlier this year. "The premise seemed completely sane to me, so why did other humans look at me as if I were wearing a rubber monster suit or a bloody hockey mask?"

The story involves rival elevator inspectors pursuing a 'perfect' elevator to deliver its passengers into the future. Whitehead used the mechanical nature of elevators to demonstrate how race and capitalism are interconnected.

Whitehead had previously taken on "a similarly ludicrous-sounding premise," but publishers at the time rejected his abstractness.

"Now here I was doing it again. Like an imbecile," Whitehead said. "But I had no choice. I kept working, and if that meant departing from the realm of normal people to enter the psychotronic, so be it."

After all, the realm of vengeful amphibians, sapphic vampires, and ill-considered head transplants felt familiar to him. In fifth grade, his older sister sparked his interest in horror fiction when she gave him Stephen King's Night Shift. By the sixth grade, he started reading Marvel Comics.

"My brother and I would go to the video store every Friday and rent five VHS movies like 'The Driller Killer,' 'Last House on the Left,' 'Invasion of the Crab Men,'" Whitehead told LitHub editor, John Freeman. They would then take out Oscar Mayer baloney from the fridge, roll it into cigarette-sized payloads, "and then we'd just watch these terrible horror movies."

One movie, in particular, stuck out. Whitehead started getting zombie nightmares after watching "Dawn of the Dead" in 1979.

"For decades, depending on what was going on in my life at the time, I was pursued by fast zombies or slow zombies," Whitehead said. "I was alone or with a group. I got away or didn't."

Zombies continued to override Whitehead's sleep until he crafted his first horror fiction novel, Zone One, in 2011. "I tried to capture this elemental terror, of the familiar turned homicidal," Whitehead said. "[Zombies] look the same, but now they want to destroy you, to consume you. And you have to keep running."

Growing up, Whitehead fixated on the idea of monsters as people who had stopped pretending. Yet after digesting enough psychotronic content, he concluded, "An artist is a monster that thinks it is human."

Whitehead made his literary name with intelligent, high-concept novels across a range of genres: noir (The Intuitionist), a zombie thriller (Zone One), a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age account (Sag Harbor), historical fiction (The Underground Railroad), and a psychological growth account, known as a bildungsroman (The Nickle Boys).

Both The Underground Railroad and The Nickle Boys received universal praise, winning a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. A limited TV series based on The Underground Railroad, and directed by Barry Jenkins, is set to premiere as a limited TV series on Amazon Video.

Colson Whitehead

  • Born on Nov. 6, 1969, in New York City.


Virginia Woolf Turned This Skateboarding Youth Into an Author

While it's doubtful that Virginia Woolf wrote books like Mrs Dalloway as an inspiration for teenage boys living in California in the 1960s, she somehow managed to do just that to a young Michael Cunningham.

Cunningham was born in Cincinnati in 1952 but spent his childhood in La Canada, Calif. It was as a fifteen-year-old that Cunningham first picked up Woolf's timeless novel, at the behest of a girl he was trying to impress, and with that, his life changed forever.

“I hoped, for strictly amorous purposes, to appear more literate than I was,” Cunningham, who is gay, wrote in an essay for The Guardian.

Woolf's work was so impactful to the young Cunningham that it effectively made a writer out of him, a boy who did not have much interest in writing or reading at that age.

"I wasn't bookish at all growing up, more skateboard than literary," Cunningham said. However, there was something about Woolf's writing that affected him.

"I thought, wow, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar,” Cunningham wrote in his Guardian essay. “By which I meant she walked a line between chaos and order, she riffed, and just when it seemed that a sentence was veering off into randomness, she brought it back and united it with the melody."

With his breakthrough novel The Hours, published in 1998, Cunningham dove into his relationship with Mrs Dalloway. Cunningham's story focuses on three women of three different generations who are all affected by their relationships with, you guessed it, Mrs Dalloway. One of the women is Virginia Woolf herself.

The Hours, the title a reference to Woolf's working title for Mrs Dalloway, acts both as a recasting and modernization of Woolf's classic novel. It managed to turn many heads in the literary world and netted Cunningham a Pulitzer Prize in 1999. A successful film adaptation of the book came out in 2002.

Adapting an existing book is difficult territory, especially when it's one as revered as Mrs Dalloway. Cunningham noted that he started the task with a form of cautious reverence.

"I approached the idea with appropriate nervousness," Cunningham wrote. "For one thing, if one stands that close to a genius, one is likely to look even tinier than one actually is."

The result was one that captured many modern readers' hearts, much like how Mrs Dalloway enraptured a teenage Cunning. Today, many regard The Hours as a modern classic.

Cunningham's intergenerational working relationship with Woolf seems almost completely improbable, and more than a little comical, when viewed for its bare facts: an otherwise artistically-disinclined Californian youth finding his spiritual kinswoman in the pages of a 1920's novel. And yet it is, if anything, a testament to the power of Woolf's work, to which we should also be thankful for, at the very least, convincing Michael Cunningham to follow in her footsteps.

Michael Cunningham is still working today, putting out novels and short stories. His most recent book is The Snow Queen, published in 2014. Cunningham currently teaches at Yale University, where he is a senior lecturer in creative writing.

Michael Cunningham

  • Born on Nov. 6, 1952, in Cincinnati, Ohio.


Sources

Significant effort goes into ensuring the information shared in Bidwell Hollow’s content is factual and accurate. However, errors can occur. If you see a factual error, please let me know by emailing nick@bidwellhollow.com. I’ll make every effort to verify and correct any factual inaccuracies. Thank you.

Colson Whitehead

Michael Cunningham


Notable Literary Births & Events for Nov. 2-8

Nov. 2

  • Dale Brown

  • Jonas Gardell

  • Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly

  • Lois McMaster Bujold

  • Moa Martinson

  • Odysseas Elytis

  • Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

  • Thomas Mallon

Nov. 3

  • André Malraux

  • Ann Scott

  • Charles Martin

  • Harry Stephen Keeler

  • Martin Cruz Smith

  • William Cullen Bryant

Nov. 4

  • C. K. Williams

  • Charles Frazier

  • Hannah Weiner

  • Kristin Cast

  • Kyōka Izumi

  • Lyndall Gordon

  • Matthew Tobin Anderson

  • Sterling North

Nov. 5

  • Ella Wheeler Wilcox

  • Ida Tarbell

  • James Elroy Flecker

  • John Berger

  • Joyce Maynard

  • Philippe de Mornay

  • Sam Shepard

Nov. 6

  • Chris van Abkoude

  • Colson Whitehead

  • Louis Racine

  • Marco Vassi

  • Michael Cunningham

  • Robert Musil

Nov. 7

  • Albert Camus

  • Antonio Skármeta

  • Armstrong Sperry

  • Guy Gavriel Kay

  • Margaret Leech

  • Mary Daheim

  • William Wharton

  • Yuyi Morales

Nov. 8

  • Ben Bova

  • Bram Stoker

  • Danielle Valore Evans

  • Jeffrey Ford

  • Joshua Ferris

  • Kazuo Ishiguro

  • Ken Lamberton

  • Kevin Young

  • Margaret Mitchell

  • Martha Gellhorn

  • Sarah Fielding