M. Allen Cunningham was born on the marshy shores of California’s Monterey Bay, in the small town of Watsonville where his family had lived for five generations. Here at the continent’s edge amid redwoods, Spanish and Mexican adobe, and fields of artichoke and strawberry, he would often wake to discover that thick coastal fog had dematerialized the next-door neighbor’s house overnight. For Cunningham it was fertile imaginative ground, and from early on his mother fed his love of reading and writing through daily trips to the local library.
Involvement in amateur theater productions during high school and college led to plans for pursuing a professional acting career, until a semester in England — and pilgrimages to the homes of Keats, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare — changed Cunningham’s path, and he left college to commit himself wholeheartedly to the disciplines of a writer’s life. At age nineteen, on the strength of a few months’ savings, he moved to Massachusetts to reside in a 120-square-foot apartment and spend his days reading voraciously, teaching himself to write, and wandering Walden Woods with the ghost of Thoreau.
Later returning to California, Cunningham worked odd jobs, haunted Muir Woods, and explored the vast and rugged East Bay Regional Parks while continuing his self-education as a reader and writer. One regional park inspired an idea for a book, and after four years of writing, his debut novel The Green Age of Asher Witherow appeared as the inaugural title for the new independent publisher Unbridled Books. Set in a nineteenth-century coal-mining town in the foothills of Northern California’s Mount Diablo, The Green Age was selected by the American Booksellers Association as a #1 Indie Next Pick, was named a Best Book of the West by the Salt Lake Tribune and a USA Today Novel to Watch, was widely acclaimed in reviews, and was a Finalist for the Indie Next Book of the Year Award in a shortlist that included books by Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, and Joyce Carol Oates. Cunningham was twenty-six years old. Three years later he published Lost Son, a large experimental novel about the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Lost Son spans western Europe over a 42-year period and depicts Rilke’s relationships with key artistic and intellectual figures of the time, such as Auguste Rodin, Lou Andreas-Salomé, and the expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. About Lost Son, one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished literary critics, Ihab Hassan, said, “[you] feel the magic of Rilke reach out from every page” and called the book “a subtle and signal imaginative achievement.” Lost Son was named among the best books of the year by The Oregonian and was added to the official Rilke bibliography by a consortium of European scholars.
Cunningham has subsequently published seven other books, including the experimental samizdat novel Partisans, a dystopian tale about unbridled surveillance, constant war, and maddening technological upheaval, which was a Finalist for the Flann O’Brien Award for Innovative Fiction. The legendary John Berger praised Partisans by saying, “It gave me energy. We join forces.” Cunningham’s fourth novel Perpetua’s Kin appeared in 2018. A historical mystery, reworking of Hamlet, and multi-generational tale set across much of North America over more than a century, Perpetua’s Kin explores the residual effects of war, patterns of modern communication, and the American obsession with westward movement. Cunningham’s nonfiction books include an existential guide to the creative life entitled The Honorable Obscurity Handbook, which Cynthia Ozick lauded as “ingenious, variegated, touching, important, wholly absorbing, inspiring, and inspiriting,” and The Flickering Page, an illustrated work of timely cultural commentary about the mass shift from print to electronic reading. He also edited and wrote an introduction for Funny-Ass Thoreau, the first compendium of humor by Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden.
Cunningham's formally inventive 2021 novel Q&A is inspired by the American quiz show scandals of the 1950s, whose enduring cultural impact he views as widely misunderstood. Revolving around those real events, Q&A evokes our agitated, media-soaked half century, a revolutionary period that took us from the reflective slowness of the printed page to the triumphal incoherence of video spectacle, from public discourse to social dissolution, and from ideas to memes. At its heart the book is an exploration of a problem first signaled by those all-but-forgotten scandals and which confronts us today with a universal urgency: how to be real in a world of screen-induced self-deception, a world in which we're constantly assured that rewards come to those who fake.
Cunningham’s shorter work has appeared in many publications over the years, including The Kenyon Review, Tin House, Glimmer Train, Catamaran, and Poets & Writers. He has received several grants and fellowships, as well as residencies at the Yaddo Colony. As the founder of the independent publishing house Atelier26 Books, Cunningham has edited and published works honored by the PEN/Hemingway Award, the PEN/Bingham Prize, and the Balcones Fiction Prize. Late in his second decade of writing and publishing he completed an MFA and began working regularly as a teacher, after more than a decade of teaching in many informal capacities.
Cunningham has taught advanced creative writing courses for accelerated young scholars at UC Berkeley, lectured at several institutions including Oregon State University, Cal State University East Bay, and Cedar Crest College, and spoken at numerous libraries and conferences. He works part-time as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Portland State University, where he teaches one course per academic year in addition to leading the summer creative writing intensive in Vienna (a program he designed). He is also a part-time associated faculty member at Clackamas Community College, where he teaches writing and film courses for young students.
Cunningham is the creator of three occasional podcasts: