Specimen Days, In Review
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.