New Yorker writer Vinson Cunningham looks for what binds us as Americans

At a time when so much seems to divide Americans, New Yorker staff writer Vinson Cunningham looks for the forces bringing people together, but as a cultural critic, he said, he wants people to disagree with him.

The lamest thing you can hear, especially as a critic, is ‘Yeah, you hit it right on the head,’” Cunningham explained at a Nov. 9 Pierson College Tea. Cunningham answered questions from students and Pierson Head of College Stephen Davis, sitting before a packed room of over 50 people. In a wide-reaching conversation about cultural criticism, Cunningham shared his vision of finding a common thread to bring people together. The talk was sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

In the past, Cunningham said, there were shared texts — most notably, the Bible — that helped people understand each other. “There was a playing field on which they carried out their occasional skirmishes,” he explained.

Photo of Vinson Cunningham
Vinson Cunningham

In his work, Cunningham said, he looks beyond text to see what binds us. He also ponders art and images. His most recent piece published in The New Yorker is an essay about “the politics of looking at Barack Obama.” The photographs he examined, now compiled in a book by the Obama White House’s chief photographer, may not be considered art, said Cunningham, but he aimed to give them a value and a meaning that can be grasped by many.

For Cunningham, sports offer a rare glimpse into the communal American psyche. Not everyone likes sports or even knows something about them, he noted, but “You can show them this, and they wonder: How can a human being do that? There’s a shared sense of awe. It’s also easy to see what’s at stake.”

In a recent article, Cunningham discussed how an injury brought together NBA stars Lebron James and Kyrie Irving. “No matter who you are in the NBA, if you break your leg and you can’t play again — everyone knows what that means. It’s over,” Cunningham said, adding that understanding creates a “shared narrative of woe.” Cunningham said he thinks America “is very good at masking those common stakes,” by using markers of identity — race, class, gender — to make people think they lack a shared destiny with their fellow Americans.

A student in the audience asked Cunningham about his favorite authors. Cunningham named poet and novelist Jean Toomer and said he was thrilled to visit Toomer’s papers in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library before his talk. “I think he understood better than most writers how made up America is,” Cunningham explained.

Cunningham also discussed his time as a staff writer at The New Yorker, a position he’s held for a year now. “It’s not like any other job I’ve ever had,” he said. He was surprised to find that most staff writers spend very little time at the office. “Some writers of certain tenure have offices there which exist as repositories for books and piles of mail,” he said, adding that he usually only goes to the office when he’s about to publish a piece. He said working with the fact checkers and copy editors is “one of the joys when closing a piece.”

Near the end of his talk, he described his experience engaging with unpopular opinions. It’s exciting, Cunningham said, “to say something that you’re not even sure if you agree with.” It’s not up to him to think about how it will be received by the public, he noted. “My job is to pretend that my opinion, for now, is the only one that matters.” The rest, he said, is up to his editor.

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