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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


An acclaimed Oklahoma writer of the 1930s, William Cunningham had a diverse career. After his birth near Okeene, Oklahoma, his family moved close to Watonga, and he graduated from Watonga High School in 1919. In 1925 Cunningham earned a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and then received a teaching fellowship in the English department. It would be safe to assume he worked several jobs while attending college, as later he wrote a Haldeman-Julius pamphlet entitled "How to Work Your Way Through College." A year after graduating he married Clarice Ellsworth.

William and his sister, Agnes "Sis" Cunningham, took the leftist road of their father, a staunch supporter of Eugene V. Debs and the Socialist Party in the early nineteenth century. Cunningham worked as a newspaperman, on the staff of Haldeman-Julius publications, and taught high school at Drumright and Hitchcock. He also taught for more than five years at Commonwealth College, a leftist, pro-labor school at Mena, Arkansas.

Early in his career Cunningham wrote many detective stories and sold them to "pulp" magazines. In 1935 Vanguard Press published his first book, The Green Corn Rebellion, a rare southwestern proletarian novel set in Pottawatomie County. The work fictionalizes the protest of Oklahoma farmers against America's involvement in World War I in 1917. Many of his poems were incorporated into books, magazines, and anthologies. Vanguard also released his second book, Pretty Boy, a fictional work based on the life of "Pretty Boy" Floyd, one of Oklahoma's legendary lawbreakers who gained a Robin Hood–like status among the populace. Cunningham wrote stories for American Mercury, Collier's, and other journals of the day. In 1934 the Cunninghams filed for divorce, and he later married Sara Brown.

In 1935 the Works Progress Administration appointed Cunningham the state director of Oklahoma's Federal Writers' Project. He held that position for two and one-half years. Because of his leftist leanings and difficulties with following procedure, he had problems with his staff as well as with the state's political climate. Nonetheless, his administration enabled completion of most of the research for the WPA Guide to Oklahoma and other Oklahoma investigations such as the compilation of a dictionary of the Comanche language, a study of cooperatives, a survey of community sales, a study of early Indian missions, a collection of interviews of former slaves, and a compilation of musicians' biographies. Only after he left office did the Writers' Project publish any of this work. Jim Thompson succeeded him as project director.

Leaving his native state in 1938, Cunningham took a job in Washington, D.C., with the central office of Federal Writers' Project. He later moved to New York City and worked for TASS, the Soviet news agency, from 1940 until 1948. He published two more books before his death on February 20, 1967: Danny, co-authored with his wife Sara, and The Real Story of Daniel Boone.

Larry O'Dell

Learn More

Agnes Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, Red Dust and Broadsides: A Joint Autobiography (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).

Mary Hays Marable and Elaine Boylan, A Handbook of Oklahoma Writers (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939).

Larry O'Dell, "William Meredith Cunningham: An Oklahoma Proletarian Novelist," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 86 (Fall 2008).

Mary Ann Slater, "The Controversial Birth of the Oklahoma Writers' Project," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 68 (Spring 1990).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Larry O'Dell, “Cunningham, William Meredith,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=CU004.

Published January 15, 2010

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