Remembering James Alan McPherson (September 16, 1943 – July 27, 2016)

In “On Becoming an American Writer,” James Alan McPherson once wrote, “I believe that if one can experience diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize all this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have earned the right to call oneself ‘citizen of the United States.'”

This quote exemplifies the work of James McPherson. While McPherson’s characters are frequently specific to the black American experience, he set himself apart by refusing to separate race from the universally human. He is best known for his portrayal of working class characters. “Certain of these people happen to be black, and certain of them happen to be white; but I have tried to keep the color part of most of them far in the background, where these things should rightly be kept,” McPherson once said of his work.

As a writer who greatly admired the example of Ralph Ellison and his other mentor, Albert Murray, McPherson was conscious of the need to exploit the complexity of African American culture. McPherson saw black culture as integrally connected with white culture, all a part of the American tradition.

A mentee of McPherson, Suketu Mehta said that McPherson’s work belonged to the “humanist tradition of American letters: an anger at the economic and racial injustices of the country, coupled with a constant appreciation for the way community forms out of unlikely alliances, such as between poor Southern blacks and Southern whites.”

In the New York Times book review, Robie Macauley  praised McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories Elbow Room for its “fine control of language and story, a depth in his characters, humane values.” Mr. Macauley wrote that McPherson “established his viewpoint as a writer and a black man, but not as a black writer…He was able to look beneath skin color and clichés of attitude into the hearts of his characters…a fairly rare ability in American fiction where even the most telling kind of perception seldom seems able to pass an invisible color line.”

In the introduction to Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, edited by S. Lemke, Houston Baker argued that the “most pressing endeavor for scholars of Afro-American literature for the 1980s is the articulation of an adequate theory of Afro-American Literature” (Baker, “Introduction” 13). The most appropriate model, Baker argued, is a vernacular model based on the blues. In James Alan McPherson’s Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture, Baker suggests that McPherson’s “train people” is also the world of blues musicians, and Baker praises McPherson for setting a model for future studies of American culture. In Railroad, Baker writes, McPherson highlights “the value of a blues matrix for cultural analysis in the United States (12).

McPherson’s non-fiction has also received much acclaim and its cultural significance is paramount. In a December 15, 1997 interview with Publisher’s Weekly, interviewer Calvin Reid stated that McPherson’s non-fiction book Crabcakes “‘tap dances on the synapses,’ presenting a procession of seemingly isolated social interactions separated by time and space and finding subtle psychic connections among them. In Crabcakes, McPherson examines the dehumanizing, prosaic regularity (and postmodern reinvigoration) of American racism; Western versus Eastern spiritual values and a disabling ‘standardization’ of the language used to describe the most terrible events of our time. He creates a theater of memory, revisiting Baltimore, in 1976 and subsequent years, to examine his past acts. He recalls visits to old neighborhoods and to Baltimore’s old Lexington Market, the place to get the best Maryland crabcakes. ‘What runs through the book is a sense of deep moments,’ says McPherson, ‘A sense of time that is circular. That what goes around comes around.'”

James Alan McPherson was born in Savannah, Georgia on September 16, 1943. McPherson worked as a dining car waiter on the Great Northern Railroad throughout his college years. This experience would influence one of his first published stories, “On Trains,” about a white woman’s treatment of black porters and waiters on a train.

After graduating from Morris Brown College in 1965, McPherson entered Harvard Law School, working as a janitor to pay his expenses. While a law student, McPherson submitted a short story called “Gold Coast” to The Atlantic for a writing contest. The story, included in his first collection of short stories Hue and Cry (1969), was about a young aspiring writer working as a janitor and his older white supervisor.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, he decided against a career in law and instead entered the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa where he earned an MFA and eventually became a professor. McPherson had been a professor and member of the writers’ workshop since 1981 where he gained status of professor emeritus.

His next anthology Elbow Room (1978) won McPherson the Pulitzer Prize, and he became the first African American to win a Pulitzer for fiction (Alex Haley was awarded a special Pulitzer for Roots in 1977). McPherson’s non-fiction work includes Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture (1976), and he has written personal essays such as Crabcakes (1988) and A Region Not Home (2000) that explore his own life and identity.

Other notable awards include receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1972, being named a MacArthur Fellow in 1981, and an induction into the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences in 1995.

McPherson passed away on July 27, 2016 at the age of 72.