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McPherson, James Alan

James Alan McPherson

1943—

Educator, writer, editor

Although the short stories of writer and educator James Alan McPherson often concern African-American characters, the stories transcend racial barriers to confront the universal human problems of ordinary, working-class people. The son of a master electrician and a domestic servant, McPherson was born on September 16, 1943, in the historic port city of Savannah, Georgia, where he attended segregated public schools. As a teenager, he worked as a waiter on passenger trains, an almost exclusively African-American profession that figures prominently in much of his work. The well-known short story "A Solo Song: For Doc" (from his first collection, 1969's Hue and Cry), for example, is a character study of two railroad waiters of different generations. McPherson continued to work on the trains of the Great Northern Railroad while attending Morris Brown College, a private, predominately African-American institution in Georgia. In a 1997 interview with Calvin Reid in Publishers Weekly, McPherson remembered Morris Brown College with gratitude and affection. "People are surprised that I advanced as far as I have coming from a small private black college," he told Reid. "But I got my start there. I had some teachers who loved literature and they passed that on to me."

After receiving his bachelor's degree from Morris Brown in 1965, McPherson attended Harvard Law School, working as a janitor to support himself. Even while immersed in his law courses, however, he found himself drawn increasingly to writing. In 1968, the same year he received his law degree, he submitted his first manuscript to the Atlantic Monthly, a venerable magazine based, like Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ed Weeks, the magazine's editor at the time, accepted the submission, a short story titled "Gold Coast," and helped arrange for the publication of McPherson's first book, the short-story collection Hue and Cry, which appeared the following year. The Atlantic Monthly has continued to play a major role in McPherson's career; he has been a contributing editor there since 1969, and the magazine has been the first publisher of many of the short stories and essays he has written since.

Critics reacted enthusiastically to Hue and Cry's stories, most of which are precisely rendered character studies of African-American workers. Ralph Ellison, for example, whose own character studies of African Americans made him one of the nation's most respected writers, provided a jacket blurb for Hue and Cry in which he called McPherson "a writer of insight, sympathy, and humor and one of the most gifted young Americans I've had the privilege to read." Hue and Cry also prompted the first of McPherson's many awards, a 1970 Academy Award for literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (now known as the American Academy of Arts and Letters). Around the time of the book's publication, McPherson left Massachusetts to study at the University of Iowa's acclaimed Writers' Workshop, the country's oldest and arguably most distinguished creative writing program, which granted him a master's degree in fine arts in 1969. It was also in this period that he began teaching. After serving as an instructor at Iowa (from 1968 to 1969), he moved to the University of California-Santa Cruz, where he lectured in English from 1969 to 1976, taking a leave of absence in his final year to serve as an assistant professor of English at Baltimore's Morgan State University. From Baltimore, McPherson moved to the University of Virginia, where he held the rank of associate professor from 1976 to 1981. Since 1981 he has been a permanent faculty member of the Writers' Workshop at Iowa, where he holds the rank of full professor.

Helped by a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation from 1972 to 1973, McPherson spent much of the first half of the 1970s working on a new collection of stories, which appeared under the title of Elbow Room in 1977. Like Hue and Cry, Elbow Room is a series of detailed character studies. Unlike the dependable workers featured in the earlier volume, however, Elbow Room's characters, both white and African American, exist on the margins of society. One story, "Elbow Room," for example, features a white draft resister, while another, "The Story of a Dead Man," is a study of an African-American man immersed in violence. Elbow Room received the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, an award that solidified McPherson's growing reputation as a major new talent. Three years later he would receive yet another prize, one of the so-called genius grants awarded annually by the MacArthur Foundation "to talented individuals," in the words of its Web site, "who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction."

Despite this growing recognition, however, the late 1970s and 1980s were a difficult period for McPherson, as he himself has frequently acknowledged. His marriage in 1973 produced a daughter but ended in divorce, and he had increasing trouble with depression and writer's block. Though he continued to teach and to publish individual essays, he would not publish another book for more than twenty years. The volume that broke that silence, 1998's Crabcakes, was therefore a personal triumph; it was also a commercial and critical success. An impressionistic, often fragmentary memoir, Crabcakes, in the words of Lorenzo Thomas in the Houston Chronicle, "re-creates the chaotic quality of memory. The taste of Maryland crabcakes, an old friend's special chair, the timbre of an impatient clerk's or customer's voice all assume symbolic overtones." Thomas concluded that the book was "an unusual—and engaging—virtuoso performance."

McPherson's literary output has increased somewhat since the publication of Crabcakes. An essay collection titled A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile appeared in 1999. Less fragmentary than Crabcakes, A Region Not Home combines the autobiographical focus of the earlier volume with ruminations on suicide, homelessness, and other social problems. Mary Carroll in Booklist noted that this approach yielded "flashes of unexpected insight." Other publications by McPherson include several volumes he edited or coedited, notably two issues in 1985 and 1990 of Ploughshares, an influential literary journal, and an essay collection titled Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men in 1998, with DeWitt Henry. While he is generally reticent about work in progress, McPherson has expressed interest in writing what he described to Reid in Publishers Weekly as "an experimental novel."

At a Glance …

Born on September 16, 1943, in Savannah, GA; son of James Allen McPherson (a master electrician) and Mable Smalls McPherson (a domestic servant); married in 1973 (divorced); children: Rachel Alice. Education: Morris Brown College, BA, 1965; Harvard Law School, LLB, 1968; University of Iowa, MFA, 1969.

Career: Worked as a waiter on passenger trains, 1960s; University of Iowa, instructor, 1968-69, professor of English, 1981—; University of California-Santa Cruz, lecturer in English, 1969-76; Atlantic Monthly, contributing editor, 1969—; Morgan State University, assistant professor of English, 1975-76; University of Virginia, associate professor of English, 1976-81; Ploughshares, guest editor, 1985 and 1990.

Awards: Academy Award for literature, National Institute of Arts and Letters (now the American Academy of Arts and Letters), 1970, for Hue and Cry; fellowship, Guggenheim Foundation, 1972-73; Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1978, for Elbow Room; fellowship ("genius grant"), MacArthur Foundation, 1981; inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1995.

Addresses: Office—c/o Graduate Program in Creative Writing, University of Iowa, 102 Dey House, Iowa City, IA 52242-1408.

Selected writings

Short-story collections

Hue and Cry (includes "A Solo Song: For Doc"), Little, Brown, 1969.

Elbow Room (includes "Elbow Room" and "The Story of a Dead Man"), Little, Brown, 1977.

Edited works

(With Miller Williams) Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture, Random House, 1976.

(With DeWitt Henry) Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men, Beacon Press, 1998.

Essay collections

Crabcakes, Simon and Schuster, 1998.

A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile, Simon and Schuster, 1999.

Sources

Periodicals

Booklist, February 15, 2000.

Houston Chronicle, March 29, 1998.

Publishers Weekly, December 15, 1997.

Online

"James Alan McPherson: Contributor Profile," Atlantic Online, 1996, http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/mcpherso/jambio.htm (accessed July 23, 2008).

"The Kelly Writers House Fellows Program: James Alan McPherson," University of Pennsylvania, April 19-20, 2004, http://writing.upenn.edu/~whfellow/mcpherson.html (accessed July 23, 2008).

—R. Anthony Kugler

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