James Alan McPherson
James Alan McPherson's story "Elbow Room" explores race relations in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, soon after collapse of the rigid social standards that had been in place since the end of the Civil War, a century earlier. At the center of the story is a young couple: Virginia, a black woman whose travels across the world have opened her eyes to the ways in which American culture can be narrow-minded, and Paul, a white man who has opted out of the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector and is on his own personal search for truth. When they fall in love and marry, a friend of theirs, the story's narrator, predicts that they will find the challenges of being an interracial couple to be more than their youthful idealism has led them to expect. The biggest test comes from Paul's father, who rejects Virginia and the whole idea of the marriage, leading Paul to face life as an outsider. Throughout the telling of the story, McPherson weaves dialogues between the narrator and his editor. The editor, a cold and mechanical voice, insists that the story ought to contain a traditional narrative form and elements, but the narrator explains that the subject of race in the United States is too complex to be approached directly.
This story is a part of a short story collection also called Elbow Room, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1979.
James Alan McPherson was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943, and raised there. His background was lower-middle class, and he grew up at a time when Georgia's public schools were still segregated. He enrolled in Morgan State University in 1963 and earned his bachelor's degree from Morris Brown College in 1965. During the summers of his college years, he was a waiter in the dining cars of the Great Northern Railroad, an experience that allowed him to see what the world was like beyond the segregated South, influencing his sense of social justice and providing the breadth of experience from which he has drawn to craft his fiction.
After college, McPherson attended Harvard Law School, receiving his law degree in 1968. While still in law school, he began writing fiction. His story "Gold Coast" won a contest in the Atlantic magazine, which gave him encouragement to abandon his law career. McPherson's first short story collection, Hue and Cry, was published in 1969 by the Atlantic. He taught at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the 1969–1970 year while enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he received a master of fine arts degree from the famed Writers' Workshop program in 1971.
After 1969, McPherson worked as a contributing editor of the Atlantic. His collection Elbow Room, which contains this story, was published to critical acclaim in 1977 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year. McPherson has been on the fiction writing faculty of the Iowa Writers Workshop since 1981 and has been a Behavioral Studies fellow at the University of California, Stanford, since 1997. In 1981 he won a MacArthur Foundation grant. He has contributed essays to numerous magazines throughout the years. In 1998 he published Crabcakes: A Memoir, his first book-length publication in over twenty years. His essays are collected in A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile, which was published in 2000.
The brief, italicized section that precedes Section 1 is narrated by an unnamed editor, describing the author of the story that is to follow as "unmanageable." He or she talks about taking measures to make the author clarify what is said in the story. The editor wants to make the relationship between the reader and the writer more direct, describing this push toward clarity as a moral issue. The assumption here is that the narrator/writer in the story is one and the same with McPherson himself; certainly the two have similar characteristics. However, other readers may see the narrator/writer in the story as a character separate from and created by the author James Alan McPherson.
The first section of the story describes the background of Paul Frost, referring to the time period of the story, presumably the 1960s, as "back during that time," as if it is telling a legend or fairy tale. Frost comes from a small town in Kansas. He went to college in Chicago, where he determined to stay out of the Vietnam War. Eventually, he was forced to go before the draft board back home, where he refused to participate in the army and was given alternative service as a conscientious objector. He was assigned to work in a mental hospital in Chicago. There, he observed the patients and decided that they did not seem any less sane than he did, which made him worry about his own sanity. After a year, he transferred to a hospital in Oakland, California.
Section 1 ends with the note that while in California Paul met and married Virginia Valentine, a black woman from Tennessee, in what McPherson refers to as "his last act as a madman."
Section 2 gives the background of Virginia Valentine. Born and raised in a country town outside Knoxville, Tennessee, Virginia realized, in the early 1960s, a degree of freedom that American blacks had not known before. She traveled the world, first as a member of the Peace Corps and then independently. The story mentions her exploits as she drifted through India, Kenya, Egypt, and Israel. Returning to the United States at age twenty-two, she continued to travel through the North. She made friends, finding many people like her, but after a while racial divisions made it difficult for people in her social crowd to really understand each other. At the end of this section, she moves to California to find "some soft, personal space to cushion the impact of her grounding."
The third section of this story begins with an introduction of the narrator, a writer. The narrator feels that he has heard all of the stories in the East, where stories are not being taken seriously any more, and so he has moved to California, where he meets Virginia and, through her, Paul. After a few pages of his explaining about himself, the editor from the story's prologue interrupts, questioning why this information about the narrator's background and motives should be included, and the narrator defends his decisions.
The story continues with Virginia and Paul's decision to be married. The narrator, who knows Virginia well, feels that she might be rushing into a situation, an interracial marriage that she does not fully understand. At the same time, though, he knows that she has a sensitive, nurturing side that she hides from the outside world, and he thinks she needs someone like Paul to care for. Paul's parents from Kansas oppose the wedding, and they do not attend. Virginia's parents, from Tennessee, attend, even though their real wish is that she would have come back home. At the wedding, her father, Mr. Daniel Valentine, talks with the narrator, stating his objections but admitting begrudgingly that Paul and Virginia make a good couple.
As Paul and Virginia settle into their life together, his father presses him to forsake his marriage, offering to support him if he were to divorce. They have the narrator over to dinner, and he tries to explain how Paul's father might feel by pointing out the different attitudes that people living in different regions of the country have about certain subjects, indicating that the attitudes that his family has about racial issues might surface in Paul. He asks Paul to think about a traditional African mask that is hanging in the dining room, having him consider how he could make people realize that it is not just interesting, but actually beautiful. When he realizes that the narrator is making a veiled reference to his marriage, Paul becomes infuriated and tells him to leave.
Soon after, Virginia phones the narrator and invites him to attend New Year's Eve mass with her and Paul. At the mass, Virginia wears a man's hat, the same hat that she has always worn—in the Episcopal church, men are not allowed to wear hats but women are. An old man in the row behind her, assuming she is a man, tells her to remove it, but she just ignores him. Paul, however, turns around and raises his voice in anger at the man.
- McPherson can be heard reading his own story "Gold Coast" on The Best American Short Stories of the Century, a compact disc collection released by Houghton Mifflin in 1999.
- McPherson talked about the frustrations and pleasures of writing on a segment of Public Broadcasting System's program Writers' Workshop. Filmed in 1980, it is available as of 2005 on videotape from PBS Video.
In the coming months, Paul experiences being called "nigger" while walking with his wife. He asks the narrator to explain what this word means to him and is told it is "an expression of the highest form of freedom." Virginia becomes pregnant, and her memories of her exotic travels begin to fade as she focuses more on her family. Paul realizes his own loneliness and begins reading philosophical and religious texts, in a search for understanding selfhood.
Paul's parents make gestures of friendliness. His father mentions that he supported the hiring of a black employee where he works, which Paul recognizes as a very slight way of bending toward acceptance. Thinking it over, his father tells Paul that Virginia will be welcomed in their house, but this time Virginia finds the gesture too weak. She explains to the narrator that being accepted under such circumstances would make her baby an "honorary white." They discuss how the world pushes one to be either white or black, and she reminisces about a time when she was able to travel comfortably in both worlds.
Paul and the narrator meet and walk through the city, discussing various matters of identity. Again, Paul asks the narrator about the meaning of "nigger." The narrator points out different types of people, but when he asks about the attitude Paul or his father would have about a well-dressed black man Paul bristles: he thinks that, by associating him with his father, the narrator is calling him a racist. He finishes his walk brusquely, turning before going into his house to defend himself once more as someone who has fought for racial justice.
The narrator never sees them again. He moves back east and receives a birth announcement sent from Kansas, with pictures of their child and with Paul's father, who seems, from his stiff posture, to have grudgingly accepted his daughter-in-law and grandchild. Virginia has written on the back of one picture, "He will be a classic kind of nigger."
The editor asks the narrator to explain Virginia's statement, but he cannot. He expresses his faith in the child's future, given the parents' personalities, noting that he found out that they left Kansas soon after to live in isolation in the backwoods of Tennessee.
In this story, an anonymous editor, who speaks in a first-person, officious voice, interjects every once in a while. The voice is only formal, with no sense of personality: it is never clear whether this character is old or young, male or female. In the opening segment, the editor seems to be concerned that the narrator is trying to get out of performing his moral responsibility as a writer. The editor carries on a dialogue with the narrator, attempting to convince the narrator to steer the story down a more traditional, narrative path. For every objection that the editor raises, the narrator has a counter-argument, which expresses why he feels that the story must be presented in the way that he has written it. The story ends with the editor still calling out for further explanation, showing that this story consciously does not meet standard editorial criteria for directness.
Paul is an earnest young white man. During the Vietnam War, he refuses to join the army, and the Selective Service board in his Kansas home town gives him alternative duty to serve in a mental hospital in Chicago. Over the course of a year, he keeps to himself, and as he associates with mental patients doubts creep into his mind about his own sanity. He transfers to a hospital in Oakland, where he meets and marries Virginia Valentine, who is black.
Paul's greatest struggle in this story is with his parents, who disapprove of his relationship with Virginia. His father is so opposed to their relationship that he offers to support Paul financially if he would break off his marriage, and neither Paul's mother nor his father attends Paul's wedding. Their opposition makes Paul angry at intolerance, which makes him defensive: while the black characters in the story, the narrator and Virginia, take a philosophical view of small-minded people, Paul turns angry. This is particularly evident when it is he, not Virginia, who shouts at a man in church who sees Virginia from behind and thinks that she is a man who has neglected to take his hat off: Virginia ignores him when he says, "Young man, if you're too dumb to take your hat off in church, get out!" but Paul turns on him in full fury.
The narrator respects Paul for his eagerness to learn, but he also sees that Paul will never fully understand the social problems that concern Virginia. The narrator worries that the views of Paul's father and the society in which he grew up will have the most influence on Paul, but Paul does stay with Virginia through the end of the story.
Though he never gives his name in this story, the narrator is central to all of the action. He is a friend of Paul and Virginia Frost, interacting with them at several social functions over the course of years. He also acknowledges himself as the author of this short story, interacting with his editor in asides, explaining why he chose to include some particular details and why he decided to develop the story as he has. He is defensive of his method, believing that the story must be told the way he tells it even if it does not seem to follow a traditional narrative pattern.
The narrator, a black man of undetermined age, is interested in telling the stories of the times around him. When he feels that the stories he is hearing in the East are too familiar and that he is missing a fresh perspective on them, he goes to California. It is there that he becomes acquainted with Virginia and Paul. He becomes closer to Virginia, feeling that he understands her well, possibly even better than she understands herself. His relationship with Paul is uneven: they are friends, but the narrator sometimes says things that make Paul feel that he is being accused of racism.
The conversations between the narrator and his editor are formal, as if he is responding to the notes that the editor has written on a printed copy of his story. In these dialogues, the editor repeatedly calls for the story to follow a more orderly progression, accusing the narrator of wandering into irrelevancy. In defense, the narrator explains that the story he is telling and especially the racial implications of it are so complex and nuanced that it is at times necessary to approach the facts indirectly and to include details that might not seem relevant at first glance.
Mr. Daniel Valentine
The narrator meets Virginia Valentine's father at the wedding of Virginia and Paul. Daniel Valentine is disappointed that his daughter is marrying a white man because he had always assumed that racial separation was one of the few undeniable circumstances of the world. He accepts the marriage, though, and he and his wife show up at the wedding in San Francisco bearing gifts. After the ceremony, Mr. Valentine hands out congratulatory cigars to those in attendance. He explains to the narrator that he has no particular dislike for Paul but that he has threatened him if he ever makes Virginia unhappy.
The narrator clearly respects Virginia as a strong, proud woman. She is a black woman from Tennessee who left home at a young age to travel the world, first as a member of the Peace Corps and then on her own, getting to know people and customs of different countries. She has ended her world travels among the disaffected youth of the United States of the late 1960s, living in different cities before ending up in the San Francisco area, where she met Paul. Although their courtship is viewed with skepticism by her parents and is openly opposed by his, she remains committed to him.
Throughout the story, Virginia is proven to be a person who understands the world and has seen the damages of racism. She does not enter into an interracial marriage lightly, but with the full knowledge of the sort of opposition that she and Paul can expect. The narrator reads Virginia's tough exterior demeanor as a mask, hiding an inner fear of being hurt. The refrain that he thinks of when he sees her is "Don't hurt my baby!" In the earlier sections of the story, this protectiveness is directed toward her husband Paul, who is shown as being unaware of the ways of the world. At the end, though, Virginia gives birth to a son, Daniel, who gives her something real to worry about.
Race is the most important theme explored in "Elbow Room," though the story's view of U.S. racial divisions lacks the kind of heated rhetoric or violent extremism that often surrounds the subject in literature. For the most part, the opposition to Virginia and Paul's interracial marriage comes in subtle ways. The narrator does mention strangers, children, who shout offensive racial slurs at Paul, but this is handled in a dispassionate way: the characters who are black and are used to being pelted with such insults hardly notice the word that Paul is called, just his reaction to it.
The most constant and direct complication due to race comes from Paul's father. He refuses to acknowledge that his son has married a black woman and even tries to break up their marriage. In the end, though, the couple stays at the father's house, briefly, after the birth of their child. His opposition to interracial marriage is not absolute.
This story shows that racism in the United States can be overcome on an individual basis, but that racism is ingrained in U.S. culture. Even the most open relationships are tinged by its shadow. There is no doubt about Paul and Virginia's love, and they are clearly intelligent people who should be as capable as anyone of holding off against societal pressures; what is in doubt, however, is whether even the best equipped couple can hold up against the hostility between races that has been deeply ingrained over the course of generations. In the end, Virginia tells the narrator that she had thought that she could bridge the gap, move freely between black and white society, but the pull of tradition is just too strong.
Language and Meaning
The story of Paul and Virginia is woven together with the subplot about the narrator of the piece trying to convince his editor to let him tell the story in his own way. The very first words in the story are written from the perspective of the editor, who notes right from the start, "Narrator is unmanageable." After that, the editor interjects several times to tell the narrator that he is straying from the main story, and the narrator frequently defends his decision to include facts that are not directly related to what happens to Paul and Virginia.
The narrator insists the traditional narrative structure is unable to capture the complexity of the U.S. racial structure. He discusses his search for new stories, and he relates events, such as his effort to make Paul explain the beauty of an African mask, without explaining their meaning to the overall story. This leads the editor to charge the narrator with a failure to be clear, which he counters by stating that he is being as clear as he can be. He does not explain why the story must include the details it contains, suggesting that such explanations would convey his meaning less effectively than the way he chooses to use. The story tries to get past language's shortcomings by presenting ideas and incidents that readers have to figure out on their own.
Topics For Further Study
- Did race relations in the United States change much between 1975 and 2005? Read an article about the subject by a black scholar and an article by a white scholar, and write a report in which you evaluate their findings.
- In the story, Virginia wears a hat that was popular for men thirty or forty years earlier. Find some contemporary fashion style that was originally used for the other gender, and make a chart that traces its development over time.
- Research the significance of the Japanese tea ceremony and explain why McPherson may have decided to have the final scene between the narrator and Virginia in such a setting.
- Interracial dating and marriage are more common in the early 2000s than previously. Find out which states have had the most recent laws restricting interracial dating, as well as other organizations such as schools and clubs that have similar restrictions. Prepare a questionnaire for class members to answer in which they distinguish between actual rules and ones that you made up.
- In this story, Paul's experience as a conscientious objector from the draft gives him experiences that he never would have had. Read the interviews with conscientious objectors in Gerald R. Gioglio's Days of Decision: An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors in the Military During the Vietnam War, and report on what tendencies the men in the book have in common, and what characteristics distinguish Paul from them.
McPherson uses U.S. geography throughout this story to indicate the connection between place and attitude. Virginia comes from Tennessee, a southern state. Southern states have a tradition of institutionalized racial separation, from slavery before the Civil War and segregation after it. They also have a tradition of racial interaction, with poor whites and poor blacks living in close proximity. Paul comes from Kansas, a Midwestern state that is overwhelmingly white. The opposition that Paul's father has to his marriage indicates a fear based on unfamiliarity.
The narrator also distinguishes between attitudes on the East Coast and the West Coast. He identifies the East as a place where ideas are stagnant, calcified, frozen into place. As a storyteller, he cannot find any new stories in the East because the people there have lost their faith in telling stories. To find the sort of enthusiasm about life that once prevailed in the East, he goes to the West Coast, which he calls "the territory," a nod to the time in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the United States was only established in the eastern half of the continent.
The decision to go west may also hide a subtle allusion to the final paragraph of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), in which Huck says he must "light out for the territory." It seems relevant given what Huck himself has risked befriending the black slave, Jim. Moreover, in writing this story of his adventures, Huck in this paragraph laments that if he had known "what a trouble it was to make a book" he would not have tackled the project. This comment presents another parallel to McPherson's work, since the narrator in this story struggles with its writing in light of frequent criticism he receives from his editor.
On the West Coast, the narrator seeks other idealists who have left the East, such as Virginia, whose view of American attitudes toward race has been affected by her travels in Asia and Africa. Eventually, though, the narrator finds that the people who have moved to California are becoming just as jaded as their Eastern counterparts.
"I am sure he was unaware of his innocence," the narrator says of Paul, who is searching to understand his own identity. He sees this search as one of the central attractions Paul has for Virginia. She is a strong woman, in search of someone whom she can support with that strength and concerned about innocent people who can be hurt by a world that she understands, from her life-long experience with racism, can be cruel. Even when Paul loses his temper, he is not seen as an angry man, but instead as an overgrown hurt child.
Virginia's concern for innocence is a defining part of her character, one that is not obvious to all who meet her, but is clear to the narrator. From the start, he reads in her eyes the plea, "Don't hurt my baby!" In the early part of their marriage, Paul, who is innocent about the complexity of race relations, is the "baby" she is protecting, but when she becomes pregnant her focus shifts to the actual baby she is carrying. In the end, she compromises her resistance to his parents and to hers in the name of raising their son so he can function in the American racial environment.
First Person Narrator
Though McPherson focuses attention on Paul and Virginia throughout "Elbow Room," he also makes it clear that the first-person narrator has a life independent of them. This fact is established early with the editor's initial assessment of the story that is to come, in which he or she muses that the narrator has a defiant attitude. Throughout the story, readers are given brief dialogues between the editor and the narrator that interrupt the focus on Paul and Virginia. Though the narrator is a friend of the central couple and interacts with them frequently, readers are never allowed to forget that the narrator's access to their story is limited by social conventions. Readers do not really know what they think, only what the narrator thinks they think.
The nature of this narrator is complicated by the fact that he shows awareness of the fact that he is telling a story in those passages that relate his exchanges with his editor. McPherson uses these sections to draw readers' attention to the ways in which real life is captured and/or created in fiction. Readers are often meant to believe the events that are told by a first-person narrator, even after accounting for the fact that such narrators are not entirely reliable, but the speaker of this story serves to raise awareness of the writing and publishing process. Putting the narrator into the story as a first-person speaker often invites readers to reflect on the process of changing experiences into fiction: here, McPherson goes one step further, drawing attention to the ways in which the fiction an author imagines can be changed by the editorial process. The story may also be considered an example of what is called metafiction, that kind of fiction which in some way draws attention to itself as a work of fiction.
Aside from the main plot of how Virginia and Paul will cope with the tradition that frowns on their relationship, this story provides a subplot about the narrator's search for a good story worth telling. As is the case with most subplots, the story is sufficient to stand alone without these added details, but it would not be as rich.
The narrator's interplay with his editor is a part of his separate subplot, identifying the narrator as a writer who is concerned with his craft. More relevant, though, are the passages in which he tells about times away from the Frosts, when he explains his actions as being driven by the search for stories. He tells readers that he came to the West Coast (or "the territory") to find stories, having realized that the people of the East were not telling him anything new. At one point he even diverts his focus to an entirely new character, a man who was paroled from prison after fifty years, leaving the Frosts out of "Elbow Room" for almost a page and showing this new character in a scene that has nothing to do with them, an indicator that the focus of this story is not strictly on Paul and Virginia's situation.
Though the editor complains that this section, as well as the other sections where the narrator discusses his interest in gathering stories, should be cut, it is this subplot that helps define what "Elbow Room" is about. The main story alone is about coping with love within a segregated and prejudiced culture, but these asides put the young couple's story in perspective: readers are not just asked to examine their story, but how their act of defiance can be framed and given meaning in a larger context.
In story telling, the denouement is the resolution that comes after the climax. The word comes from the French word meaning "unraveling." Here, the denouement occurs after the narrator has lost touch with the Frosts, before the birth of their child: he discovers some facts about them from postcards that are sent from various places around the country and forwarded months later, but the information conveyed through such a method does not tell him much about their actual states of mind. The story reaches its climax with the narrator's last two one-on-one meetings with the couple: he has tea with Virginia in the park and they talk about the difficulties of thriving in a world dominated by the white perspective, and then he walks through the city with Paul, who is defensive about his struggle to understand the black perspective. These two discussions represent the turning point in the narrator's understanding of the situation: the events that follow are just the story's way of addressing curiosity about the plot.
Post Civil Rights
During the 1960s and 1970s, race relations in the United States changed more rapidly than they had since slavery was abolished during the Civil War. For the hundred years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the situation was firmly established particularly in the South to keep black Americans in conditions that were not much better than slavery had provided. In many southern states particularly, blacks were legally taken advantage of by a series of laws that have been dubbed collectively as the "Jim Crow laws," after an offensive comic character in minstrel shows. These laws divided public amenities and services between those for blacks and those for whites. From neighborhoods, jobs, and schools to railroad cars, hotels, and drinking fountains, there were certain accommodations for white citizens and inferior ones for black citizens. The legal theory, established in the 1896 Supreme Court finding in the case of Plessey v. Ferguson, was that the two races would be offered segregated yet comparable amenities: the "separate but equal" doctrine. In actuality, though, black Americans were restricted to inferior conditions in each case.
This prejudicial and immoral situation was not really addressed until after the Second World War. During the early 1950s, the civil rights movement took advantage of the post-war spread of television to make people around the country aware of the injustices perpetrated under Jim Crow laws. In 1954, Rosa Parks (1913–2005) made international news when she was arrested on a bus in Birmingham, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white man; also in 1954 the Supreme Court found that separate facilities were inherently unequal in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Throughout the decade, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders held public protests to show the world how, even when segregationist laws were struck down, communities often still fought against granting equal rights to African Americans. They often were faced with threats and intimidating terror tactics, but they also gained increasing support from whites, including northern students who traveled to the South to show their support to the fight against injustice. When state governors refused to enforce laws that mandated racial equality, the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, explicitly banning segregation.
After the Civil Rights Act, it became possible for African Americans to sue in federal court against those who tried to prohibit their equal participation. In the aftermath, many facilities that had previously been closed to blacks became open. Racism was no longer permitted in the United States—at least, not legally. But the racist and separatist attitudes of the past lingered on. Covert or implied racism became more common. A business might, for instance, not explicitly deny an applicant employment due to race, but it might claim that all white applicants just happened to fit their needs more closely than any black applicant. Parents fought school integration that would take their children too far from their segregated neighborhoods, and social organizations fought for the right to associate with whomever they chose. In the 1960s and 1970s, the racial tensions that had once been written into law were expressed in subtle, frequently nonverbal ways.
"Elbow Room" is the title story of James Alan McPherson's second short story collection. His first collection, Hue and Cry, established McPherson as a major literary voice when it was published in 1969; it included the story "Gold Coast" which was eventually included in the compilation The Best American Short Stories of the Century (1999), selected by John Updike. By the time Elbow Room was published in 1977, critics were looking forward to more of McPherson's fiction.
Compare & Contrast
- 1970s: Kansas, where Paul's parents live, is one of the less racially diverse states in the nation. Ninety-two percent of the population of Kansas is white.
Today: Kansas is still overwhelmingly white. In a period when non-white populations have grown steadily across the United States, Kansas still has an eighty-five percent white population.
- 1970s: The San Francisco area is a bastion for holdouts from the hippie era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The people that McPherson describes, coming to the area to "find themselves," move about freely, focused on personal experience.
Today: San Francisco is considered one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. While reminders of its association with the hippie era exist, much of the area is associated with economic growth.
- 1970s: Young women like Virginia Valentine travel freely through Africa and the Middle East, exploring new cultures and learning about different approaches to life.
Today: Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have been more wary of the dangers involved in international travel.
- 1970s: Young men who are conscientious objectors to war are able to work in service jobs in the States rather than going to fight in Vietnam.
Today: The United States has a volunteer military force. Those who do not want to fight do not have to, although military recruiters work diligently to find those who might be interested.
- 1970s: Romantic relationships between black and white Americans are uncommon and are frowned upon by society.
Today: Americans are, for the most part, comfortable with interracial couples and make media heroes of biracial celebrities, such as Tiger Woods, Halle Barry, and Lenny Kravitz, to name just a few.
In Newsweek, Margo Jefferson credits McPherson with being "an astute realist who knows how to turn the conflicts between individual personalities and the surrounding culture into artful and highly serious comedies of manners." She notes his growth as an artist since Hue and Cry, explaining that over the eight intervening years he had "extended his ability to be tender but unsentimental—and sharpened his theatrical sense as well." The stories are so wise about human interaction that she concludes by wondering if he could also be "an intelligent, perceptive playwright."
In his review of Elbow Room in the New York Times, Robie Macauley, like most reviewers, brims with praise for McPherson: "A fine control of language and story, a depth in his characters, humane values," he writes in summary, "these are a few of the virtues James Alan McPherson displays in this fine collection of stories." Focusing particularly on the story "Elbow Room," Macauley notes that it presents "a ruinous struggle for a kind of psychological synthesis," observing that one of McPherson's recurring themes is that such syntheses never truly take place.
While negative criticism of this story and its namesake book are scarce, critics do point out its weaknesses. For instance, an unsigned review in the New Yorker in November of 1977 is generally positive but also makes the point that "Elbow Room" and several other stories in the collection "tell the reader a bit less than he wants to know about the characters' lives and a bit more than he wants to know about the ideological or artistic problems that confronted the narrator." Such mild criticism hardly detracts from the book's overall value, as the reviewer notes in the next line: "For the most part, however, the characters speak eloquently for themselves." Indeed, Elbow Room, the collection, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1978.
Kelly is an instructor of English literature and creative writing. In this essay, Kelly looks at the story as posing a philosophical rather than a social problem.
Anyone who has read James Alan McPherson's short story "Elbow Room" can see that it, like many of McPherson's works, is concerned with the complexities of race relations in America. At the story's center is a biracial couple, Paul and Virginia: he is white, and, as a member of the youth movement that came of age in the sixties and seventies, is ready to stand up against the racist traditions that he learned in the Midwest. She has traveled the world enough to know that the opposition to her blackness that she faces in America is not universal. Their story is related by a narrator who is black, is a friend of theirs, and is also aware of his role as narrator, communicating at times with an editor who questions the relevance of details he gives while telling Paul and Virginia's story.
It is not just the basic situation of Paul and Virginia that marks this as a story about race, however. Racial issues are all over it, in practically every paragraph. Paul's father, back in Kansas, is openly hostile to the couple's courtship and eventual marriage, refusing to attend the wedding and warming only slightly when he hears that a grandchild is on the way. Virginia's father, Mr. Daniel Valentine, attends their wedding but is only slightly less wary, threatening his wrath against Paul if he ever makes her "cry about something that ain't the fault of her womanly ways." And the narrator tests Paul's resolve at almost every step, quizzing him about his attitudes toward black people and white people and his understanding of the word "nigger."
With so much racial tension in the atmosphere, it is strange that the editor and the narrator cannot agree upon a basic story. A pattern presents itself from the start: the narrator gives details that do not seem relevant to Paul and Virginia's story; the editor calls for more clarity, more explanation; and the narrator replies that he cannot be any clearer, that what is presented on the page is the story. Readers share the editor's frustration, suspecting that there is either something that could be explained more clearly or that the differences in perspective that separate the editor and the narrator are the ones that will always separate whites and blacks. At the end of the story, the narrator seems resigned to being less than understood.
But the insufficiency of language to explain the twisted nuances of race in America does not mean that the story is left incomplete: it only means that the story is not really about race relations at all. This is a story about people trying to find themselves in a larger sense than racial identity. It is not a story about what it is to be black or white, but about what it is to be human. Each of the principle characters here is looking for something to believe in. Readers quite easily identify the motivation that drives each. What is not so easy to tell, however, is how much racial identity has to do with their various drives.
The story starts by introducing Paul Frost as a sort of legendary figure: he comes from Kansas like thousands of other men during a period referred to dreamily as "that time." At first, he seems to be an idealist, possibly too much of a rebel for his own good: after refusing to participate in the draft or to go back where he came from, he ends up, while working with mental patients, questioning his own sanity. Falling in love with Virginia is explained as "his last act as a madman." One could infer from this introduction either that true love keeps him from drifting aimlessly any longer, or that he only believes that he loves Virginia, in order to give meaning to a rebellious but unfocused life. Reading this as a story about race, it is stubbornness at least as much as love that bonds Paul to Virginia. She even calls him stubborn late in the story, when discussing Paul with the narrator. But another way to look at it would be to concentrate on the man that Paul was before meeting Virginia. He tried a few things, but he was not adrift; he stood up against the draft board, but he was not just looking to pick a fight.
The racial reading would imply that Paul is only interested in Virginia for racial reasons, leading to the explanation that he does not really love her, but merely thrives on the glares they draw when they walk down the street together. Paul, though, suffers for his love. He allows everyone from his parents to her parents to the narrator to question his motives. He delves into reading because he questions his own motives. The one trait that stays constant throughout Paul's life, even more than his willingness to stand against the status quo, is a thirst for knowledge.
This thirst is perhaps easier to see in Virginia. She is presented as a smart, confident, worldly woman, one who is strong enough to stand against the racist forces that would try to repress her spirit. She is secure enough with her own personality to travel the world alone, and to let insults go without response. Still, she does have a weakness: the narrator points out, often, that her entire demeanor seems to convey the message, "Don't hurt my baby!" When the story is read as a polemic about race, one could find that this soft spot in Virginia implies a tenderness found in all black women, no matter how guarded their demeanor. Perhaps the need to live life defensively is what makes her tender side stand out. Still, it seems to be a characteristic that would grow in a woman like Virginia regardless of race. She happens to be a caring woman, with "maternal" instincts ("maternal" in quotes because she spends most of the story looking out for not an actual infant, but her husband).
It makes more sense to see that Virginia is looking to fill this emptiness inside of her than to see her solely as a representative of black women everywhere. Her defining moment comes when she looks back at her independent life, a life that she will lose once her baby is born, and says, "I was whiter than white and blacker than black. Hell, at least I got to see through the fog." This could be the claim of someone who has lived her life to fight the system, but it is more likely someone who has transcended the system entirely, at least for a short while. True, race is a significant part of Virginia's identity, but she at least has known another identity beyond race. The fact that her pregnancy makes her think about racial issues again does not mean that she is only a product of the racial construct.
The story of Paul and Virginia draws attention to race because they approach it from the opposite sides, but the narrator is no more nor less a part of the same situation. Paul is driven by a search for himself and Virginia is driven to defend innocence, and in this they compliment each other well. The narrator, though, is just as driven as either of them in his quest for stories.
One thing that "Elbow Room" never actually defines is what the narrator means when he talks about "stories." He hints at it, saying what kind of stories have become stagnant in what part of the country and identifying the ways in which his quest for stories changes his relations with friends. He drifts away from Paul and Virginia when their story loses its interest and toward a convict who is taken in by the upper class. The stories that he is interested in seem to revolve around race, and the varieties of race relations America can come up with, though he admits that the combinations are limited. Though race may be the subject matter of the stories he seeks, the fact that he is driven to seek stories is even more important. It is the fact of his obsession, not the object of his obsession, that defines who he is.
What Do I Read Next?
- McPherson burst onto the national literary scene when his short story "Gold Coast" was published in the Atlantic while he was still in law school. It has been included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century (1999) and can also be found in McPherson's first short story collection, Hue and Cry (1968).
- McPherson tells the story of his life, wrapping it around the difficult decision to sell his childhood home and evict the elderly tenants who rented from him in Crabcakes: A Memoir (1999). This collection of essays is every bit as terse and intellectually wound as his fiction.
- In his essay "What America Would Be Like Without Blacks," Ralph Ellison explores themes similar to those about which McPherson writes in his story. Ellison examines the fractured nature of the American identity when it comes to race. His essay is included in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1995).
- McPherson is often associated with the late Leon Forrest, one of the leading African American novelists of the late twentieth century. Forrest's crowning achievement is Divine Days (1993). The novel is about an aspiring playwright in Chicago in the 1960s.
- Studs Turkel's Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel about the American Obsession (1993) lets ordinary people explain their perspectives about this delicate but overreaching subject.
This, at last, explains why the work that he submits to his editor feels incomplete. It may well be that the story of race in America is incomplete, and that his telling of this tale is only meant to reflect that: still, he should be able to turn the events surrounding Paul and Virginia into a recognizable narrative. He realizes that race is an obstacle for each of them, and that they need some "elbow room" from it, but he also realizes that there is more to each of them than race alone can account for. What he is missing, what he cannot explain to the editor, is not a final word on the complexities of race, but rather a final word on the wide scope of life.
Judging just from what the narrative says, there is nothing too devastating in the lives of the Frosts. Paul may never understand why he cannot understand his wife's experiences, Virginia may never know the freedom she thought she could attain, and their child, young Daniel, might be as burdened by his roots as every other child. They are faced with frustration, not destruction. They are frustrated by the limitations put on them because of society's racial views, but that is only part of it. Each of them, and the narrator too, has a life beyond race. The lesson of this story is not that race hinders, but that freeing oneself of the expectations of race is only the beginning.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "Elbow Room," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Pryor has a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and twenty years experience in professional and creative writing with special interest in fiction. In this essay, she explores the recurring metaphor of imprisonment used by James Alan McPherson in this story.
In his short story "Elbow Room," James Alan McPherson explores the attitudes and conditions that have segregated blacks and whites in the United States, not just physically but psychologically. McPherson uses the recurring metaphor of prisons and imprisonment to illustrate the boundaries that prevent true communication between races. Both blacks and whites in the story are living within their own psychological prisons, though the nature of these prisons is not exactly the same.
First readers meet Paul Frost, a white man from Kansas. The theme of confinement is presented early in his history, when Paul refuses to go to war and instead opts for "alternate service in a hospital for the insane." After spending time with the inmates, he finds that many of them are not insane; then he begins to fear that his beginning to understand them may actually means that he too is insane. (The fear that understanding another person will cause one to become that kind of person occurs again later in the story, when Paul's father accuses him of "beginning to think like a Negro.") Paul flees to California, where "Activity kept him from thinking about being crazy and going back to Kansas." It is in California that he meets and marries Virginia Valentine.
Paul's prison, as symbolized by the mental hospital, is a psychological one. Late in the story, Paul tells the narrator, "You may not think much of me, but my children will be great!" The narrator replies, "They will be black and blind or passing for white and self-blinded." The ingrained, often unconscious attitudes of whites form their prison, their mental boundaries, but because they are comfortable and unconscious of their own limited thinking, most are not even aware of their own confinement. They are, as the narrator says, self-blinded. Paul is aware that his thinking is limited in some way, but he spends the entire story groping for the walls of his prison, never fully discovering the perimeters of his cell. Others are completely unconscious of these structures and boundaries, accepting them as a given, such as the woman the narrator meets at a cocktail party: "This woman looked me straight in the eye while denouncing prisons with a passionate indignation. Periodically, she swung her empty martini glass in a confident arc to the right of her body. There, as always, stood a servant holding a tray at just the point where, without ever having to look, my hostess knew a perfect arc and a flat surface were supposed to intersect." It does not even occur to the woman that the servant might not be there; in her world, the unconscious assumption is the servant is always there. The narrator explains it this way (referring to Paul): "More than a million small assumptions, reaffirmed year after year, had become as routine as brushing teeth…. This was an unconscious process over which he had little control. It defined his self for him."
Interestingly, this description is very similar to the process of institutionalization experienced by actual prisoners. Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz in studying the psychological effects of imprisonment, writes that "The various psychological mechanisms that must be employed to adjust [to prison life] … become increasingly 'natural,' second nature, and, to a degree, internalized … few people who have become institutionalized are aware that it has happened to them." People are not born with prejudice, but the installation of these attitudes occurs in such tiny increments, day by day, that as for institutionalized persons, people never even realize it has happened.
Obviously the blacks in the story are more aware of their prisons, as many of the limitations they face have been imposed upon them by others. Virginia fights not just psychological boundaries, but practical and political ones as well. Virginia is portrayed as a fighter, a tough customer with a tender heart. She curses liberally and wears the "type of cap popularized by movie gangsters in the forties." According to Craig Haney, this outward display of toughness is a common defense mechanism for individuals in actual prisons. He writes that "because there are people in their immediate environment poised to take advantage of weakness … Some prisoners learn to project a tough convict veneer that keeps all others at a distance."
Virginia is originally from Tennessee, but leaves "on the crest of that great wave of jail-breaking peasants." With the advent of the civil rights movement and legislation providing new freedoms and protections for minorities, for Virginia and other blacks "the outside world seemed absolutely clear in outline and full of sweet choices." The sixties brought new freedoms, both literally and psychologically, a willingness to abandon old ways of thinking. However, this change did not last. As McPherson writes, "But then their minds began to shift." The old prejudices returned: "It took several months before they became black and white." This phenomenon also has parallels in the experience of actual prisoners. Later in the story, the narrator becomes interested in the story of a man recently freed from prison after fifty years' incarceration. Like Virginia and her friends, "He was alive with ambition, lust, large appetites." Yet he never lifts his window blind, and in his room, he stays within a small perimeter, hesitating when he nears the door. Haney writes, "some inmates may come to depend heavily on institutional decision-makers to make choices for them and to rely on the structure and schedule of the institution to organize their daily routine … in extreme cases, profoundly institutionalized persons may become extremely uncomfortable when and if their previous freedom and autonomy is returned." Initially thrilled at their new freedoms, both blacks and whites eventually returned to the familiar prison of their previous assumptions, just as some freed prisoners intentionally commit crimes to return to the familiar rhythms of prison life. The idea of having more freedom than one can handle is brought up again later in a conversation between Paul and the narrator. The narrator tells him, "I saw a picture on a calendar once of a man posed between the prairie and the sky. He seemed pressured by all that space, as if he were in a crucible."
Like the unnamed prisoner, and like Paul, Virginia is unable to find her way out of her prison—she is "black and blinded"—but she keeps fighting to keep her mind open and hold onto optimism. Though she is aware of the limitations of the mind, she tells the narrator, "But didn't I make some elbow room?" The admirable struggle she has gone through just to make psychological "elbow room"—a term that indicates a fairly small amount of personal space—illustrates just how difficult it is to shift ingrained ways of viewing the world, even when one is willing and eager to do so. For those ambivalent to the idea of change, progress is even slower. Paul's father's first step towards change is simply to mention, in conversation with Paul, "the full name of the black janitor who swept out his office."
McPherson neither places blame nor excuses anyone from it. In fact, one of the key messages of the story is that there are no easy scapegoats, explanations, or answers for the failure of Americans to fully integrate as a society. The editor continually demands of the narrator: "Clarify the meaning of this comment," and "Explain. Explain." The narrator demurs, however, as he is aware that it is the imposition of mental structures, forms, and categories handed down from generation to generation that exacerbates the very problems he is describing. In other words, there is no clarity; there is no explanation. The walls of people's prisons are hazy and undefined, making them far more difficult to escape than walls of concrete and iron bars.
Source: Laura Pryor, Critical Essay on "Elbow Room," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Freelance writer Bonnie Weinreich has a bachelor's degree in English and has worked as a reporter for a daily newspaper. In this essay, Weinreich considers the different ways the word nigger is used in James Alan McPherson's short story, "Elbow Room," and how its variety of uses reflects the difficulty in communicating across racial lines.
How is the reader to approach James Alan McPherson's use of the word nigger in his short story "Elbow Room?" For sensitive white readers who understand the word to be a racial slur, its familiar and easy use, especially by Virginia Valentine, an African American woman, is hard to comprehend. On the other hand, black readers, viewing the word from the inside, know its use by blacks comes out of self-knowledge and an intimacy not available to white readers. However, not all African Americans view the word the same or use it in the same way. The varying uses and attitudes of the word lead to conflict when Virginia's white husband, Paul Frost, attempts to understand what is meant by the word "nigger."
McPherson's black narrator defines a "nigger" as "a descendant of Proteus, an expression of the highest form of freedom." (In Greek mythology, Proteus is a sea god who attends Poseidon and changes his own form or appearance at will.) It is in this shape shifting that the word "nigger" must be understood.
Virginia's use illustrates the favorable connotation of the word. Although a country woman by birth, she has traveled the world. She begins "calling herself 'nigger' in an affirmative and ironic way." When angry, she yells, "Don't play with me now, nigger!" but her real meaning is "Don't come too close, I hurt easily." She truly loves Paul, and she tries to protect him from the insults of racism she knows he will endure. Through experience, she has become comfortable in her skin, but she realizes that Paul is not.
Paul wants to understand a group to which he does not belong, but he can never entirely comprehend the black experience because it is defined in part as that culture which is not the culture of white people. In trying to find his way, he asks the narrator, "What is a nigger?… I mean, what does it really mean to you?" The narrator responds with his "Proteus" definition, which is, in fact, no definition at all. Paul is upset when children call him "nigger," but Virginia does not understand his distress. She says she "just laughed at the little crumbsnatchers." Paul says Virginia is "a bundle of contradictions. She breaks all the rules. You all do." In this story, the use of the word "nigger" may be seen as a metaphor for the inability to qualify the black experience. Virginia's contradictions make it hard for Paul to understand her, just as the shifting meaning of the black idiom (a group of words peculiar to a given language or a characteristic style) makes it impossible to define.
McPherson turns the tables on his white main character; in "Elbow Room" Paul seems to be the odd man out. His family refuses to attend the wedding, while Virginia's parents, who are not exactly ecstatic over their daughter's choice of husband, show up for the event bearing food and gifts. Paul, in his effort to overcome the obstacles inherent in his marrying a black woman, is akin to the black person who is caught between saving his own identity and fitting into the dominant white American culture. In the end, the narrator points out a variety of people, black and white, whom he considers to be "niggers." Paul, who fails to understand, thinks the narrator believes he is a racist. "I know what a nigger is, too. It's what you are when you begin thinking of yourself as a work of art!" Paul says, and according to the narrator, "there was no arrogance at all left in his voice." Paul's statement may be both positive and sarcastic.
After the narrator and Paul have a falling out, Virginia calls the narrator to try to smooth things over. In the course of their conversation, she says "there's a lot of us niggers that ain't so hot." She admonishes the narrator, saying he and "that nigger of mine" have to learn patience. Later, pregnant with Paul's child, she meets the narrator for tea. Virginia sums up her attempt to do the right thing regarding the families who have started making "gestures" upon learning of her pregnancy:
"I'm black. I've accepted myself as that. But didn't I make some elbow room, though?" She tapped her temple with her forefinger. "I mean up here!" … When times get tough, anybody can pass for white. Niggers been doing that for centuries … wouldn't it of been something to be a nigger that could relate to white and black and everything else in the world out of a self as big as the world is?… That would have been some nigger!"
The narrator replies that she was "some nigger," yet later he advises her "for the sake of your child, don't be black. Be more of a classic kind of nigger."
In this passage, the variety of ways the characters use the word reinforces two points and adds another dimension to it. First, since both of these characters are black, each intuitively understands the other. Second, within this brief exchange, the word "nigger" takes on several different meanings. Finally, can a white person understand without explanation what a "classic nigger" is? Could Virginia's husband, Paul, understand?
Much has been written about the use of invective language, and about the use of the word "nigger" in particular. The long history of hate entwined around the word has generated a body of written work and many legal cases. In his book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, black Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy calls it "the paradigmatic slur. It is the epithet that generates epithets…. Arabs are called sand niggers, Irish the niggers of Europe, and Palestinians the niggers of the Middle East." Theories about the word's origin vary, but Kennedy says that "nigger" is derived from niger, the Latin word for black. Kennedy observes that blacks have appropriated the language of their oppressors much the same as other marginalized groups do, in the way women use [b―] and gays use "queer."
Perhaps one of the most debated works in which the word "nigger" appears is Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The story of a boy and a runaway slave contains more than 200 instances of the word. But Kennedy and McPherson agree that Twain's use of the word was to point out the evil of racism, not support it. McPherson wrote in his essay "It Is Good to Be Shifty in a New Country": "Twain was writing about the possibility of friendships across racial lines, at a time when such emotional connections were considered radical. He was writing about the struggles of the human heart confined to the structure of white supremacy."
The debate about the use of "nigger" remains relevant. Kennedy observes the differing uses of the word by black entertainers. Comedian Richard Pryor is considered the first prominent entertainer to use the word in front of multiracial audiences, in both friendly and derogatory ways, but after a trip to Africa, he stopped the practice. Chris Rock, a popular comedian, makes a distinction in his uses of black and "nigger," using the latter in a derogatory manner. Author and comedian Bill Cosby contends all blacks are hurt when some use the word. Rappers use the word, and variations such as nigga, liberally, while white entertainers, such as the famous white rapper, Eminem, do not use the word for fear of being perceived as racist. Yet Kennedy contends, "There is much to be gained by allowing people of all backgrounds to yank nigger away from white supremacists, to subvert its ugliest denotation, and to convert the N-word from a negative into a positive appellation."
The word "nigger" is emblematic of racial division in the United States. At the time "Elbow Room" was published, McPherson defended himself against black nationalists by referring to black author Ralph Ellison (1914–1994), his friend and mentor. McPherson said Ellison believed "something called America did exist; that it had a culture; that black Americans were, by our unique history and special contributions and the quality of our struggle, heroic; that self-imposed segregation, especially of the imagination, was a mistake." Ellison told McPherson, "Never segregate yourself."
In his essay, "On Becoming an American Writer," McPherson refers to Albion W. Tourgee, who argued against segregation before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 in the famous case of Plessy v. Ferguson. (Tourgee lost when the Court ruled that segregation was legal if equal facilities were offered to both races, commonly known as the "separate but equal" ruling.) McPherson says Tourgee's model of citizenship would be a synthesis of opposite races or classes and represent the United States in its totality. McPherson said this was the model he was aiming for in the collection that includes the title story "Elbow Room."
The relationships of the interracial couple of Paul and Virginia, their families, and the narrator provides a framework in which McPherson displays his belief in the humanity of all people regardless of race, and his understanding that the complexities inherent in relationships cross racial lines. The author employs varying uses of the word "nigger" as one tool to demonstrate the dichotomy between blacks and whites. Virginia uses the word in a variety of ways, while Paul cannot achieve a clear understanding of it. The narrator offers explanations that are obtuse and says Paul must find his own definitions. Readers' understanding these usages are affected by their skin color. McPherson has said, "As a writer, I have never forgotten that the truest voices are always found at the center of tremendous storms. I have learned to listen for them." The use of the so-called protean word "nigger" spotlights the difficulties faced by the characters in "Elbow Room" as they try to bridge the racial divide.
Source: Bonnie Weinreich, Critical Essay on "Elbow Room," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Phillip M. Richards
In the following review, Richards discusses Crabcakes, McPherson's memoir, comparing themes in the work to those found in his Elbow Room collection.
Pulitzer-Prize winner James Alan McPherson has written two highly regarded collections of short fiction, and the pleasures and insights offered by Crabcakes are those of a well-crafted story. This memoir uses the epiphanies and dramatic resolutions of fiction to generate the religious and ethical insight of spiritual autobiography. McPherson traces the psychological path from early alienation to his personal renewal in an intimate circle of friends, a number of whom are deeply influenced by Japanese culture. Gaining entrance into Japanese forms of community and piety, McPherson experiences an acute personal conversion. However, when he makes broad social claims for his personal experience, he puts himself on problematic ground. Crabcakes ultimately attempts to illuminate late twentieth-century interracial American life through personal introspection.
The starting place of this plot is the helterskelter world of McPherson's hometown of Baltimore, a realm of racist police and the decay of a once vital inner-city world. We see this racism in McPherson's encounter with a state trooper who impounds his car as he drives outside the city. We see it again in the memory of McPherson's meeting with a car full of policemen in the city. In Baltimore, the narrator is alternately a victim of racism and an agent of the forces that undermine what he will eventually understand as the communitas offered by Japanese society. His involvement with this world reaches crisis proportions with the death of Channie Washington, an elderly tenant of McPherson's Baltimore property. Preparing to unburden himself of his unprofitable rental house, McPherson begins to confront the issue of community and his relationship to others. Mrs. Washington, who for years included friendly, affirming letters with her rent, is an anticipation of the organic relations that McPherson will find in Japanese culture. As McPherson makes preparations to evict the rental property's other occupant, a Mr. Butler, Washington and her life are dimly but increasingly understood as a humanizing force within an eroding inner-city world. The warmth with which she addresses McPherson in her letters evokes community as does the meal she serves him when he returns to Baltimore from Iowa (where he now teaches). Washington, who has selflessly raised an extended family, is described by McPherson as the "Fountainhead … that keeps the 'we,' the 'us' collected."
One of Baltimore's humanizing features is the consumption of crabcakes near the downtown harbor, where people from all over the city eat the delicacy in groups at stands. At one point McPherson speaks of the crabcake eating as a communion, and the activity as a ceremony that brings Baltimoreans of all ranks together in a regional understanding. However, Channie Washington and the crabcake eating are anticipations of a later sense of community that are not fully understood by McPherson in the early part of his narrative. These early premonitions are a point of departure for the narrator's encounter with the world through the lens of his Japanese experience.
The book's second section invokes McPherson's experience of community from the vantage of insights gained in his Japanese conversion. McPherson's decisive entrance into Japanese life takes place during his second trip to Japan when he establishes an intense friendship with Natsuko Ishii, a friendship that fully overcomes his feelings of alienation as an American black. During a train ride, her simple acts of care for him (she wipes sweat from his face) give McPherson a new, powerfully symbolic sense of selfhood and an appreciation of Japan. McPherson shows us a world of stylized social ritual and community, a world that values the union of formal and natural gestures. McPherson feels most whole as a person when he becomes part of the Japanese flow of "naturalness" in social gatherings such as a meal, a reception, or even having a few drinks in a bar. In the course of his relationships with Ishii and other Japanese, he meets a number of people involved in the worlds of literature, publishing, and business. And in the midst of a broad number of friendships he consolidates his sense of himself as an insider in the communal world of Japanese culture.
Like McPherson's short stories in Elbow Room, Crabcakes moves from social complications to moments of moral insight. These ethical discoveries are based on the contrast between the alienated world of the West and the organic social world of McPherson's Japan. In MePherson's view, the West represents a society of estranged selves who proffer a variety of masks to each other, avoiding true intimacy. America in particular is described by the author as a world in which a "natural" revelation of oneself is considered naive at best and foolhardy at worst. This alienation is particularly acute among blacks, who must present their own impassive mask toward whites who do not regard them as fully human. Indeed, some of McPherson's most moving and acute meditations on race concern the psychological and emotional dislocations that stem from the estrangement of blacks from the majority population of American society. America emerges in a series of James Baldwin-like reflections as a world in which the black and white populations can never truly know each other. McPherson himself participates in these dislocations in the decaying world of Baltimore, and they come into full focus during his trip to Japan.
On the other hand, the world of Japan is one in which true intimacy—the kind of intimacy that Channie Washington sought—is realized in the various forms and gestures of social life. This ritualized intimacy occurs at dinners, in visits to sacred places, in the celebration of a friend's day of death, and in the use of ceremonial gifts as tokens for greeting. The community in Japan is one of highly tuned sympathies, regulated by social rituals, and defined by well-wrought understandings. McPherson not only commits himself to this vision of organic community shared with his small circle of Japanese and American friends but presents this vision as an exemplary one for his readers.
McPherson's gradual and increasingly complicated entrance into this world—and his importation of its values to America—create the book's dramatic structure. Through a series of complications, McPherson arrives at the central moral vision of community. This literary dynamic generates the book's chief ethical insight. In contrast to the vacuity of an estranged American culture of masks, the "natural" intimacy of Japanese community makes possible a broad human vision spanning the extremes of joy and tragedy.
The book's climax takes place as McPherson portrays the contradictions of this broad Japanese vision. In the spirit of Japanese intimacy, McPherson involves himself in the familial catastrophe of a neighbor, Howard Morton, who is losing a son to cancer. Visiting with Morton in a moment of crisis, McPherson keeps a pair of visiting Japanese friends waiting by themselves in a restaurant for three hours in what for him is an unpardonable offense. He therefore violates the trust and intimacy of one relationship in order to sustain another. This violation raises the central question of the book's final section: how does one choose between allegiances to intimate friends?
Here, McPherson sacrifices the ceremonial gesture of the dinner for one of communal sympathy. In this case, the "natural" and "formal" social understandings of the Japanese world come into sharp, tragic conflict. And this conflict is intense because McPherson has structured his sense of his relationship between himself and others upon Japanese values of community. McPherson's entrance into the Japanese ethos involves his acceptance of a tragic element that he learns to accept as the cost of intimacy.
McPherson's book projects a self-consciously literary vision of society and of the author's status. In many ways it is an orientalist travel book to an exotic East of Asian virtues. Crabcakes' meditations on race echo the early essays of James Baldwin. And the nearly surreal account of the reptilian state trooper who impounds his car invokes the postmodern mode of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. The book's telling moments of self-consciousness, moreover, alert us to the special conditions that surround McPherson's entrance into Japanese society. After an arranged lecture in which McPherson expounds his views of Japanese culture, a young Japanese woman tells him that he does not understand her country. The possibility of a skewed vision is easy to understand. McPherson is introduced to Japanese society by people who already admire him and desire further contact with him. Although he is a cultural outsider, McPherson is a highly successful American author, who mingles easily with the literary and publishing elites of Japan.
McPherson maintains a strident sense of a pervasive American racism, even though he moves in a racially integrated social world. He has taught at prestigious universities and numbers distinguished members of the academy among his friends. The world or his academic Iowan neighborhood is by his own description a decidedly multicultural one. Indeed, it is hard to conceive of a person such as McPherson outside of the newly democratized and integrated world of the American university. The problematic nature of McPherson's assumptions is complicated by the sparseness of the narrative on matters of real importance in understanding the nature of McPherson's experience. There is little mention of an immediate group of American family and friends around McPherson. Aside from an extended account of his Japanese friendships, we do not learn much of the author's life itself during this period. And it is ultimately difficult to tell the extent to which his portrait of himself and his country represents the dislocation of black American life or personal idiosyncrasy.
Despite the book's emphasis on McPherson's conversion to a japanese communitas, Crabcakes remains a curiously self-centered work. This book is peculiarly focused upon McPherson's response to a few elements in the world around him. His encounters with his Japanese friends concern their impact upon his particular predicament as an alienated black American. His accounts of the Japanese are particularly devoid of the tensions of individual personalities, the complexities of the other selves. He seeks to read himself and his own personal transformation within the uniquely Japanese vision of community. That is, McPherson seeks the same therapeutic relationship with ritualized community that an earlier generation of Americans sought with nature. Indeed, this book is a deeply religious attempt to come to grips with a self-centered alienation.
McPherson's highly personalized version of the race problem largely ignores the larger social and historical context in which his experience takes place. This context, which is the recently opened world of elite American life, is now available to people of extraordinary talent such as McPherson. The author's crises are the natural concomitant of black mobility in this sphere of privilege. In Hue and Cry as well as in Elbow Room, McPherson acutely observed the transformation of a transitory segregated world in a set of remarkable stories. McPherson is part of a cohort of black intellectuals and professionals confronted with the white world from the peculiar vantage of integrated life, social and political realities to which he only vaguely alludes. In one sense, the book's ideal of a Japanese-influenced organic community is an exotic, romanticized therapy for a black middle-class angst.
McPherson's resolution to his angst is furthermore typically American. He presents himself in a highly idiosyncratic and individualistic way, but his very individualism makes him a recognizable phenomenon. He is an American traveler who carries what the Emerson of "Self-Reliance" calls the "giant of self" abroad. Indeed, the authority of this book's narrative voice emerges from its participation in a larger American tradition of individual self-renewal. Despite important differences between McPherson and a figure such as Walt Whitman, the author of Crabcakes also seeks to transcend the pressures of a culturally limited American self.
However, McPherson's focus on psychological and emotional details of personal transformation has blinders. For all of his precise introspection, this book lacks a larger sense of McPherson's place in a changing racial world where others share his plight. He cannot relate his own personal dislocations to a broader experience of dislocation. Acutely attentive to the dynamics of personal renewal, this book is somewhat oblivious to the history in which that life is to be renewed. McPherson's vision represents a deeply American optimism and naivete.
Source: Phillip M. Richards, "Ritual and Self-Renewal," in Dissent, Vol. 47, No. 3, Summer 2000, pp. 117-20.
In the following review, Macauley pays praise to the many virtues—including depth, control, and humanity—McPherson displays in the stories in Elbow Room.
With his first book of stories, Hue and Cry, James Alan McPherson established his standpoint as that of a writer and a black, but not that of a black writer. He refused to let his fiction fall into any color-code or ethnic code, remarking, "Certain of the people happen to be black and certain 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." Occasionally, he found this credo impossible to maintain, especially when a story demanded strong identification with strong black characters—as in the fine place. "A Solo Song: For Doc," which retraced the lifetime service of two railroad dining car waiters, a study in pride and injury.
For the most part, however, he was able to look beneath skin color and clichés of attitude into the hearts of his characters. "Margot" (a character in "Hue and Cry"), he says, "might have been white instead of black and the story would have been just as real and just as sad." This is a fairly rare ability in American fiction where even the most telling kind of perception seldom seems able to pass an invisible color line. Black writers—with the exception of Ralph Ellison—too often see white characters as some configuration of externals, and white writers, perhaps even more grossly, have done the same with blacks.
In McPherson's title story, "Elbow Room," Virginia is the wife in an interracial marriage that has proved to be a ruinous struggle for a kind of psychological synthesis. With bitter humor she says: "When times get tough, anybody can pass for white. Niggers been doing that for centuries…. But wouldn't it of been something to be a nigger that could relate to white and black and everything else in the world out of a self as big as the world is?"
Such selves, black or white, require an act of imagination that is almost never realized in the actual world; this is one of McPherson's recurrent themes. In "A Loaf of Bread," Harold Green is a white grocer in a black neighborhood; Nelson Reed is the leader of a demonstration against Green's excessively high prices.
The two are curiously similar and each, in his own way, is a moral man; yet, because neither can comprehend the other's troubles, each considers the other evil. Their drama works out in a series of ironies (too complex to be summarized in a review) and, it seems to me, produces a symbolic truth magically beyond what might have been mere sociological observation.
In "The Problems of Art," a white lawyer tries with sympathetic imagination to understand his black client and her defense witness while, at the same time, they are imagining he is involved in complicity to avoid justice. The lawyer makes her innocent in his mind while, from equal warm-heartedness, they make him guilty.
There are a number of good stories in Elbow Room devoted to solely black experiences. Among the best are "The Story of a Dead Man" (an exuberant comedy in spite of its title), "The Story of a Scar" and "The Silver Bullet." The latter is ostensibly about another common inner-city occurrence—black hoods strong-arming a black barkeeper for protection money. One of the hoods is a would-be gang member; the other is a racketeer with a marvelously parodic line of talk: "Our organization is a legitimate, relevant, grass-roots community group … We have the dynamic. You [the gang] have the manpower. Together, we can begin a nationalization process." But, as the crisis approaches, there is a subtle shift of feeling about the realistic scene and—as often in McPherson's fiction—we sense both reality and parable. And, of course, the parable is about terrorism and the illusions of terrorism.
A fine control of language and story, a depth in his characters, humane values, these are a few of the virtues James Alan McPherson displays in this fine collection of stories.
Source: Robie Macauley, "White and Black and Everything Else," in New York Times, September 25, 1977, p. 271.
Haney, Craig, "The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment," December 2001, pp. 6-8.
Beattle, Ann, "The Hum Inside the Skull—A Symposium," in New York Times Book Review, May 13, 1984, pp. 1, 28.
Jefferson, Margo, "Black Manners," in Newsweek, October 17, 1977, p. 116.
Kennedy, Randall, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Pantheon Books, 2002, pp. 27, 50-51, 139, 175.
Macauley, Robie, "White and Black and Everything Else," in New York Times, September 25, 1977, p. 271.
McPherson, James Alan, "Elbow Room," in Elbow Room, Little, Brown, 1972, pp. 215-41.
――――――――, "It Is Good to Be Shifty in a New Country," in A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile, Touchstone Simon and Schuster, 2000, p. 184.
――――――――, "On Becoming an American Writer," in A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile, Touchstone Simone and Schuster, 2000, p. 25.
Review of Elbow Room, in the New Yorker, November 21, 1977, p. 230.
Twain, Mark, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Bantam, 1981, p. 281.
The one book-length study of McPherson's work is really a half book, with chapters about Gaines alternating with the McPherson chapters, but Beavers gives a good overview of both authors' published fiction.
Perlmann, Joel, "Reflecting the Changing Face of America: Multiracials, Racial Classification, and American Intermarriage," in Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law, edited by Werner Sollors, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 506-34.
Perlmann discusses the ways that Americans have been forced to redefine their identities as the boundaries that defined and separated the races have broken down. This is the situation described in the story, which Perlmann examines from a sociological perspective.
Reid, Calvin, "James Alan McPherson: A Theater of Memory," in Publishers Weekly, December 15, 1997, pp. 36-37.
This article is based on interviews with McPherson about his aversion to the business of publishing and the long periods that have passed between publication of his fiction.
Wallace, Jon, "The Politics of Style in Three Stories by James Alan McPherson," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring 1988, pp. 17-26.
Wallace's academic study of "Elbow Room" and two other stories focuses on the ways that McPherson places characters in positions where they have to defend their individual personalities against the encroachments of the world.
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