Authors: James Alan McPherson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American short-story writer and essayist

September 16, 1943

Savannah, Georgia

July 27, 2016

Iowa City, Iowa


James Alan McPherson (muhk-FURS-uhn) was one of the most accomplished American writers of short fiction to have achieved prominence in the years immediately following the Civil Rights era. He was born in Savannah, Georgia, on September 16, 1943, the son of James Allen and Mable (Smalls) McPherson. His father was an electrician; his mother, a domestic in a white household. Although the Savannah of McPherson’s childhood and youth remained segregated, it was a multicultural city that encouraged him, he had said, to develop a conception of human identity that transcended racial categories. {$I[AN]9810001067} {$I[A]McPherson, James Alan[MacPherson, James Alan]} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;McPherson, James Alan[MacPherson, James Alan]} {$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;McPherson, James Alan[MacPherson, James Alan]} {$I[tim]1943;McPherson, James Alan[MacPherson, James Alan]}

McPherson earned a BA from Morris Brown College in 1965. Upon graduating, he was recruited by Harvard Law School, where he received his LLB degree in 1968. While at Harvard, he sold his first two short stories to The Atlantic; the first to be published, “Gold Coast,” was honored as the best work of fiction to appear in that magazine in 1968. On the strength of that story and other manuscripts soon to be published in his first book, The Atlantic awarded McPherson a creative writing grant in 1969. That same year, he began a long-term relationship with the journal as a contributing editor, and he also completed the MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

Hue and Cry, McPherson’s first collection of short fiction, also appeared in 1969. The volume contains ten stories, many of them rather grim in tone and most of them written during the summer of 1968. The characters McPherson portrayed were often lonely, isolated, confused, even defeated—the victims of both social forces and personal failings. Building upon his own work experiences as a grocery clerk, dining-car waiter, janitor, and law student, McPherson created stories of a stark, compelling realism. The haunting refrain of the title story—“But if this is all there is, what is left of life and why are we alive?”—sounded one of the volume’s principal notes. As the book’s title and epigraph suggest, Hue and Cry was an implicit protest against the conditions it detailed. McPherson’s compassion for his characters, and their own courage and skill amid adversity, evoked sympathy from the reader, a recognition that life should be different.

The widespread praise accorded Hue and Cry was surpassed by the even greater critical success of McPherson’s second collection of stories, Elbow Room. Published in 1977, the volume won for McPherson the Pulitzer Prize the following year. In these twelve stories, McPherson revealed a refreshing sense of humor grounded in folkloric traditions and a far greater optimism about the future of race relations in the United States and about the fulfillment of individual quests for identity. A comparison of the title stories from these two books, both of them treatments of interracial love affairs, demonstrates the marked shift in mood between the two volumes. In “Hue and Cry,” the interracial relationships disintegrate, whereas in “Elbow Room,” the young couple not only marry each other but also produce a child who represents the possibility of a new order in American society. Considered as a group, the stories in Elbow Room are also better crafted and more varied than those in Hue and Cry. McPherson’s subsequent receipt of a MacArthur Foundation Award in 1981 confirmed his position as one of the most promising American writers, though one who published infrequently.

Like his friend and mentor Ralph Ellison, whom he did not meet until 1970, after the publication of Hue and Cry, McPherson sought to embrace in his fiction the diversity and complexity of American life, with its tensions and contradictions (not the life of any one race, class, or ethnic group). His stories subvert a range of stereotypes—racial, sexual, political, and cultural—thus insisting on the primacy of individual, not group, identity. At the same time, McPherson depicts characters who embody universal qualities; they are representative Americans, such as the black narrator of “Why I Like Country Music,” the initial story in Elbow Room. His fiction is often at its best when it makes use of the speaking voice, permitting its characters to reveal themselves, or the stories’ protagonists, through first-person narratives, as in “A Solo Song: For Doc,” “Gold Coast,” and “The Story of a Dead Man.” Some of his most interesting stories result from the tension he establishes between the narrator’s voice and that of another central character.

While McPherson cannot be classified as a writer of social protest literature, he was keenly aware of the need for change. McPherson also recorded the painful personal losses that can accompany rapid social change. In “A Solo Song: For Doc,” Doc Craft’s forced retirement from his career as a dining-car waiter becomes emblematic, for McPherson, of the decay not only of the American railroad but also of the cultural and political principles the railroad had long embodied. As Railroad, an anthology of miscellaneous works, makes clear, the railroad in McPherson’s stories symbolizes a freedom of movement and a potential for self-transformation that McPherson believed to be fundamental to a genuinely democratic society.

Since 1981, when he began teaching at the renowned Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, McPherson’s published writing had turned to essays rather than short stories. These nonfictional works are marked, nonetheless, by the same concerns and literary style that is found in his fiction. He won the Best American Essay award in 1990 and 1993–95 and the Pushcart Prize in 1995. That same year, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Three years later, he published his memoir, Crabcakes. John Updike, editor of Houghton Mifflin's The Best American Short Stories of the Century, selected McPherson's "Gold Coast" for inclusion in the anthology upon its publication in 2000. McPherson's last work, a collection of his essays titled A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile, was also published that year.

Refusing to subscribe to the separatist aesthetic of the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s, McPherson nevertheless remained a writer deeply rooted in the black American experience. Acknowledging both the need for and the difficulties of achieving self-definition in American society, his fiction speaks powerfully and compassionately of people, both black and white, who strive to affirm human dignity and a shared American identity.

Still a professor emeritus at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, McPherson died in Iowa City, Iowa, following complications of pneumonia on July 27, 2016, at the age of seventy-two.

Author Works Edited Texts: Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture, 1976 (with Miller Williams) Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men, 1998 (with DeWitt Henry) Short Fiction: Hue and Cry, 1969 Elbow Room, 1977 Nonfiction: Crabcakes, 1998 A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile, 2000 Bibliography Beavers, Herman. “I Yam What You Is and You Is What I Yam: Rhetorical Invisibility in James Alan McPherson’s ‘The Story of a Dead Man.’” Callaloo 9 (1986): 565–577. Beavers discusses the linguistic and rhetorical characteristics of McPherson’s dialogue and how language shapes perceptions, specifically in “The Story of a Dead Man.” Beavers, Herman. Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Provides criticism and interpretation of Gaines’s and McPherson’s works of fiction. Cox, Joseph T. “James Alan McPherson.” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. A brief introduction to McPherson’s art, including a short biographical sketch, a summary and critique of the criticism of his work, and a short discussion of his short-story themes of intolerance and general absence of grace and love in modern society. Laughlin, Rosemary M. “Attention, American Folklore: Doc Craft Comes Marching In.” Studies in American Fiction 1 (1973): 221–227. Laughlin discusses McPherson’s use of myth and folklore, as well as his ability to create new kinds of folklore in the pages of his story based on his aesthetic use of language and his unique mythical style. “McPherson, James Alan.” Current Biography 57 (September, 1996): 34–38. A biographical sketch of McPherson; claims that he sees the United States as a land populated by diverse peoples who are connected by a larger heritage; asserts that his major theme in both fiction and nonfiction has been the common humanity that transcends race. McPherson, James Alan. “Interview with James Alan McPherson.” Interview by Bob Shacochis. Iowa Journal of Literary Studies 4 (1983): 6–33. Shacochis focuses on questions relating to McPherson’s vision of his literary role and on specific works in his collections. Contains also some discussion of McPherson’s obligations as a “black-American” author. Reid, Calvin. “James Alan McPherson: A Theater of Memory.” Publishers Weekly 244 (December 15, 1997): 36–37. A biographical profile of McPherson; contends McPherson presents a wonderfully accurate social tableau full of vivid characters and lively, true dialogue, which is delivered within narratives so universal and directly meaningful that the stories aspire to the mythic realm of folklore and legend. Roberts, Sam. "James Alan McPherson, Pulitzer Prize–Winning Writer, Dies at 72." The New York Times, 27 July 2016, Accessed 23 Aug. 2017. Wallace, Jon. The Politics of Style: Language as Theme in the Fiction of Berger, McGuane, and McPherson. Durango, Colo.: Hollowbrook, 1992. A study of the importance of language in the fiction of several authors, including McPherson. Wallace, Jon. “The Politics of Style in Three Stories by James Alan McPherson.” Modern Fiction Studies 34 (Spring, 1988): 17–26. Wallace argues that, in three stories by McPherson, “The Story of a Dead Man,” “The Story of a Scar,” and “Just Enough for the City,” characters use language to construct for themselves a defense against human involvement and human communities which often threaten to weaken their sense of self. Wallace, Jon. “The Story Behind the Story in James Alan McPherson’s Elbow Room.” Studies in Short Fiction 25 (Fall, 1988): 447–452. Wallace argues that McPherson’s stories are often attempts to create a new kind of mythology, or mythological space, in which to place the experiences of his characters in the larger context of American society. Because of this, Wallace argues that in McPherson’s work it is narrative form that matters much more than either the particulars of the story or the characters.

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