James Alan McPherson was born in 1943 in Savannah, Georgia, the second of four children. His father was a master electrician (the first African-American so recognized in Georgia), and his mother was a maid. While James was growing up, his father struggled with alcohol and time in jail. In the essay “Going Up To Atlanta,” McPherson describes the many odd jobs he took on to help support his mother, brother, and sisters while attending a Catholic school where all the nuns were white and the children black. Later, he attended a public school, “where all the mean people went.”
As a boy, James loved comic books, but it was his discovery of the “colored branch” of the public library that changed his life. When he started reading books, McPherson learned that words, even without pictures, “gave up their secret meanings, spoke of other worlds…made me know that pain was a part of other people’s lives.”
In 1962, James left Savannah, working as a dining-car waiter for the Great Northern Railroad – an experience that contributed to two early short-stories and to his nonfiction book Railroad (published in 1976). By 1963-1964, James was attending Morgan State University in Baltimore, and then, through the help of a National Defense Student Loan, he finished his degree at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, graduating in 1965. That’s James in the picture above (far right) at Morris Brown, majoring in history and English.
In 1968, James received a LL.B. from Harvard Law School, where he partially financed his studies by working as a janitor. While at Harvard, he studied fiction writing with Alan Lebowitz, working on his stories when he found some spare time. It was the publication of his short story “Gold Coast” in The Atlantic Monthly that first brought him public recognition. During this period, McPherson established a close working relationship with Edward Weeks, an editor at The Atlantic, which led to McPherson becoming a contributing editor in 1969.
In 1971, James received an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied briefly with the short-story writer and novelist Richard Yates. While studying creative writing (publishing his first collection Hue and Cry in 1969), McPherson decided not to practice law; however, he would continue to utilize his legal training in various projects. In a 1972 Atlantic Monthly essay, he exposed exploitative business practices against black homeowners, presaging the later work of Ta-Nehisi Coates.
In 1972, James received a Guggenheim Fellowship, married, and moved to San Francisco. He taught at the University of California Santa Cruz in 1974 and was hired by the University of Virginia in 1976. While at Virginia, he published his second collection, Elbow Room, and, in 1978, became the first African-American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize; however, his sense of being exploited at Virginia was so extreme that he felt exposed by the award. In a 2001 interview with Trent Masiki, James had this to say about the experience…
I was brought in to be in the window…I was really frightened of that environment. That’s why when I got the Pulitzer, I didn’t respond to calls. I stayed at home and hid out. You should be allowed to take joy in what happens to you. But I was scared of the backlash…For them to see me doing well wasn’t what they expected…Some whites get resentful when someone from the lowest levels of society starts winning their stuff. So I’ve been very careful about protecting my privacy ever since those years.
In 1979, James was offered a job with the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. In the years that followed, McPherson bought a house on auction in Baltimore, which he then rented at nominal rates to needy tenants; and bought a house in Iowa City, settling into a life that was largely reclusive, other than for his teaching.
Over time, James gradually began to connect with his Iowa City neighbors, with colleagues, and with students, seeing Iowa City as the basis of a spiritually centered democracy.
I have many friends here: black and white and other … I am confident that here, I am first of all a person, a human being. I have been accepted into the life of the community. I have open and free access to what in this community has meaning and value.
In 1981, James became the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a member of the first group selected for one of the MacArthur Foundation’s so-called “genius grants.” In 1995, McPherson was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2000, John Updike selected his short story “Gold Coast” for his collection Best American Short Stories of the Century (Houghton Mifflin).
Crabcakes: A Memoir, McPherson’s first original work since Elbow Room, was published in 1998, and James’ final book, an essay collection called A Region Not Home: Reflections on Exile was published in 2000.
During his thirty years at Iowa, James became a master teacher, mentoring Eileen Pollack, Kathryn Harrison, Gish Jen, Adam Schwartz, Samantha Chang, Z. Z. Packer, and many others. He developed courses ranging from the Bible to American Humor and Mark Twain. He also vested himself in “working on the industry from the inside,” serving emerging talents that promised “new stories” and a new American perspective. Following Frank Conroy’s death in 2005, James served as acting director of the Writers Workshop as well (2005-2007).
In October 2011, McPherson was honored as the inaugural recipient of the Paul Engle Award from the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature. According to the citation:
The Engle Award honors an individual who, like Engle, longtime director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and co-founder of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, represents a pioneering spirit in the world of literature through writing, editing, publishing, or teaching, and whose active participation in the larger issues of the day has contributed to the betterment of the world through the literary arts.
DeWitt Henry, in his excellent biographical piece on McPherson, concludes with this tribute:
In his fiction and nonfiction alike, McPherson penetrates to the soul of different perspectives, traditions, and values with his extraordinary mind and heart. His writing is remarkable for its humor, its tireless Socratic intelligence, stylistic invention and variety, and meta-fictional urgency. In terms of his observant conscience, he is as subtle and rigorous as George Orwell and James Baldwin, whom he professes wryly never to have read. Above all, McPherson is writing the uncreated conscience of democracy itself, appealing to both personal and social justice, and “an enlarging of our humanity.”
James Alan McPherson died on July 27, 2016, due to complications of pneumonia. He was 72. He is survived by a daughter, Rachel McPherson, a son, Benjamin Miyamoto, and is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.
Godspeed, my Iowa friend. Now, as I walk through the Iowa City park named in your honor, I’m so glad to know your amazing “Elbow Room” story. Click here to see some pictures from that special August 5, 2021 ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.