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.
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...