Even though James Alan McPherson has not published many collections of short fiction, his adroit characterizations and his strong sense of place have attracted many readers and influenced a number of writers. His work has been anthologized and has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, The Harvard Advocate, Reader’s Digest, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Ploughshares. His association with the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa and his teaching of courses in fiction writing have given him a forum from which he influences beginning writers across the United States. Though earlier critics noted similarities between McPherson and other African American writers such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, critical attention was later placed on his unique use of language and his ability to create a mythical dimension to his stories. Because of this, his fiction has begun to be examined in a much wider context than previously.
The story “Gold Coast” won the prize for fiction awarded by The Atlantic Monthly in 1968. McPherson won the literature award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1970, and he was the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1972. Elbow Room won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was nominated for the National Book Award. In 1981, his writing achievements earned him a MacArthur Fellowship.