James Alan McPherson was immediately recognized for his talent as a writer. In the same year that he graduated from Harvard Law School, his first collection of short stories, Hue and Cry, was published. McPherson was twenty-five at the time, and a year later he was awarded an O. Henry Prize for the volume’s title story. Less than ten years later, his second collection, Elbow Room, was published and received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. In 1981, McPherson was honored with a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
Such prompt and extensive praise resulted from McPherson’s penetrating examination of themes of racial differences, as in the story “On Trains,” in which a plump, matronly woman boards a train in Chicago. She spends the entire afternoon in the dining car, until she is asked to leave so the waiters can prepare the next table setting. The porters and stewards gossip that she does not tip though she receives good service. Alone in the club car with the bartender, she grows uncomfortable and leaves in a hurry when he comes from behind the bar to wipe tables. The woman moves on to the Pullman car, where she learns that the Pullman porter stays in the car overnight in case passengers need him. She complains to the Pullman conductor that the porter is black and should not be allowed to stay in the car. Told that it is the porter’s job, the woman decides to sleep in the coaches instead of the Pullman, while the porter falls asleep, feeling guilty and ashamed despite his innocence.