James Alan McPherson (muhk-FURS-uhn) is 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 has said, to develop a conception of human identity that transcended racial categories.
McPherson earned a B.A. from Morris Brown College in 1965. Upon graduating, he was recruited by Harvard Law School, where he received his LL.B. 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 M.F.A. 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...
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