James Alan McPherson

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 greater critical success of McPherson’s second collection of stories, Elbow Room. Published in 1977, the volume won for McPherson the Pulitzer Prize the following year. In these twelve stories McPherson revealed a refreshing sense of humor grounded in folkloric traditions and a far greater optimism about the future of race relations in the United States and about the fulfillment of individual quests for identity. A comparison of the title stories from these two books, both of them treatments of interracial love affairs, demonstrates the marked shift in mood between the two volumes. In “Hue and Cry” the interracial relationships disintegrate, whereas in “Elbow Room” the young couple not only marry each another but also produce a child who represents the possibility of a new order in American society. Considered as a group, the stories in Elbow Room are also better crafted and more varied than those in Hue and Cry. McPherson’s subsequent receipt of a MacArthur Foundation Award in 1981 confirmed his position as one of the most promising American writers, though one who has published infrequently.

Like his friend and mentor Ralph Ellison, whom he did not meet until 1970, after the publication of Hue and Cry , McPherson seeks to embrace in his fiction the diversity and complexity of American life, with its tensions and contradictions (not the life of any one race, class, or ethnic group). His stories subvert a range of stereotypes—racial, sexual, political, and cultural—thus insisting on the primacy of individual, not group, identity. At the same time, McPherson depicts characters who embody universal qualities; they are representative Americans,...

(The entire section is 1,406 words.)