James Alan McPherson is one of the writers of fiction who form the second major phase of modern writing about the African American experience. Indebted, like all of his generation, to the groundbreaking and theme-setting work of Richard Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin, McPherson shies away from doctrinaire argumentation about racial issues. Rather, he uses these issues to give his work a firmly American aura, which includes a preoccupation not only with what it means to be a black person in modern America but also with how the individual responds to a culture that often is plagued by subtle and not-so-subtle racial discriminations. Hence, there are times when blackness becomes for McPherson a metaphor for the alienation experienced by the individual in contemporary society.
This comprehensive concern with American culture informs all of McPherson’s work, including those pieces that are included in the prose and poetry collection compiled by McPherson and Miller Williams entitled Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture. A celebration, a lament, and a plea, this volume deals with the passing of the great era of passenger railcar service in the United States. To McPherson, the liberating motion integral to the railroad is important, but so is the sense of place and time that builds for his characters much of their sense of self. McPherson’s characters are often confined by the conventions of locale, yet McPherson is not a regional writer in the usual sense of the word; he can bring to life stories set in Tennessee, Virginia, Boston, Chicago, or London.
Because of the tension in this body of work between the individual and the community, McPherson’s people often feel alienated, lonely, and unable fully to reach or to maintain contact with acquaintances, friends, families, or lovers. Yet, such isolation may lead to a character’s growth to near-tragic stature. The integrity of the individual is thus asserted even while a narrator may worry over the deep inability of any person to penetrate into the heart and mind of another. Such recognitions contribute to the sympathetic portrayal even of unpromising characters. It should be noted that the reader is not given solutions in McPherson’s fiction, only access to degrees of awareness of the mysteries of race, sexuality, identity, and love. Reading McPherson, a reader may be reminded of Baldwin’s presentation of agonizingly complex racial and sexual problems, of Saul Bellow’s portrayal of characters battling absurdity and despair, and of the struggle of characters, both in Baldwin and in Bellow, toward the ameliorating but no less mysterious experience of love.
McPherson’s first volume of short fiction, Hue and Cry, is an often-grim affair, containing stories of loneliness, destitution, defeat, sexual alienation, and racial tension. A prime example of this early work is “Gold Coast.” The narrator of this story is an “apprentice janitor” in a hotel near Harvard Square in Boston, a hotel that has seen better days and is now populated with aging singles or couples who are almost as disengaged from the mainstream of Boston life as is the superintendent of the building, James Sullivan. Listening to Sullivan and observing the people in the apartments, the narrator, Robert, seeks to gather information for the stories and books he hopes to write. For Robert, being a janitor is in some ways a whim; in addition to gleaning experiential details from rubbish bins, he is constructing his life along romantic lines. Hence, Robert notes that, almost nightly,I drifted off to sleep lulled by sweet anticipation of that time when my potential would suddenly be realized and there would be capsule biographies of my life on dust jackets of many books, all proclaiming: “He knew life on many levels. From shoeshine boy, free-lance waiter, 3rd cook, janitor, he rose to. ”
Naïve but witty, the narrator humors Sullivan, putting up patiently with the Irishman’s redundant reminiscing and opinionated ramblings on society and politics. Sullivan, however, comes to rely on Robert’s company; he turns from the horrors of life in the filthy apartment he shares with his obscene, insane wife to interminable conversations with Robert.
Robert’s sympathetic tolerance of Sullivan emanates from his sense of the pathetic isolation of Sullivan from human contact and from Robert’s recognition for the first time of the terrors of aging. Robert is the archetypal youth coming to awareness of old age as a time of foreshortened expectations and straitened lifestyles, of possible despair and near dehumanization. The apprentice janitor can tolerate Sullivan and his new knowledge while his relationship with the rich, lovely Jean goes well, but Jean and he are soon torn apart by social forces. In fact, they play a game called “Social Forces,” in which they try to determine which of them will break first under social disapproval of their interracial relationship. When the game defeats them, Robert first is comforted by and then pulls back from his friendship with the dejected Sullivan, who is especially upset over the loss of his dog.
When Robert finally leaves his briefly held janitorial position, he does so with both relief and guilt over his abandonment of Sullivan. He knows, however, that he is “still young” and not yet doomed to the utter loneliness of the old man. McPherson suggests that the young, nevertheless, will inevitably come to such bleak isolation and that even the temporary freedom of youth is sometimes maintained...
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