James Alan McPherson McPherson, James Alan - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

McPherson, James Alan 1943–

McPherson is a black American short story writer, editor, and critic noted for his understated short fiction. He won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for Elbow Room. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

R. V. Cassill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I suspect some of the very real passion and vitality of McPherson's [collection of stories in "Hue and Cry"] may be overlooked because of the red-hot topical interest of his subject matter. He is black and writes from the point of view of black characters. Even when one or another of them protests against a definition of his life by race, the protest is apt to be co-opted into the blathering stereotypes of dialogue that have become our national diet. It is very difficult with the best of intentions and the most devoted skill to draw boundary lines on an avalanche while it is in motion or listen to Beethoven in a boiler factory. My real fear is that this splendid young writer may have trouble finding an audience fit to read what he is really saying. "Private Domain" and "Of Cabbages and Kings" both record the efforts of a man trying not to be forced into color stereotypes, and both, I think, are relative failures. They are anti-stereotype stereotypes, and perhaps indicate that any attempt to speak out in Babel is to become a part of it.

Beyond this, though, there are at least a half-dozen marvelous stories solid and sure and personal enough to hold their own in any weather. "A Matter of Vocabulary" is a strongly structured, thoroughly controlled representation of a boy's attempt to translate the signals of the world into a recognizable description of his place in it…. In "Hue and Cry" the catastrophe of meaningless drift is rendered...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Laurence Lafore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "Hue and Cry" McPherson] writes in an unmannered, unhurried, unexcited way that adumbrates its own literary form. The stories are uneven, but they are all original; and the best of them, notably one called "Of Cabbages and Kings," about a slightly mad adherent of the Black Power mystique, are superlatively moving and haunting. They are not richly intellectual, which is a relief, but McPherson proves that objectivity coupled with close observation and technical skill can evoke strong emotion. (p. 26)

Laurence Lafore, "Fiction: 'Hue and Cry'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 1, 1969, pp. 5, 26.

Robie Macauley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For the most part, [McPherson has been] able to look beneath skin color and clichés of attitude into the hearts of his characters…. This is a fairly rare ability in American fiction where even the most telling kind of perception seldom seems able to pass an invisible color line. Black writers—with the exception of Ralph Ellison—too often see white characters as some configuration of externals, and white writers, perhaps even more grossly, have done the same with blacks.

In McPherson's title story [from his second collection of short stories, "Elbow Room"] Virginia is the wife in an interracial marriage that has proved to be a ruinous struggle for a kind of psychological synthesis. With bitter humor she says: "When times get tough, anybody can pass for white. Niggers been doing that for centuries…. But wouldn't it of been something to be a nigger that could relate to white and black and everything else in the world out of a self as big as the world is?"

Such selves, black or white, require an act of imagination that is almost never realized in the actual world; this is one of McPherson's recurrent themes….

There are a number of good stories in "Elbow Room" devoted to solely black experiences. Among the best are "The Story of a Dead Man" (an exuberant comedy in spite of its title), "The Story of a Scar" and "The Silver Bullet." The latter is ostensibly about another common inner-city occurrence—black hoods strong-arming a black barkeeper for protection money…. [As] the crisis approaches, there is a subtle shift of feeling about the realistic scene and—as often in McPherson's fiction—we sense both reality and parable. And, of course, the parable is about terrorism and the illusions of terrorism.

A fine control of language and story, a depth in his characters, humane values, these are a few of the virtues James Alan McPherson displays in this fine collection of stories.

Robie Macauley, "White and Black and Everything Else," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 25, 1977, p. 31.

Diane Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the stories of [Elbow Room] the ordinary white reader will at first feel at home. There are some men's magazine tall tales about romantic barroom types—the "bullshitters and goodtimers," like Billy Renfro, the one-eyed car-payment collector—which could have been written by any American with an ear for dialect and a satirical gift….

McPherson's stories, absorbing and sensitive, seem at first glance colorless. The narrator of many is intelligent, analytical, and uncomfortably out of place in the settings of his stories. He thinks himself too good for the "street niggers."… But he also despises Paul, the white husband of a black friend of his, because he can't quite be a "nigger." He despises Professional Blacks, too, describing the current scene as one where "even the great myths floated apart from their rituals. Cynical salesmen hawked them as folklore. And language, mother language, was being whored by her best sons [n.b.] to suit the appetites of wealthy patrons…. Black folk were back into entertaining with the time-tested acts."… A white reader, at first sympathizing with his stiff discomfort, and perhaps disappointed at his straight prose, may wish he would hop on the soul train and have a little fun. But perhaps that would be bad advice…. [Maybe] the plain, anxious people in McPherson's stories, mapping out their future lives in "blocks of years, stepladders of subgoals," are what more people are really like. (p. 8)

Diane Johnson, "The Oppressor in the Next Room," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXIV, No. 18, November 10, 1977, pp. 6, 8.∗

The New Yorker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mr. McPherson] is one of those rare writers who can tell a story, describe shadings of character, and make sociological observations with equal subtlety…. [One of the stories in "Elbow Room,"] "The Story of a Scar"—about a simple young woman whose prim college boyfriend stabs her in a fit of jealousy—touchingly explores some of the crosswinds that buffet young blacks in their sometimes desperate quest for respectability. A few stories (the title story among them) tell the reader a bit less than he wants to know about the characters' lives and a bit more than he wants to know about the ideological or artistic problems that confronted the narrator. For the most part, however, the characters speak eloquently for themselves.

"Fiction: 'Elbow Room'," in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIII, No. 40, November 21, 1977, p. 230.

Robert Phillips

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Because] McPherson has never taken the color of his skin as an excuse for not learning the craft of fiction, his tales ultimately become not so much about the black condition as the human condition. He writes of difficult struggles for survival, yet his sense of humor allows him to dwell on moments which otherwise might prove unbearable….

[The stories in Elbow Room] are structured upon visible conflicts: North versus South, rich versus poor, respectable versus unrespectable, educated versus ignorant, hardheads versus progressives. All come to play in one marvelous story, "The Faithful," concerning an old-fashioned black barber who refuses to cut the new Afro styles. These conflicts are also at the heart of "A Loaf of Bread," perhaps the book's best story, concerning a small ghetto shopkeeper and his strife with the changing community….

There is only one misfire—"Widows and Orphans," a slow revelation of a seemingly bountiful and kind person of achievement who is shown to be, in fact, a first-class bitch. The plot seems too patently modeled upon the likes of The Bad and the Beautiful and All About Eve. With this single exception, Elbow Room is a book of singular achievement…. (p. 600)

Robert Phillips, "The Short Story—Four Collections," in Commonweal (copyright © 1978 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CV, No. 18, September 15, 1978, pp. 599-602.∗