Early Success

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.

A Fiction of Difference

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

“On Trains” demonstrates the themes of difference and separation that characterize much of McPherson’s work. It is clear from the start that the woman who boards the train in Chicago and the workers on the train are different in more ways than simply their status as passenger and crew. In addition to her portrayal as plump and matronly, the woman is described as “colorless,” an intimation that she is white. She is also called an “old Southern gal,” implying that she represents the Old South. While the train continues on its journey, difference is magnified as the woman moves from one car to the next, always escaping the train crew. Finally, when there are no more cars to which the woman can move, she is forced to reveal that, in her mind, she and the porter are forever incompatible, no matter what the circumstance, because of their different skin colors.

In McPherson’s two collections of short stories, the plots, like that of “On Trains,” primarily revolve around the distinctions that exist between two main characters who are at once together within a particular setting or time frame yet separate because of their differences. Each story lies in how the characters contend with the situation those differences present. McPherson’s heroes and heroines are immediately identifiable within any community. Barbers, custodians, porters, widows, post-office clerks, and shopkeepers are the people he writes about. Even when they represent the...

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McPherson on Race

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

This is not to say that McPherson ignores the adversity that racial differences cause among people. In fact, when his stories revolve around issues of race, particularly in the title stories of both collections, McPherson is at his best. In keeping with the bleak resolutions of the majority of pieces in McPherson’s corpus, in “Hue and Cry” and “Elbow Room” the two main characters’ racial distinctions either thwart their relationships with one another entirely or constantly run as undercurrents, preventing them from existing in a context where difference is not problematic. As in “On Trains,” McPherson, in “Hue and Cry” and “Elbow Room,” masterfully infers and alludes to widely held beliefs ingrained within American culture that ultimately give rise to the racial tensions in both stories. This same technique can be found in “An Act of Prostitution” and “Problems of Art.” Because racial stereotypes get in the way of two couples’ love in “Hue and Cry” and “Elbow Room,” though, the racism portrayed is all the more evil.

In “Hue and Cry,” Margot Payne and Eric Carney’s involvement is hampered by the stereotypes associated with their racial differences. Margot is black and Eric is white. In order to counter beliefs that black women are promiscuous, Eric refrains from kissing Margot for the first three weeks of their relationship. A conversation that Margot has with Eric’s African American roommate, Jerry, also alludes to the racist innuendo that surrounds the story. Jerry tells Margot that he is a better lover than Eric, flaunting the idea of black male prowess. Like Margot and Eric, Virginia Valentine and Paul Frost, the two main characters of “Elbow Room,” must also contend with racist assumptions. Virginia is black, Paul is white. Paul is particularly troubled by such beliefs and spends much of his time learning about them in a constant effort to disregard them.

Ironically, both Margot and Eric and Virginia and Paul are involved in the social movements of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. In fact, their individual commitment to social reform is the basis for their attractions. Eric worked in the South during the civil rights marches for a semester and summer. When he returns to school in the fall and meets Margot, he recruits her to work alongside him. In “Elbow...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Ashe, Bernard D. From Within the Frame: Storytelling in African-American Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2002. Includes a chapter on McPherson’s representation of gender relations and his narrative style in “The Story of a Scar.”

Beavers, Herman. “I Yam What You Is and You Is What I Yam: Rhetorical Invisibility in James Alan McPherson’s ’The Story of a Dead Man.’” Callaloo 9 (Fall, 1986): 565-577. Though the narrator in “The Story of a Dead Man” is like other McPherson narrators in that he is visible both as storyteller and character, Beavers discusses how he is different because of his innocence and naïveté, lacking the usual all-knowing authority that legitimizes his role as storyteller.

Gervin, Mary A. “Developing a Sense of Self: The Androgynous Ideal in McPherson’s ’Elbow Room.’” CLA Journal 26 (December, 1982): 251-255. Discusses the androgynous implications of “Elbow Room,” wherein Paul and Virginia assimilate the strongest character traits of the other into their own self-concepts, subsuming their masculine and feminine attributes.

McPherson, James Alan. “Interview with James Alan McPherson.” Interview by Bob Schacochis and Dan Campion. Iowa Journal of Literary Studies 4, no. 1 (1983): 6-33. A rare opportunity to read what McPherson himself has to say about his career as a writer within theAfrican American literary tradition, about classifications in regard to writing and writers, about the publishing industry, about writing workshops, and about the craft of storytelling.

McPherson, James Alan. A Region not Home: Reflections from Exile. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. Collection of McPherson’s nonfiction, including his essay “On Becoming an American Writer.”

Wallace, Jon. “The Politics of Style in Three Stories by James Alan McPherson.” Modern Fiction Studies 34 (Spring, 1988): 17-26. Discusses the ways the narrators of “The Story of a Dead Man,” “The Story of a Scar,” and “Just Enough for the City” seek a space within themselves antithetical to the “elbow room” of Virginia Frost, in that they want to defend themselves from human intimacy, involvement, and personal history.

Wallace, Jon. “The Story Behind the Story in James Alan McPherson’s ’Elbow Room.’” Studies in Short Fiction 25 (Fall, 1988): 447-452. Considers the story’s real meaning to be the narrator’s search for a storytelling form that will let Paul and Virginia exist despite their interracial relationship.