Essayist, short-story writer, and critic, James Alan McPherson was among that generation of African American writers and intellectuals, including Charles Johnson and Stanley Crouch, who were inspired and mentored by Ralph Ellison. McPherson’s early short story “Gold Coast” won the 1965 Atlantic Monthly Firsts award. In 1978 he was the first African American recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his 1977 story collection, Elbow Room. Frequently anthologized, McPherson received such prestigious honors as a Guggenheim Fellowship (1972-73), the MacArthur Fellowship (1981), several Pushcart Prizes, and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1995).
James Alan McPherson Jr. was born in Savannah on September 16, 1943, before integration, to Mabel Small and James Alan McPherson, the first African American master electrician in Georgia. He recollected playing hooky from school in order to read in the “colored branch” of the local Carnegie Library. In 1962 he worked as a dining-car waiter for the Great Northern Railroad. He attended Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, from 1963 to 1964 and earned a B.A. degree at Morris Brown College in Atlanta in 1965. Subsequently he attended Harvard University Law School (LL.B., 1968) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, and the Yale University Law School in New Haven, Connecticut. With his M.F.A. degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa (1969), he taught at a variety of institutions, including the University of California, Santa Cruz; Harvard University; the University of Virginia; and the University of Iowa. He also lectured in Japan. In 1981 he was among the first recipients of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius awards.”
He married Sarah Lynn Charlton, whom he later divorced, and had two children, Rachel and Benjamin.
As a writer McPherson saw himself most fully as a practitioner of the short story. His stories have appeared in many different periodicals, including mainstream magazines like the Atlantic Monthly and Playboy and small-press journals like the Harvard Review and Ploughshares. The best of his work has been collected in Hue and Cry (1968) and Elbow Room (1977). His memoir, Crabcakes (1998), which records his life from 1976 through his experiences teaching in Japan, is also very much in the mode of a series of stories.
Like Ralph Ellison, McPherson saw African American culture as integrally connected with the “white” culture. He did not consider himself a “Black writer” but rather thought of himself in relation to other practitioners of the American tradition of short fiction. Although he wrote on topics drawn from his experiences as a Black man, he rejected the notion that Black or white fiction must necessarily concern certain Black or white topics. Indeed, his concern was to record stories that might be lost because of such conformity.
As an editor and critic, McPherson produced several books. Railroad: Trains and Train People (1976), coedited with poet Miller Williams, grew out of his experiences working on the railroad. In association with DeWitt Henry, founding editor of Ploughshares, McPherson compiled and edited Confronting Racial Difference (1990) and Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men (1998). In 2000 he published A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile, a collection of twelve essays and reviews. It includes his classic “On Becoming an American Writer” and “Gravitas,” his appreciation of Ralph Ellison on the occasion of the posthumous publication of Ellison’s novel Juneteenth in 1999.
McPherson died from complications of pneumonia in Iowa City, Iowa, on July 27, 2016. Later that year he was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.