African-American writer James Alan McPherson was born on September 16, 1943, in Savannah, Georgia. He was educated at Morris Brown College, Morgan State University, Harvard Law School and the University of Iowa. He has published both collections of short stories and volumes of non-fiction essays; the short stories in Elbow Room won him the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. McPherson died in 2016 at the age of 72.
Early Life and Background
James Alan McPherson was born on September 16, 1943, in Savannah, Georgia. His father was an electrician; his mother worked as a maid. McPherson was the second of four children. He, his brother and his two sisters grew up in Savannah when the South was still racially segregated.
McPherson attended Atlanta's Morris Brown College before moving to Morgan State University, located in Baltimore, Maryland, for two years; he then returned to Morris Brown and graduated with his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1965. While in school, he worked as a dining car waiter for the Great Northern Railroad and as a janitor.
McPherson next went to Harvard University Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While studying law, he continued to pay his expenses by working as a janitor. He also wrote during law school, and took summer writing classes. Though he graduated with a law degree in 1968, McPherson entered the Writers' Workshop program at the University of Iowa instead of pursuing a legal career. He completed his Master of Fine Arts degree in 1971.
When he was still a law student, McPherson had his short story "Gold Coast" published by the Atlantic in 1968. "Gold Coast," a tale of the complicated friendship between a young black janitor and aspiring writer (much like McPherson himself) and his supervisor (an older white man), was also included in McPherson's first collection of short stories, Hue and Cry (1969). McPherson was made a contributing editor for the Atlantic in 1969.
McPherson's next collection of short stories, 1977's Elbow Room, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1978. For this book, as for Hue and Cry, McPherson had created realistic characters in narratives that explored themes ofracial identity and social conflict. McPherson was influenced in his writing by older African-American authors like Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison, who became his mentors and friends.
McPherson has produced non-fiction work, such as Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture (1976), co-edited with Miller Williams. He has also written collections of essays about his own life and cultural identity: Crabcakes, published in 1998,and A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile, published in 2000. The latter book includes his important autobiographical essay "On Becoming an American Writer" and his tribute to Ralph Ellison, "Gravitas."
McPherson's work has appeared in numerous journals, magazines and short story anthologies, including Best American Short Stories 1969 and . He has edited issues of the Iowa Review and Ploughshares. McPherson, who has one daughter, Rachel, also co-edited the essay collection Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men (1998).
Teaching Career and Honors
McPherson has taught literature and writing at several universities, including the University of California at Santa Cruz and Morgan State University. As his marriage was ending, he left the University of Virginia for the University of Iowa, where he has been a professor of English and part of the school's Writers' Workshop since 1981. He has also lectured at universities in Japan.
In his career, McPherson has received many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973 and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1981. In 1995, he became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
James Alan McPherson died on July 27, 2016 in Iowa City, IA, at the age of 72.
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