Savannah-born James Alan McPherson won literary fame for his short stories in the 1960s and 1970s. Winner of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for his second volume of stories, McPherson then built a reputation as a distinguished editor, teacher, memoirist, and an essayist on American culture.
The second of four children born to James and Mable (Smalls) McPherson, the young McPherson attended St. Mary’s and Paulson Street elementary schools in racially segregated Savannah and graduated in 1961 from A. E. Beach High School, a school founded in 1867 for the education of freed slaves.
In his autobiographical essay “Going Up to Atlanta,“ McPherson wrote, “In Savannah, we lived almost always in poverty: public welfare, clothes from the Salvation Army, no lights or heat for years at a time, double sessions in the segregated public schools, work at every possible job that would pay the bills.” He escaped by reading, either at the Colored Branch of the Carnegie Public Library on East Henry Street, or on West Henry at the Salvation Army, where he picked up secondhand comic books. Words on a page “gave up their secret meanings, spoke of other worlds, made me know that pain was a part of other peoples' lives. After a while, I could read faster and faster and faster and faster. After a while, I no longer believed in the world in which I lived.”
Delivering the Savannah Morning News and bagging potatoes at the M&M Food Store were two of many jobs that McPherson held growing up, jobs that he said taught him to watch people and helped him imagine their lives. Other jobs that he worked at while he was a student at Morris Brown College in Atlanta allowed him to travel, or to meet people from backgrounds quite different from his own. While he was in college, McPherson worked in the Atlanta post office and in the banquet rooms of Atlanta’s whites-only Dinkler Hotel and Piedmont Driving Club, and during the summer he waited on dining car tables on a transcontinental railroad.
While he majored in English and history at Morris Brown, McPherson co-edited the Wolverine Observer student paper and was editor of The Brownite yearbook. He was also awarded a slot as a visiting scholar at Morgan State College in Baltimore for a year, and when he returned to Morris Brown in 1965, his senior year, he won a national Readers Digest-United Negro College Fund creative writing contest. He won admission to Harvard Law School (LL.B.,1968), and in his final year there he wrote a story, “Gold Coast,” that won Atlantic Monthly magazine’s “Firsts” award. McPherson later said that the publication of "Gold Coast" helped to steer him away from the law and into a career of writing. In 1999 “Gold Coast” would be included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century collection, edited by John Updike.
The year he graduated from Harvard, McPherson entered the esteemed creative writing workshop at the University of Iowa, and in 1969 he became a regular Atlantic Monthly contributing writer and published his first collection of stories, Hue and Cry. The collection, which won a National Institute of Arts and Letters award, included “A Matter of Vocabulary,” a coming–of-age story that draws its setting from McPherson’s youth in Savannah. Another story in the collection, “Solo Song: For Doc,” a story about dining car waiters that was inspired by McPherson’s college summer job on the Great Northern Railroad, was later adapted as a Peabody Award-nominated television play by the Georgia-born actor and writer Ossie Davis.
During the 1969-1970 academic year McPherson was a guest lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and he earned his M.F.A. from Iowa the next year. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for writing in 1972, he subsequently taught English and writing at Morgan State (1975-76), the University of Virginia (1976-81), and Yale Law School (resident fellow, 1978).
In 1976, with poet Miller Williams, McPherson published the anthology Railroad: Trains and Train People, which explored the importance of railroads in McPherson and Williams' own memories and the national experience of the United States. McPherson contributed three original historical essays to Railroad, along with “Solo Song: For Doc.”
McPherson's second volume of short stories, Elbow Room (1977), roundly impressed literary critics who declared that McPherson had now developed a masterful, insightful sense of humor to go with his already layered, compassionate view of human complexity. Four of Elbow Room's stories previously published in periodicals had won O. Henry awards -- a coveted prize for American short stories of exceptional merit -- and, in 1978, the collection was nominated for both a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, the latter of which it won. Notably, Elbow Room's award was the first time a Pulitzer Prize jury had awarded the national fiction prize to an African-American author.
McPherson was selected for a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1981, and he left his professorship at the University of Virginia to teach for his alma mater, the Iowa Writers Workshop. Over the following decades, as he dedicated himself to teaching creative writing students, developing new literary courses, and lecturing at other universities and abroad in Japan, McPherson turned his own creative attention to writing nonfiction. His essays were selected for the annual Best American Essays collection four times in the 1990s and the esteemed Pushcart Prize anthology twice. Meanwhile, he edited special fiction issues of The Iowa Review and Ploughshares, two respected American literary journals, and he became a contributing editor for the renowned psychiatrist-author Robert Coles's innovative magazine, Doubletake.
Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995, McPherson in 1998 published his memoir Crabcakes, which he dedicated to his daughter, Rachel. In Crabcakes a series of episodes spanning two decades trace McPherson’s own personal journey through a withdrawn period of depression. Ultimately, as he makes his way to a sustaining sense of grace, with characteristic humor McPherson aligns his emotional and spiritual recovery with “a trail of seafood, along the path my life had taken, from the crabs and shrimp of Savannah to the cod and lobsters of Boston to the crab cakes of Baltimore and to the fugu of Japan.''
In 1998 McPherson co-edited and contributed to another anthology with his longtime friend and the founder of Ploughshares DeWitt Henry, Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men. In 2000 he published A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile, a volume of articles and essays bound by themes of distance and connection, on topics ranging from Ralph Ellison, Mark Twain, and Othello to Disneyland, family, and ritual college hazing. Reviewing the collection in the Chicago Tribune, Kathleen Hirsh wrote that McPherson “explores with eloquent urgency the question: What in the black American experience needs to be named, honored and upheld today?” The collection included “Grant Hall” (about his years at Morris Brown) and “On Becoming an American Writer,” his often-anthologized statement on race and identity, which he expresses through the lens of his own experience:
In 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education was decided, I was 11 years old. I lived in a lower-class black community in Savannah, Ga., attended segregated public schools and knew no white people socially. I can't remember thinking of this last fact as a disadvantage, but I do know that early on I was being conditioned to believe that I was not supposed to know any white people on social terms.
A mentor to many young writers, McPherson nurtured countless literary careers at the University of Iowa as a teacher, editor, and friend, and he taught a weekly writing class at an assisted living facility in Iowa City. He also served on panels for national literary community organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Whiting Writing Awards, and was a judge for the Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Awards.
In 2011 he was named inaugural recipient of Iowa City's UNESCO City of Literature Paul Engle award, awarded to “pioneering spirits” in the world of literature whose “active participation in the larger issues of the day has contributed to the betterment of the world through the literary arts.” At the time of his death in 2016, in his adopted home of Iowa City, McPherson was an emeritus professor of the Iowa Writers Workshop, of which he had been acting director on several occasions.
The following titles by James Alan McPherson are held by the Hargrett Library:
외치는 소리 [Oech'inŭn sori. Hue and Cry. Korean ed.] Sŏul-si: Maŭm Sanch’aek, 2013. 행동 반경 [Haengdong pan'gyŏng. Elbow Room. Korean ed.) Sŏul-si: Maŭm Sanch’aek, 2013.
A Region Not Home. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Fathering Daughters. (Editor) Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
Crabcakes. New York Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Elbow Room. New York: Scribner, 1987.
Elbow Room. Franklin Center, PA.: Franklin Library, 1980.
Le Décalage. [Elbow Room. French translation.] Paris: ICA, 1980
Elbow Room.. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1979.
Elbow Room. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977.
Railroad. (With Miller Williams) New York: Random House, 1976.
Hue and Cry. Boston: Little, Brown 
Hue and Cry. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969.