McPherson's way 

We live in a class-conscious, color-divisive world. We don’t want to admit it, but we do. We know our own kind best. Or we think we do.

Catholic, Jewish, country, suburban, urban, gay, rich African-Americans, poor African-Americans.

We may go to the same schools, shop at the same supermarkets, share the same streets. But we don’t have a clue what goes on behind the public facade, the front door.

To hide this ignorance, we rely on stereotypes. That way we can concentrate on the differences instead of the similarities. And there are differences. Between the classes, the ethnic groups, the races.

But in the end, we all have the same hassles - how to fit into a community, how to feel good about ourselves, how to do the right thing.

What class you’re born into -- how much money you have -- is huge. So is race. But in the end, the biggest struggle is how to be a good human being.

James Alan McPherson knows that. He’s lived it. He’s fought it. He’s experienced it.

Talk about stereotypes. And what happens when you go beyond them.

McPherson grew up in Savannah on Waldburg Street for a while, then 44th street and Burroughs. He grew up poor. His father was an electrical contractor but had trouble with the bottle. He went to segregated schools.

In 1961, he graduated from Beach High School.

But guess what? After going to Morris Brown College in Atlanta and working during the summer as a waiter on the railroad, he sees the world and gets a taste for more. Then he gets into Harvard University and graduates with a law degree.

But he doesn’t want to be a lawyer. He only wants to understand the law. He wants to be a writer. And because he read as a child, because he was curious, observant, open and willing to try something he wasn’t trained to do, he writes stories, submits them to a creative writing contest sponsored by Reader’s Digest, wins first prize and gets published in the Atlantic Monthly.

In 1969, he publishes Hue and Cry, his first book of short stores. In 1977, he publishes his second, Elbow Room, 12 amazing stories about people, some white, mostly black, that are trying to escape the typical racial and sexual stereotypes, characters that people like me have to read about to know about.

Then, in 1978, after Elbow Room, this graduate of Beach High School -- a segregated school in a segregated city in the segregated South -- becomes the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, two years after Saul Bellow, two years before Norman Mailer.

A Pulitzer Price. Talk about breaking the stereotype.

A few years later, he receives a MacArthur Foundation grant, awarded to 21 talented Americans. The award carries no strings, only time to think, read, create -- or do nothing. He received $192,000, or $36,800 for each of the next five years.

In one interview I read about McPherson, written by Emma Edmunds, he said, “In Savannah, we lived in shacks. We lived in places where if your hand got out at night, a rat would get it. I used to see my father on street corners and run the other way.”

Maybe you’ve heard of Mr. McPherson. I hadn’t. Maybe the folks at the Board of Education have heard of him -- or the staff at Beach High School. I don’t know.

I heard about him from someone I was playing tennis with, also a graduate of Beach. So I went to the public library and found his books. Elbow Room was in paperback, the first 15 pages missing.

The rest - A Region Not Home, Reflections from Exile, Hue and Cry, Crabcakes and a book about the railroad in American culture -- were in better shape.

After living in Atlanta, Baltimore, Cambridge, Santa Cruz, Calif., Berkeley, Rhode Island, Charlottesville, Va., and New Haven, Conn., McPherson ended up in Iowa City, where he enrolled in the M.F.A. program in the Writers’ Workshop. Now he teaches there and for the past semester or two has been the acting director of the program.

From his experience in Iowa, he writes about meeting and making many friends from Japan. His memoirs are filled with stories and lessons from yet another culture.

When I reached McPherson at his Iowa City home, he spoke more fondly of his years at Beach than his time in Savannah.

“The teachers went up North every summer to get more training,” he said. “They were well-educated. On Saturdays, they held classes at their homes. They cared about the children.”

Which is interesting because when asked McPherson said he considers himself more a teacher than a writer. Not a bad combination.

E-mail Jane at gofish5@earthlink.net


About The Author

Jane Fishman

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Connect Today 10.22.2016

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