James Alan McPherson, an author of widely anthologized short stories and essays that both explored and transcended black experiences in America, and who in 1978 became the first black author to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, died July 27 at a hospice center in Iowa City. He was 72.
The cause was complications from pneumonia, said his daughter, Rachel McPherson.
McPherson’s life took him from segregated Georgia, where he grew up in poverty as the son of an alcoholic father, to Harvard Law School during the social upheaval of the 1960s. Uninspired by the legal professional, he became a writer and for a time was mentored by Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man” (1952).
McPherson often seemed ambivalent about the many honors bestowed on him and the celebrity that accompanied them. He published no book for 20 years after the announcement of his Pulitzer - for his 1977 collection, “Elbow Room” - and spent the final decades of his life in self-imposed “exile from the South” as a professor at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
From the outset, he showed extraordinary promise. His first published short story, “Gold Coast,” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly the year McPherson turned 25. It centered on a young black aspiring writer and his interactions with the residents of the apartment building where he worked as a janitor. Decades later, John Updike, the Pulitzer-winning novelist, selected it for inclusion in the tome “The Best American Short Stories of the Century.”
McPherson’s first book-length volume of short stories, “Hue and Cry” (1968), presented moving portraits of fully realized characters - a Pullman porter, a Black Power activist, a jazz musician.
“It is my hope that this collection of stories can be read as a book about people, all kinds of people,” McPherson once explained, according to the reference guide Contemporary Biography. “Certain of these people happen to be black, and certain of them happen to be white; but I have tried to keep the color part of most of them far in the background, where these things should rightly be kept.”
A Guggenheim fellowship followed. Then came McPherson’s second book, “Elbow Room,” a collection of 12 stories situated, the book cover billed, on “the borderline between black and white America.”
McPherson was not the first black writer to receive the Pulitzer; Gwendolyn Brooks had received the award for poetry for her collection “Annie Allen” in 1950. (Alice Walker became the first black woman to win the prize for fiction, in recognition of her 1982 novel, “The Color Purple.”)
For McPherson, the award for his story collection was not an entirely happy event.
“Did you ever notice that when an author wins, he’s forever after referred to as ’Pulitzer Prize-winning author X?’ “ he told Newsday in 1998. “The mention of the prize always comes first, as if the prize itself means more than you do. It’s all part of the media ritual that I hate. They take away someone’s life and then feed on it.”
Post-Pulitzer, McPherson dedicated himself into teaching, rarely speaking to reporters. The Chicago Tribune once described him as “only slightly more gregarious than J.D. Salinger,” the reclusive author of the novel “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951).
In 1981, McPherson received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, commonly known as a “genius grant,” in the amount of $192,000 over five years with no strings attached. By then he had been divorced from his wife, and he said he used the money mainly for airfare to visit his daughter.
He reemerged as a writer in 1998 with a memoir, “Crabcakes.” The book focused largely on his relationship with an elderly couple in Baltimore for whom he bought a house so that they would not be evicted. It also explored his sojourn in Japan, where, he wrote, he went to lay down “the burden carried by all black Americans, especially the males.”
“Those around us, depending on their fears or on their perversities, or even on their passing moods of the day, have the capacity to distort our most basic of human gestures into something incomprehensible in human terms,” he wrote.
In 2000, he published his final volume, a collection of essays titled “A Region Not Home: Reflections From Exile” probing topics such as racism, materialism and conformity to alienation. Essayist Phillip Lopate, reviewing the book in the New York Times, described McPherson as one of the genre’s “most serious, engaging” practitioners.
James Allen McPherson Jr. - he later changed his middle name to Alan to differentiate himself from his father - was born in Savannah, Georgia, on Sept. 16, 1943. He found refuge from the struggles of day-to-day life in a segregated library.
In 1965, McPherson received a bachelor’s degree in English and history from Morris Brown College, a historically black institution in Atlanta. He then enrolled in Harvard University, where he received a bachelor of laws degree in 1968, making ends meet as a train worker and a janitor. In 1971, he received a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Although he did not pursue legal practice as a career, he did marshal his legal training for his writing. In 1972, he wrote an article for the Atlantic exposing the discriminatory and exploitative real-estate practices targeted at black home-buyers in Chicago. Journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates revisited the topic in his widely read 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.”
McPherson was a professor at the University of Virginia before joining the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1981, where he remained until his retirement in 2014.
His marriage to Sarah Charlton ended in divorce. Survivors include their daughter, Rachel McPherson of Iowa City; a son from another relationship, Benjamin Miyamoto of Los Angeles; a sister; and a brother.
Decades after it was published, McPherson’s Pulitzer-winning book retained an enduring resonance. In 2004, the American short-fiction author ZZ Packer cited “Elbow Room” among the books that had “changed” her.
“It wasn’t trying to represent black America in a particular way,” she told the Sun Herald of Sydney. “It’s a book of short stories about the lives of African-Americans and it’s very intimate, although it opens out and gives you a greater sense of what it means to be human. . . . You had writers who were proud to be black and there was this sense of wanting to show white America that great works of art could be produced. But with McPherson there wasn’t this burden of needing to perform.”