Time Machine: James Alan McPherson
First black to win Pulitzer in fiction taught at Iowa
James Alan McPherson was the first African-American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His collection of short stories, “Elbow Room,” garnered the prize in 1978.
McPherson, a longtime faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, died July 27 in Iowa City from complications of pneumonia. He was 72.
In 1969, when he was 25, McPherson was interviewed by Phyllis Fleming, The Gazette’s assistant state editor. At the time, he was a student and part-time instructor at the University of Iowa’s prestigious Writers’ Workshop — a student with stories published in the Atlantic Monthly and two books of short stories to his credit.
In the interview, McPherson recalled submitting a story the previous May to the Atlantic Monthly in Boston. He delivered the story himself, he said, but because he had been up two nights straight for his job and “looked like a bum,” he tried to pass himself off as a delivery man.
The magazine published McPherson’s “The Gold Coast” in November 1968. In April, “Of Cabbages and Kings” appeared, and the May and June issues of the magazine included a two-part series on the Blackstone Rangers gang in Chicago.
The pieces on the Blackstone Rangers in 1969 required that he spend time in Chicago.
“I had a pretty good relationship with some of the gang members,” he said. “They respected me, and I respected them. We’re from the same background. It was like going home.”
In May 1969, the Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown and Company released McPherson’s book of 10 short stories, “Hue and Cry.”
In September of that year, he went to work for the Atlantic for a year as a contributing editor.
McPherson was born in the segregated South in Savannah, Ga., in 1943. He started working when he was 12, delivering newspapers. He worked as a waiter, teacher’s assistant, janitor, settlement house worker and salad maker to put himself through school.
He graduated from Morris Brown College in 1965 and worked as a reporter for a black newspaper in Boston. He applied to law schools and was admitted to Harvard Law, where he picked up his degree in 1968.
McPherson didn’t like law school, but he persevered. “I want to finish whatever I start,” he said. “I don’t regret going to law school. It could help me a lot.”
He began writing during the summers.
“I gave law school nine months a year, and three months to myself,” he said.
Summers were for writing, working and taking literature courses.
In the fall of 1968, he arrived in Iowa. In a way, it was a do-over. He began to work on a degree in English, earning his master of fine arts degree in creative writing in August 1971.
Again, he earned his way through school, this time by assisting with an Afro-American literature course, teaching a course in Afro-American history and helping law students with their writing.
“I like jobs that bring me into contact with people,” he said.
About attending Iowa, he said, “There is some anxiety about being a minority member on a campus of this size. There is a big feeling you don’t have any control.”
His whole life, he said, “has been a series of happy accidents. I went to college because I couldn’t dance.”
He said that his lack of dancing ability led him to avoid his high school prom. Instead, he went to visit his grandmother, who helped him to apply to Morris Brown College, a historically black college in Atlanta.
He’d planned, after he’d finished his master’s degree at Iowa, to work at the UI College of Law in a program for Native American students and then move on to Boston to work for the Atlantic Monthly and take the Massachusetts bar exam.
Instead, he began teaching in California, then Maryland and Virginia, before accepting a position as professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa in 1981. That was also the year he received a MacArthur Foundation grant of $191,000.
The MacArthur Fellowships recognize creative people who have made significant contributions, giving them the freedom to follow their vision, with no strings attached to the money.
Earlier in his career, McPherson earned several awards.
He had won a $2,000 Atlantic grant in 1969 for “Hue and Cry.” . The award was given by the Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown Co. for his collection of 10 short stories, “Hue and Cry.” plus The grant was for $2,000 in cash plus an advance of $2,000 for the book., which was released that spring.
McPherson also won the Engle Prize, and he and poet Jorie Graham were the first to be named F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professors at the UI Writers’ Workshop.
He also was honored by the university for excellence in teaching.
When Workshop director Frank Conroy died in April 2005, McPherson and fellow author Marilynne Robinson took over administration of the workshop until a new director could be named.
That administrative experience wasn’t his thing.
“I’m glad I’m not a bureaucrat,” he said. “I wouldn’t want this job for anything in the world.” He didn’t envy College of Liberal Arts Dean Linda Maxson, who was looking for a new leader for the workshop.
“It’s a tough decision, a very large decision,” McPherson said. “The director can set a tone for the workshop.”
McPherson died from complications of pneumonia on July 27, 2016. He was 72.
Asked during the 1969 interview if he was married, McPherson laughed, “I don’t think a wife could stand me.”
McPherson is survived by two children, Rachel and Benjamin, who were with him when he died.