Tribute to James Alan McPherson

Several weeks ago, I featured an excerpt from the essay “Grant Hall,” by James Alan McPherson. Jim, as we called him in class, was a teacher of mine. I studied with him at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when I was there between 1999 – 2001. He passed away last month, on July 27th. He was 72 years old, which seems too young to die these days. I want to pause this week to honor him and the gifts he gave both me and the world.

My first class with him was a writing workshop—a small seminar devoted entirely to discussing the creative work of the students in the class. Every week we met for two hours in his office at Dey House in Iowa City and picked apart each other’s stories. We were young and ambitious, eager to critique, to speak the bitter truth about the work in front of us, even if it was painful for the writer to hear. But Jim was too kind a person to tear a story apart. Instead, he would obliquely refer us to a writer that came before us or a text from classical literature that he thought might help inform our stories, enrich them, make them more relevant and true. This was his way of folding our work into the literary tradition we were striving to enter, helping us to become more aware of our literary predecessors, so that we might stand on their shoulders, as the expression goes, and reach even higher. He was generous, too—he invited us to his house once for dinner to try his delicious Baltimore crabcakes. And he had an infectious laugh—kind of a closed-mouth, twinkle-eyed, shoulder-shaking chuckle.

The second class I took with him was a literature seminar on love. Love is required curriculum for aspiring writers. Our central text for that course was the book Love in the Western World, by Denis de Rougemont, which traces the evolution of the western concept of romantic love from its origins in the troubadour poetry of medieval France. It was in that class that Jim offhandedly mentioned the legend of the love affair between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It was a story I’d never heard before, and it became the catalyzing idea for my second novel, The Priest’s Madonna. I owe that book to him.

Jim was an incredibly accomplished writer. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, as well as a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and a Guggenheim Award. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995. He had credentials to spare. But they didn’t interfere with his essential modesty, generosity, or broad-mindedness.

Looking back at the time I spent with him, I wish I’d paid better attention. I have the feeling he had much more to teach me, if I’d only sought it out. But I’m grateful at least that I still have his work to turn to, whenever I’m in need of a dose of his particular wisdom.

Here are the titles of his books:

Hue and Cry, a short story collection

Elbow Room, his Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories

Crabcakes, a memoir

A Region Not Home: Reflections on Exile, a collection of essays

He also co-edited three other books:

Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture, with Miller Williams

Confronting Racial Difference, with DeWitt Henry

Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men, with DeWitt Henry


I hope you’ll pick one or two of them up and in that way get to know him a bit yourself.