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*James McPherson was born on this date in 1943. He was a Black essayist and short-story writer.
James Alan McPherson was born in Savannah, Georgia, the second of four children. His father was a master electrician (the first Black so recognized in Georgia), and his mother, Mabel Small, was a maid. While McPherson was growing up, his father struggled with alcohol and time in jail. In the essay "Going Up To Atlanta," McPherson describes the many odd jobs he took on during this time to help support his mother, brother, and sisters.
But it was his discovery of the "colored branch" of the public library that changed his life. When he started reading books, McPherson learned that words, even without pictures, "gave up their secret meanings, spoke of other worlds, made me know that pain was a part of other people's lives."He attended Morgan State University from 1963 to 1964 before receiving his undergraduate degree in history and English from Morris Brown College in 1965. In 1968, McPherson received an LL.B. from Harvard Law School, where he partially financed his studies by working as a janitor.
While at Harvard, McPherson studied fiction writing with Alan Lebowitz. The publication of his short story "Gold Coast" in The Atlantic Monthly, following an "open reading" competition they had sponsored, first brought him public recognition. During this period, McPherson established a close working relationship with The Atlantic Monthly, which led to him becoming a contributing editor at that magazine in 1969. His fiction would appear in numerous journals and magazines throughout the following decade. His first collection of short stories, Hue and Cry, was published by Atlantic Monthly Press that year.
In 1971, he received an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he studied briefly with the short-story writer and novelist Richard Yates. In a 1972 Atlantic Monthly essay, he exposed exploitative business practices against Black homeowners, presaging the later work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. During this period, he gained the attention of Ralph Ellison, who became both a friend and mentor to the young McPherson. In December 1970, McPherson interviewed Ellison for an Atlantic Monthly cover story and collaborated with him on the essay "Indivisible Man." This relationship with Ellison would have a lasting influence on his own life and work, as McPherson acknowledges in his essay "Gravitas," which he published in 1999 as both a tribute to the (then) recently deceased writer and to observe the posthumous publication of Ellison's novel Juneteenth that same year.
McPherson also initiated a friendship with Albert Murray shortly after the publication of Murray's The Omni-Americans: Black Experience & American Culture (1970). McPherson taught English and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz (assistant professor; 1969–1971), the Harvard University summer school (1972), Morgan State University (assistant professor; 1975–1976), and the University of Virginia (associate professor; 1976–1981) before joining the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1981. He served as acting director of the program for two years following the death of Frank Conroy in 2005. Following the publication of Elbow Room (his final collection of fiction) in 1977, McPherson primarily focused on his teaching career, with the Chicago Tribune characterizing him as being "only slightly more gregarious than J.D. Salinger."
He was also a visiting scholar at Yale Law School (1978–1979) and a fellow at Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (1997–1998; 2002–2003). Significantly, McPherson lectured in Japan (at Meiji University and Chiba University), a country whose society and culture profoundly affected him. It was in Japan, he once wrote, where he went to lay down "the burden carried by all black Americans, especially the males."Crabcakes: A Memoir, his first original work since Elbow Room, was published in 1998. His final book (A Region Not Home: Reflections on Exile, an essay collection) was published in 2000. McPherson was the first Black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was included among the first group of artists who received a MacArthur Fellowship. At the time of his death, McPherson was a professor emeritus of fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He died on July 27, 2016.