James Alan McPherson, First Black Writer to win Pulitzer Prize In Fiction, Dies at 72

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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.

Mr. 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 profession, he became a writer and for a time was mentored by Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man” (1952).

Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. McPherson’s second book, “Elbow Room,” a collection of 12 stories situated, the book cover billed, on “the borderline between black and white America.”

Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post – Emily Langer