In 1978 James Alan McPherson became the first African-American man to win the Pulitzer Prize, for his story collection Elbow Room. Three years later, he was among a group of twenty-one authors, scientists, and historians to receive the first MacArthur Fellowships, popularly known as “genius awards.” Other recipients that year included Robert Penn Warren and Joseph Brodsky. In the three decades since, Elbow Room and McPherson’s earlier story collection, Hue and Cry, have attracted and retained a dedicated circle of readers who appreciate his artistry and his place in the evolution of literature from older authors, such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, to ones such as Toni Morrison and Edward P. Jones, whose works gained wide recognition later. McPherson, who grew up in segregationist Georgia and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, found early and enduring inspiration in Ralph Ellison’s work and, like Ellison, created articulate characters who voiced the painfulness of existence on the dividing line of race. McPherson’s particular, remarkable contribution to resolving race questions, as dramatized in his short stories, was to bring to bear a point of view that combined philosophical intellect with what he would call “mother wit,” or instinctive knowing.
In the title story, a storyteller in search of material befriends an interracial couple and notes the white husband’s progressive loss of innocence in regard to being married to a mixed-race black wife. Part of the dramatic conversation in all McPherson’s stories is his intention to challenge the myth of whiteness and replace it with an understanding that we are all mixed race in one way or another. His stories thus unify and interpretively advance themes from the literary tradition of Faulkner and from African-American literature. In recognition of his accomplishment, McPherson was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995.
Paul Frost seemed attracted to her by [her] outward display of strength. I am convinced he was by this time too mature to view her as just exotic. He was second generation of a Kansas family successful in business matters, and he must have keen eyes for value. But because of this, and perhaps for reasons still unclear to him, his family and the prairies were now in the past. I think he felt the need to redeem the family through works of great art, to release it from the haunting of those lonely prairie towns. I know that when I looked I saw dead Indians living in his eyes. But I also saw a wholesome glow in their directness. They seemed in earnest need of answers to honest questions always on the verge of being asked. This aura of intense interest hung close to his face, like a bright cloud, or like a glistening second coat of skin not yet thick enough to be attached to him. It seemed to inquire of whomever his eyes addressed, “Who am I?” But this was only an outward essence. Whatever else he was eluded my inspection of his face. And as I grew aware of myself in pursuit of its definition, I began to feel embarrassed, and a little perverse. Because the thing that illuminated him, that provided the core of his mystery, might have been simple guilt, or outright lust, or a passion to dominate, or a need to submit to a fearful-seeming object. All such motives enter into the convention of love.