I am constantly amazed by how long I was in Iowa City without really hearing about James Alan McPherson.
In part, I attribute this to being a student during my first few years in the state. Yet it stands to reason that — as an English student, no less — there was no better time for me to have been taught about the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and who called Iowa City home.
McPherson, who would have turned 80 this September, was awarded the Pulitzer for Elbow Room, a short story collection published in 1977. He studied at Harvard Law School, taught at the University of Iowa and was among the inaugural recipients of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981.
On Becoming an American Writer was published this past January, nearly seven years following McPherson’s passing. This collection of essays and nonfiction does not include any lost or previously unpublished work from the author; rather, it hopes to shine a light on McPherson, to give readers a cursory understanding of his work.
“McPherson’s nonfiction resides alongside that of contemporaries such as James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and Hunter S. Thompson,” writes Anthony Walton, who selected the collected writings, in his introduction. “What distinguishes McPherson from these writers, however, is the astonishing breadth of his frame: He draws from legal, regional, and classical perspectives to give his arguments nuances …”
The first three or four essays feature McPherson writing on social issues faced by Americans, particularly Black Americans, in the 1980s and ’90s. In the same way one may not entirely agree with the theses put forward by W.E.B. Du Bois or Langston Hughes, it is easy to imagine dissenting opinions to what McPherson puts forward. However, his stances are well reasoned and articulated.
After these first few pieces, Walton moves to more personal essays from McPherson’s life. Here, McPherson grapples with the death of a tenant and the ethics of being a landlord (this occurs in “Crabcakes,” which is also the title of his memoir). We see him fighting for fatherhood following a devastating divorce in “Disneyland” (which made me cry), he grapples with the death of his friend Ralph Ellison in “Gravitas,” and he recounts being treated for a coma at Iowa City’s Mercy Hospital in late 1998 in “Ukiyo.”
The final two entries — “Reading” and “On Becoming an American Writer” — weave together the personal and the philosophical. Walton appears to have front-loaded McPherson’s social and political beliefs, easing the reader into his more personal writings, the triumphs and foibles, before presenting a synthesis of the two worlds.
I had little familiarity with McPherson’s work prior to this book. But as I moved through it I found that, for better or worse, McPherson’s social critique from 30 years ago is often still applicable today. Even when I did not agree with him, I was always interested in what he had to say and longed to hear more.
This article was originally published in Little Village’s July 2023 issue.