Friday

R.I.P. James Alan McPherson

I never met James Alan McPherson. I read all his books, though.

He was a writer I discovered in my twenties after I graduated from college and adrift, wanting to be a writer, and I stumbled onto his work by accident and made my way through his small but brilliant body of work.

His story collection Hue and Cry and Elbow Room, which are just amazing and deserve more attention. Hopefully in the years to come there will be a collection of those and whatever other stories he's written over the years because it will be an essential book for anyone who loves literature.

There was his memoir Crabcakes and his essay collection A Region Not Home, and it wasn't just that they were brilliant and thoughtful examinations of his own life and his thinking, but in his book of essays he spoke about his own philosophy of life, his philosophical take on the world and how that translated into his fiction.

Coming to his work in the early 21st century I only knew from a historical rear view mirror just what he had really accomplished. McPherson was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

McPherson received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a MacArthur Genius Grant (he was in fact in the first class of grant winners along with people like Josef Brodsky, Derek Walcott, Leslie Marmon Silko, Elaine Pagels, Robert Penn Warren), a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a long list of other awards. For many years he's taught at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop.

When I was younger I applied to study at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, back when I was young and thought that I could be a writer. I knew Iowa because everyone knows that Iowa has the most famous MFA program there is. And I'm not going to lie, the status was a reason to apply, but the real reason I applied was that McPherson and Marilynne Robinson taught there.

It wasn't that I wanted to write like them, but I saw in their work an intelligence, a spirituality, a way of thinking about writing and life which could be meaningful. I wanted that. Of course I never got accepted, never attended graduate school, but I still have those books, and I know that I did learn something from them. I know that this goal to which I have been striving. It's a model I still look towards for guidance, for an example of what's possible in work.

I wonder if he knew what he and his work meant to people.

Rest in peace, sir.

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