When James Alan McPherson was a dining-car waiter for the Great Northern Railroad in the 1960s, he would ride the trains out of the south to Chattanooga, along the Mason-Dixon line. He tells what would happen when the trains stopped to change engines: "The man would come on serving sandwiches and coffee in the black coach and he'd say, y'all can go up front.' Nobody moved. Why would you go against your whole tradition? Suddenly the whole car was white and you're sitting next to a white person for the first time in your life. When I was about 18 I went to St. Paul, about 1962, and went in a restaurant and ordered a hamburger. I sat near a white woman and her child and it was like committing a crime. I was ashamed of that feeling. I wanted to see more of the world."
McPherson has followed through on that promise. Sitting with PW in a quiet, comfortably isolated alcove towards the rear of a small Greek restaurant just off Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, he is soft-spoken and immediately engaging. This former janitor and dining-car waiter -- who emerged from the segregated South to earn a law degree from Harvard, a "genius" grant from the MacArthur foundation and the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for his short-story collection Elbow Room -- is chatting with PW about living in Iowa and his new writing projects. While he's at it, he defines several personally meaningful terms from Latin and Japanese, two languages that figure prominently in his new memoir, Crabcakes (Simon & Schuster). McPherson is visiting New York from Stanford, where he is on a year's fellowship working on what he calls "an experimental novel" and compiling a collection of his essays.
Under a decidedly worn, and clearly cherished, black straw Kangol cap, McPherson's face, a rich burnished bronze, is animated and quick to smile. His speaking voice, a whispery, staccato rasp, is restrained at first, but quickly builds to a flurry of erudite observations delivered with a combination of professorial precision and the inflections and convivial intimacy typical of black Southern speech.
In 1969, Atlantic Monthly Press published Hue and Cry, his first collection of stories, which won the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Literature. He followed this auspicious debut with Railroad: Trains and People in American Culture (co-written with Miller Williams and acquired by Toni Morrison at Random House), which, like all of his books so far, quickly went out of print and is very nearly impossible to find. Elbow Room followed in 1977. McPherson taught at the University of California at Santa Cruz and at the University of Virginia before joining the faculty of the Writers Workshop in Iowa (where he received his M.F.A. in 1971). He is divorced, with a daughter about to enter college.
Whether he's writing about the elite black railroad waiters during the golden age of the passenger train (as in the story "A Solo Song: For Doc Craft," from Hue and Cry), re-creating the world of a young child growing up in the South (as in "A Matter of Vocabulary," also from Hue and Cry) or conjuring up the comic urban mythologies of small-time black hoodlums (in stories like "The Story of a Deadman" or "The Silver Bullet," both from Elbow Room), McPherson presents a wonderfully precise social tableau full of vivid characters and dialogue so lively and true it seems taped. And it's all delivered within narratives so universal and directly meaningful that the stories aspire to the mythic realm of folklore and legend. "If that's there," McPherson says of his fiction's folkloric power, "I learned it from writers like Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison." His stories can also be heady experiential parables like "Gold Coast," a poignant tale in Hue and Cry about a young black student working as a janitor and the slow disintegration of the elderly, Boston-Irish super he has been hired to replace. The story is crafted with a succession of disparate, affecting events that immerses the reader in an emotional pool of understanding (an approach to writing McPherson likes to call "tap dancing on the synapses").
Although he has written numerous essays, McPherson has not published fiction in nearly 20 years and, for the most part, has been barely visible on the literary horizon. He has a reputation for disliking interviews -- and the promotional side of book publishing in general -- and cheerfully admits he's submitting to this one at the prompting of his agent, Faith Childs. He's quick to credit Childs (recommended to him by his friend, the recently deceased and highly respected Chicago-born novelist Leon Forrest) with reviving editors' interest in the manuscript for Crabcakes, a sometimes difficult but urgently affecting work that inventively explores McPherson's sense of pervasive social dysfunction and a period in his life of deep personal despair.
McPherson was born in Savannah, Ga., in 1943 ("its was segregated but you were aware of its great history," he says). His father was one of the few licensed black electricians with his own business, "but he could not hold on to it." His mother, says McPherson, was "withdrawn. Her father actually managed Sears and R bucks stores on a plantation in Florida." And although he has written of growing up in "extreme poverty," McPherson comes from a rather accomplished family. One sister is a corporate librarian, a younger one lives in Atlanta and his brother is an airplane mechanic. He has an aunt in Congress representing a rural district in North Carolina, and his cousin, Leonard Brisbon, is the copilot of Air Force One. "Not bad," says McPherson. He attended Morris Brown College, an historically black college founded in Georgia by the African Methodist Episcopal church in 1881, working as a janitor as well as a dining-car waiter on the railroads and graduating in 1965. He mentions both his family and time at Morris Brown with a cheerful pride. "People are surprised that I advanced as far as I have coming from a small private black college," he says. "But I got my start there. I had some teachers who loved literature and they passed that on to me."
Inspired by those train rides out of the South and his uneasy introduction into the world of whites, he decided to attend Harvard Law School after graduating from Morris Brown. Much like those train rides, McPherson says, the law seemed to him to represent "access to another world. I had traveled to Chicago, to St. Paul, Seattle, the whole Northwest, and I wanted to see more. The law represented the same kind of exploration."
At Harvard, he continued to work as a janitor while studying the law and also continued to write; and it now seems that all his occupations have had an impact on his later work. Indeed, working as a janitor was a good job for a writer-in-training. "I paid my rent that way, but it was also an opportunity to see how ordinary people lived in Cambridge. You see one point of view going to law school. If you work as a janitor, you see another. I have always been wary of limiting my perspective," says McPherson.
During summers at Cambridge, McPherson took writing courses-instead of law internships-and began to think of publishing. "I knew the Atlantic Monthly was in Cambridge and I knew they would accept submissions over the transom," says McPherson. Much like the young student protagonist of "Gold Coast," he was working as a janitor in Cambridge when he dropped off a manuscript of that story at the offices of the Atlantic Monthly Press in 1968. "Just before New Year's I left the manuscript at the front desk and said it was special delivery from Cambridge. I couldn't bring myself to say it was from me at time. I looked like a bum, you see."
Of course the house lost his manuscript, but it materialized three months later (it was under the receptionist's desk), and editor-in-chief Edward Weeks immediately called to ask McPherson "if I had any more stories. I said I have many of them. So Ed Weeks and I worked all that summer on the book called Hue and Cry." Critical response was swift. Weeks had asked Ralph Ellison to read the manuscript, and Ellison submitted a glowing endorsement for the book's jacket. "After Ellison endorsed Hue and Cry, I interviewed him for the Atlantic Monthly in 1970. I met Albert Murray around the same time at the American Academy. They both became mentors to me."
Memories of Deep Moments
Like his fiction, Crabcakes "tap dances on the synapses," presenting a procession of seemingly isolated social interactions separated by time and space and finding subtle psychic connections among them. In Crabcakes, McPherson examines the dehumanizing, prosaic regularity (and postmodern reinvigoration) of American racism; Western versus Eastern spiritual values and a disabling "standardization" of the language used to describe the most terrible events of our time. He creates a theater of memory, revisiting Baltimore, in 1976 and subsequent years, to examine his past acts. He recalls visits to old neighborhoods and to Baltimore's old Lexington Market, the place to get the best Maryland crabcakes. "What runs through the book is a sense of deep moments," says McPherson, "A sense of time that is circular. That what g s around comes around."
The book episodically charts McPherson's own period of depression and social withdrawal, beginning in the late 1970s, and his slow re-emergence into the world through the humane, lyrically simple precepts of Japanese culture and Buddhism. Despite his successes, it was the beginning of an emotionally trying period.
"In the 1980s I retreated from everything. My sister would say, 'What are you doing out there in Iowa with all of those white people?' But it was a haven for me so that I could get away from things that were giving me hell," McPherson recalls. "For the last 16 years," he says, "I've lived a very fragmented experience." He wasn't trying to write a memoir, he says. "It just came out that way. It strikes me that the forms in which we write, the conventional forms, have lost their vitality. I wanted a sense of wholeness. No matter what I had to do to get it. So I used all kinds of mundane forms-the sound bite, the folk tale, letters. I tried to use them with something meaningful for myself."The first half of the book is a meditation on a house in Baltimore that McPherson bought in 1976 to prevent the eviction of an elderly black couple-an act he examines and reexamines. The second part of the book details an ongoing dialogue between McPherson and two Japanese friends, Kiyohiro Mirua, a writer and teacher, and Takeo Hammamoto, a scholar of black literature, that attempts to translate his life and American culture into terms that they might understand. It is also an attempt to apologize to his friends for an insulting social indiscretion he committed-an indiscretion later revealed to be an act of humane care and racial transcendence. To explain, he uses the language and rituals of Buddhism. "I was trying to explain, to a man with no understanding of the complexities of the black/white situation, why I had slighted him."
By the end of Crabcakes, McPherson does manage to achieve a sense of peace, emotional wholeness and a revived engagement with life. Two delightful, ironically symbolic events serve to evoke his emotional resurrection: a bee sting he received in the physical and emotionally hermetic isolation of his Iowa house, and an act of simple kindness from a Japanese woman, an acquaintance, during a train trip through Japan. He explains these events using the Buddhist term ninjo, a genuineness or "natural feeling" that indicates a close, communal association that transcends racial identity. "Christianity might work for some. Buddhist codes might work. I'm searching for codes that might work for black people today. I'm not trying to put down Western civilization," he says, smiling. "But Western civilization could use a little more ninjo."