James Alan McPherson

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James Alan McPherson
James Alan McPherson.jpg
Born (1943-09-16)September 16, 1943
Savannah, Georgia, U.S.
Died July 27, 2016(2016-07-27) (aged 72)
Iowa City, Iowa, U.S.
Nationality United States of America
Ethnicity African-American
Education Morgan State University
Morris Brown College
Harvard Law School
University of Iowa
Period 1968–2016
Genre Fiction
Notable works Elbow Room
Notable awards Pulitzer Prize in Fiction
MacArthur Fellowship
Guggenheim Fellowship
Spouse Sarah Lynn Charlton (div.)[1]
Children Rachel (daughter); Benjamin (son)[1]

James Alan McPherson (September 16, 1943 – July 27, 2016) was an American essayist and short-story writer. He was the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was included among the first group of artists who received a MacArthur Fellowship. At the time of his death, McPherson was a member of the permanent faculty and a professor emeritus of fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.[1]

Life and work[edit]

Early life and education[edit]

McPherson was born in Savannah, Georgia, on September 16, 1943, the second of four children.[2] His father was a master electrician (the first African-American so recognized in Georgia),[3] and his mother (born Mabel Small) was a maid.[1] While growing up, McPherson's father struggled with alcohol and time in jail. In his essay "Going Up To Atlanta," McPherson describes the many odd jobs he took on during this time to help support his mother, brother, and sisters.[3] But it was his discovery of the "colored branch" of the public library that changed his life. When he started reading books, McPherson learned that words, even without pictures, "gave up their secret meanings, spoke of other worlds, made me know that pain was a part of other people's lives."[3]

He attended Morgan State University from 1963 to 1964 before receiving his undergraduate degree in History and English from Morris Brown College in 1965.[4] In 1968, McPherson received a LL.B. from Harvard Law School, where he partially financed his studies by working as a janitor.[2] But in 1971, he went on to get a M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Iowa and studied briefly with the short-story writer and novelist Richard Yates.[3] After this period in his life, McPherson decided not to practice law,[4] but afterwards he would utilize this legal training in his various writings. In an essay he published in 1972, he exposed exploitative business practices against black homeowners.[5]

Also during this period in his life he gained the attention of Ralph Ellison (1913–1994), an especially important American novelist and essayist from that era, who became both a friend and mentor to the young McPherson. This relationship with Ellison would have a lasting influence on his own life and work, as McPherson acknowledges in his essay "Gravitas," which he published in 1999 as both a tribute to the (then) recently deceased writer, and to observe the posthumous publication of Ellison's novel Juneteenth that same year.[5][6] McPherson also began another important friendship, during this same time frame, with Albert Murray, just when Murray's book The Omni-Americans: Black Experience & American Culture first appeared, in 1970.[3][7]


In 1967, while he attended law school at Harvard, McPherson studied fiction writing with Alan Lebowitz and worked on his stories when he found some spare time. It was the publication of his short story "Gold Coast" in The Atlantic Monthly, following an "open reading" competition they had sponsored, that first brought him public recognition. During this period, McPherson established a close working relationship with Edward Weeks, an editor at the The Atlantic Monthly, which led to McPherson becoming a contributing editor at that magazine in 1969.[3] During the following decade, his fiction appeared in numerous journals and magazines. Over the coming years, many of his stories were anthologized, beginning with "Gold Coast" when it appeared in the perennial story collection The Best American Stories in 1969.[2] In December 1970, for an issue of The Atlantic Monthly, McPherson did a cover interview with Ralph Ellison,[3] and collaborated with him on the essay “Indivisible Man."[4]

He taught English at the University of California, Santa Cruz (assistant professor; 1969–1971), the Harvard University summer school (1972), Morgan State University (assistant professor; 1975–1976) and the University of Virginia (associate professor; 1976–1981) before joining the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1981,[8] with whom he was associated for the remainder of his life. He served as acting director of the Iowa Workshop (2005–2007), following the death of Frank Conroy.[3]

McPherson was also a visiting scholar at Yale Law School (1978–1979) and a fellow at Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (1997–1998). Significantly, McPherson also lectured in Japan (at Meiji University and Chiba University), a country whose society and culture affected him.[9] It was in Japan, he once wrote, where he went to lay down “the burden carried by all black Americans, especially the males.”[5]


In 1972, McPherson was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.[10] He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for his short story collection Elbow Room, becoming the first black writer to win the Pulitzer in the fiction category.[1][4][11]

He was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981,[12] a member of the first group (21 recipients in all) ever selected for one of the MacArthur Fellowship's so-called "geniuses awards."[1] In 1995, McPherson was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[13] In 2000, John Updike selected McPherson's short story "Gold Coast" for his collection Best American Short Stories of the Century (Houghton Mifflin).[14]

In October 2011, McPherson was honored as the inaugural recipient of the Paul Engle Award from the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature. According to the citation:

The Engle Award honors an individual who, like Engle, longtime director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and co-founder of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, represents a pioneering spirit in the world of literature through writing, editing, publishing, or teaching, and whose active participation in the larger issues of the day has contributed to the betterment of the world through the literary arts.[15]


McPherson died in hospice on July 27, 2016, in Iowa City, Iowa, due to complications of pneumonia. He was 72.[1][16] He is survived by a daughter, Rachel McPherson (a child from his first marriage to the former Sarah Charlton, which had ended in divorce); a son from another relationship, Benjamin Miyamoto; a sister; and a brother.[5]





  1. ^ a collection of cultural and personal essays
  2. ^ edition currently in print: Harper Perennial, trade paper; ISBN 9780060936471
  3. ^ edition currently in print: Fawcett Books, Mass Market paperback; ISBN 9780449213575


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Roberts, Sam (July 27, 2016). "James Alan McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Writer, Dies at 72". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved July 31, 2016. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Biography.com Editors. "James Alan McPherson Biography". The Biography.com website. A&E Television Networks. Retrieved August 1, 2016. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Henry, DeWitt (Fall 2008) "About James Alan McPherson". Ploughshares. Retrieved August 1, 2016. 
  4. ^ a b c d "James Alan McPherson, 71MFA, Prize Work: Elbow Room; 1980 Pulitzer Prize: Fiction". University of Iowa Alumni Association. Retrieved July 31, 2016. 
  5. ^ a b c d Langer, Emily (July 28, 2016). "James Alan McPherson, first black writer to win Pulitzer Prize in fiction, dies at 72". The Washington Post. WP Company. Llc. Retrieved August 1, 2016. 
  6. ^ Cooksey, Thomas (January 21, 2005). "James Alan McPherson (b. 1943)". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Georgia Humanities Council & University of Georgia Press. Retrieved August 1, 2016. 
  7. ^ "Portfolio at NYU: Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans". NYU: Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. 
  8. ^ Sollors, Werner; Titcomb, Caldwell; Underwood, Thomas A. (March 1, 1993). Blacks at Harvard: A Documentary History of African-American Experience at Harvard and Radcliffe. NYU Press. Retrieved August 1, 2016 – via Google Books. 
  9. ^ "James Alan McPherson: Contributor Profile". The Atlantic-online. The Atlantic Monthly Company. 1976. Retrieved August 1, 2016. 
  10. ^ "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation – James A. McPherson". Retrieved August 1, 2016. 
  11. ^ "The Pulitzer Prizes | Awards". pulitzer.org. Retrieved November 4, 2015. 
  12. ^ "Fellows list – M". The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Retrieved January 29, 2010. 
  13. ^ "Academy of Arts & Sciences Website Search". Retrieved August 1, 2016. 
  14. ^ "The Best American Short Stories of the Century". Powells.com. Powells Books. 
  15. ^ "City of Literature Paul Engle Prize – Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature". 
  16. ^ "Writer James Alan McPherson, Winner Of Pulitzer, MacArthur And Guggenheim, Dies At 72". www.npr.org. NPR. July 27, 2016. Retrieved July 28, 2016. 
  17. ^ "Confronting Racial Difference". Ploughshares. Fall 1990. Retrieved August 1, 2016. 
  18. ^ Phillip Lopate (February 27, 2000). "Dreaming of Elsewhere". The New York Times. Retrieved August 1, 2016.