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Exile and the Writer

James Alan McPherson ’68 doesn’t practice law, but his career began to take shape when he was a student at HLS in Professor Paul Freund’s constitutional law class.

Freund’s wide-ranging intelligence and interests demonstrated “there was no real division between law and literature,” said McPherson. “So, I decided to try to write.” McPherson succeeded, winning the Pulitzer Prize for his 1978 collection of stories, Elbow Room, and a MacArthur in 1981, and publishing a 1988 memoir, Crabcakes, and numerous essays.

In his latest book, A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile (Simon & Schuster, 2000), McPherson looks at topics as diverse as football, race in America, and the healing powers of Disneyland. The essays address moral issues and are often deeply personal, revealing a yearning for belonging and community countered by a wariness of the price of group membership. They travel great distances, perhaps to be expected from a writer who himself has bridged very different worlds.

McPherson, who grew up poor in segregated Georgia, attended Morris Brown College, an institution, he writes, that “made little pretense to academic excellence.” While at HLS he wrote for the Record and worked as a janitor in a Cambridge apartment building, where he had “the solitude, and the encouragement, to begin writing seriously.”

McPherson said he and his classmates (among them Reginald Lewis, who was his roommate) were part of a transitional generation. “The Law School took a chance on us. . . . The young people now who went to elite colleges would not believe where we came from.”

The ’60s, according to McPherson, “were a crazy time. Opportunities seemed to materialize out of thin air.” The year he graduated from HLS he published his first story in the Atlantic Monthly. He went on to interview Ralph Ellison (who became his mentor and friend), attend the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, write a series of articles about a Chicago gang, marry, become a father, and win the Pulitzer.

After his marriage ended, when he was teaching at the University of Virginia, he decided to leave the South and accepted a position at the University of Iowa, where he still teaches today, in “internal exile.”

McPherson describes the ’70s and ’80s as a time of lost opportunity, when possibilities glimpsed in the ’60s did not come to fruition. “What we needed was a revolutionary model of American identity . . . with little attention paid to race, towards which all Americans might aspire,” he writes. Instead he saw the black middle class losing itself in conformity and materialism, trying to be like white people. At the same time that some of McPherson’s essays are critical of black Americans, he notes he is painfully aware that he writes from a small town in Iowa “in almost complete isolation from the flow of black American life.”

McPherson says he is now at work on an essay that tells another side of the story. The article for DoubleTake focuses on Princeville, N.C., buried under a wall of water by Hurricane Floyd last fall. The town residents, predominantly black, decided to rebuild, rejecting a buyout from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For McPherson they exemplify bedrock values he remembers growing up with.

Recently McPherson published one of his first works of fiction since he won the Pulitzer more than 20 years ago, and the topic takes him back to his HLS days and Freund’s class on constitutional law. “Reflections of Titus Basfield, April 1850” (Harpers, June 1, 2000) is to be part of a larger work on the origins of the 14th Amendment and in particular the intentions of John Bingham, who drafted its first section.

McPherson said he enjoyed writing fiction again after all these years, letting “my imagination range free.” Yet he also questions the future of fiction as a genre: “My students write stories and novels, but maybe we need a form beyond the novel form, given the changes society has undergone.”

—Emily Newburger

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