Remembering James Alan McPherson

James Alan McPherson

James Alan McPherson. Photo: Tom Langdon

July 28, 2016 - 11:15am

From Iowa Now. By Tricia Brown & Cristóbal McKinney.

A noble human being. Generous beyond words. A perfect leader. Honest and brave. Compassionate.

Former students and colleagues of Iowa Writers’ Workshop professor emeritus James Alan McPherson say those words best describe the teacher, mentor, and friend who influenced and nurtured generations of writers. McPherson died on Wednesday in Iowa City. He was 72.

“What he taught us about writing had nothing to do with agents and book deals,” says former student Gish Jen, who enrolled in the Workshop in 1981, McPherson’s first year teaching there. “He taught us that writing was about goodness and truth and justice. Jim’s view on writing was not about retreating to a room so you could pour out your heart. It was about being a really important member of society.”

Jen, who has published six books, says her first,Typical American, was written for McPherson. As an unknown Asian American writer, she says, “there was never a real reason why anyone would accept me” when the book was published in 1991, but she knew McPherson would.

“He was always amazingly generous and encouraging of us all. He certainly supported me as he supported so many writers over the years,” she says. “In the tough times when we’re writing our books and we’re not sure who will read them, I think we will always imagine it is Jim McPherson who is reading.”

McPherson was the author of two story collections,Hue and Cry and Elbow Room, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1978, the first African American writer to be awarded the honor. He became a faculty member at the Writers’ Workshop in 1981 and was the recipient of fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, and the Lannan Foundation. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995.

He also wrote the memoir Crabcakes and the essay collection A Region Not Home. He held degrees from Morris Brown College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Lan Samantha Chang, program director of the Workshop and May Brodbeck professor of liberal arts and sciences, says McPherson was a bedrock of kindness, intelligence, and compassion who will be sorely missed.

“He really taught a whole generation of us it was possible to be a brilliant artist and a really compassionate and lovely human being,” says Chang, who also was a former student of McPherson. “He was not at all directive. He was instead the kind of teacher who could really listen and really understand what you were trying to do with your work.”

Often, that understanding led to McPherson recommending just the right book, one that would speak to what his student was working through. Marcus Burke, author of Team Seven and a former student who received his MFA from the Workshop in 2012, says he sought out McPherson when he was struggling with how to end his novel. McPherson gave him a copy of Miguel de Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life.

“He’d give you a book that was exactly what you needed at that moment,” Burke says. “He did it because that was his belief in his heart. He wasn’t looking for credit. And that was so endearing.”  

McPherson had a strong sense of family, of community, and of ideals.

Charles D’Ambrosio, a faculty member at the Workshop since 2014 and former student, says McPherson ran a quiet workshop.

Yet, “Everything Jim said that semester seemed a revelation,” D’Ambrosio says. “The range of his vast intelligence, the curious pressure it was under, was a little daunting.”

He recalls meeting with McPherson at the end of the semester, in McPherson’s surprisingly empty office in the English-Philosophy Building.

“No books on the shelves, no personal effects, no heaps of papers, nothing. Just an old 1950s metal desk, a chair for him, a chair for me, and the white porcelain coffee cup he borrowed from the cafeteria, which he used as an ashtray,” he says.

McPherson asked D’Ambrosio to tell him about his family.

“Then he launched off into 19th-century American literature, Greek theater, some Japanese films I’d never heard of, all the while focused on the idea of family and its legitimacy as material. We spoke for 10 minutes, and it was probably the most important 10 minutes in my two years at Iowa,” he says. “I left his office knowing that I had a subject and something to say about it.”

That sort of circuitous advice and direction was McPherson’s forte, the sort of genius that made him a beloved mentor to his students.

Yiyun Li, who came to the UI to study science, happened to take a summer class at the Writers’ Workshop that was open to the public. She says McPherson sought her out after she turned in her first story.

“He came to me and said, ‘You’re a writer. You have to keep writing,’” she says. And she did.

Now the author of four books, Li, who received an MFA from the Workshop in 2003, says that without McPherson she never would have become a writer.

“Sometimes he was so humble that people would underestimate his intelligence,” she says. “He didn’t say a lot, and he wouldn’t go on and on and talk about things, but whatever he said, that one word, that one sentence, would really open up the whole world for that student.”

McPherson’s influence on her life was so great that Li and her husband, who now live in Oakland, California, named their second son after him.

“We never had a second option,” she says. “It was the only name we decided on.”

D’Ambrosio, who received his MFA in 1992, says McPherson was a man with the wisdom to know exactly what his students needed to hear.

“I know what he meant to me. He was a life changer,” he says.

Burke says McPherson’s spirit will live on in those whose lives he touched.

"His writing will continue to minister and encourage and embolden other writers for a long time to come,” Burke says. “And I think he wouldn’t want a huge deal made about him. Jim was a very humble guy. He told me, ‘Always be humble in life so you can be vicious on the page.’”

McPherson’s legacy in the Workshop will be one of gentleness and compassion, Chang says.

“Jim made the workshop home for so many writers, and so many kinds of writers, and he made it clear to everyone who came to the program that they would always have his ear and he would always have their back,” she says. “He did not play favorites. He was somebody who cared about each and every one of his students.”

Due to an outpouring of support after his death, a memorial fund has been established for James Alan McPherson. Gifts can be made here