July 29, 2016
Hail & Farewell: James Alan McPherson
by Dennis Johnson
There’s no way around it: He was squirrely. Hard to read, yet quirky enough to arrest your attention into trying to read him nonetheless. Was he just paralyzingly shy? Tortured by demons? On the spectrum? Or some kind of Einstein just wanting to get home to his thoughts?
James Alan McPherson, my teacher at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, wasn’t big on eye contact. He spoke so softly most of my conversations with him consisted of him saying something and me saying, “What?” He wouldn’t answer messages. He never — never — showed up at Workshop gatherings, nor hung out with us after class at the corner bar. As one of his more famous students, Breece D’J Pancake, noted, “He locks his office during office hours, and never sits with other teachers.”
In fact, McPherson would quite literally turn the other way — as if panicked — if he saw you coming down the hallway toward him. Yet when I discussed this with other students who had experienced the same thing we all agreed: he didn’t give off the impression that it was you — it was him. He didn’t want to talk anymore. He only had so much conversation in him. He was done with class; it was urgent that he get home without further interaction with any more humans.
There was a sense of coping with ache.
All of this was informed, of course, by his famous history: Born into poverty in the racist South, he’d worked his way through Harvard Law School by being a janitor, and by working as a porter — a porter! — on a dining car on the railroad along the northeast corridor. To all of us whities at Iowa — and trust me, there is no whiter place on the planet than Iowa, and the Workshop itself in those days — this was the stuff of knee-jerk guilt-driven sympathy.
Then there was the fact that, right before I met him, McPherson, who’d already won a Pulitzer and a Guggenheim, won one of the early MacArthur “genius” awards, a huge amount of money — which he’d promptly squandered most of on airfare to visit his daughter, then in the custody of his ex-wife, as well as on a protracted legal battle with his ex trying to win back that custody.
So this much was clear: He was both cool and in pain.
The thing is, all the sympathy our scant knowledge about him elicited became no more than one of those embarrassing p.c. assumptions when you were in class with him.
For one thing, he could be very blunt indeed — in his slight lisp and mumble — about your story, although there was some aspect of the news seeming reasonable as it was coming from someone obviously wounded. For another, his class was an intense experience, a huddled affair — he eschewed rostrums and pacing at the front of the room in favor of everyone just sitting around in a vague circular bunch, with all of us having to lean forward in intense concentration because we could hardly hear him, and further nailed to the floor by the amazing stuff he was muttering.
Not that those classes were grim affairs, nor humorless — he had an old man’s chortle, more silent than not, even though he wasn’t that old. But they were serious occasions, when you could see the man was talking about stuff that meant a lot to him — meant everything, seemingly — and it brought out your best thinking, and listening. And there was such a gentleness to him in those confines — you could say something stupid, and he’d walk you out of it in a way that told everyone else to back off. It was evident a few minutes into my first class with him that I was in the presence of a soulful, bona-fide genius, albeit of the tortured variety.
I base this on the single most memorable and formative class I’ve ever taken: His seminar on the history of the novel. More precisely, it was a seminar on what he believed a novel to be — which is, a thing born with the Magna Carta. McPherson — a graduate, remember, of Harvard Law — believed the novel was born when a basic idea of justice was first formalized in Western society. The quest for justice, to his way of thinking, was the only true organizational basis of a worthwhile plot.
It was riveting stuff that involved reading not only a lot of great novels but also historic legal decisions, as well as watching a lot of great movies (if you haven’t watched the movie Lonely Are the Brave, starring Kirk Douglas and written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, you should. And it will tell you a lot about what McPherson thought was great, politically engaged, humanistic story-telling).
What’s more, societal writings about theories of justice were something he investigated rather thoroughly, often citing his subscriptions to far-right magazines, such as that of the John Birch Society. They’re fired by a sense of justice, whether perverted or not, he noted. Also, you should keep aware of what the enemies of justice are up to. “My coffee table is covered with this stuff,” he told us.
All of which meant this was the class that, like no other at Iowa, made you think hardest about what you were doing, and the meaningful place of such work in our society. We came out of that class exhausted by so much thinking, and in awe of the teacher, and we parted like the Red Sea for his exit, feeling we should get out of his way as he hurried out of the room to get home, where he could read this material and dwell with his ideas … I used to imagine him pawing through those sick magazines feverishly, searching, as if he would somehow achieve a sense of justice through the act of reading itself …
He hadn’t written any fiction at that point for almost a decade, and it would be another decade before he did. After his first two collections of stories — Hue and Cry and Elbow Room — won him all kinds of awards, including the aforementioned Pulitzer, Guggenheim, and MacArthur prizes, he simply stopped publishing. “Society expected something else from him, but Jim is not someone who strives to meet the expectations of others,” theorized writer Mike Lankford, a mid-1980’s workshopper who stayed friends with McPherson, in a remarkable — and extremely rare — interview McPherson granted to David Streitfeld for the Washington Post.
When he did finally resume publishing, it was with a book of nonfiction, and he continued to write mostly nonfiction from then on, all of it as remarkable as that now-fabled first burst of fiction.
In fact, when, in the dead of night after binge-watching two weeks of presidential convention speechifying, I learned of his death at the age of 72 from pneumonia, I recalled his nonfiction first. In particular, I instantly thought of a story in his essay-length memoir Going Up to Atlanta, in which he talks about helping his alcoholic, electrician father — who had earlier abandoned the family, then come back after going to jail, and whom McPherson hated as a boy — on a job:
One day he was repairing the light fixture above the face bowl in the bathroom. He asked me to hold one of his hands and to grip the faucet of the bathtub with my other hand. I did this. Then he licked the index finger of his free hand and stuck it up into the empty socket where the lightbulb had been. As the electricity passed through him and into me and through me and was grounded in the faucet of the bathtub, my father kept saying, “Pal, I won’t hurt you. I won’t hurt you.” If I had let go of the faucet, both of us would have died. If I had let go of his hand, he would have died.
That day, I know now, my father was trying to regain my trust.
His consideration of his father shifted over time, became more generous and understanding, but it’s a haunting image. And I can’t help but feel that James Alan McPherson kept a lot of us grounded, at Iowa, while feeling it was a heavy burden … a dangerous burden … and yet he couldn’t resist the calling to help. I’ll never know, really, about the nature of his squirreliness beyond the obvious, but I’ll never forget that … Nor will I forget the fact that, as in the anecdote about his father, even though teaching to him represented an exposure that put him in peril, he seemed to want our trust. If so, I hope he was cognizant of that fact that, for me at least, like no other teacher I’ve ever known, he had it.
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives