Note: In late 2002, I approached James Alan McPherson about an Interview after having read his landmark short story collection Elbow Room—I subsequently read his other books and was genuinely delighted at having an informal talk with him on the record about the things that were on his mind. What follows is the conversation he and I conducted via telephone.James Alan McPherson has authored several books including the Pulitzer Prize winning Elbow Room (Little Brown & Company). Recent books include Crabcakes: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster) and A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile (Simon & Shuster).
J.M. Spalding: What are you reading right now?
James Alan McPherson: I'm reading into the history of Rome. I just finished a book called The Twilight of American Culture by Morris Berman. I read it two years ago and just went back to it because he talks about how much—what he calls virtual reality has taken over our sense of reality, so to speak. It's a good book.
Iowa seems to be the home of many fine writers, not to mention a totally different working and living environment than Baltimore [McPherson lived in Baltimore before moving to Iowa]. What drew you there initially?
I went to school there. I went to the writer's work shop in  and liked it. It was a real communal place.
How would you rate the experience of living and working in Iowa, compared to Baltimore?
No comparison at all?
People say that Iowa is the best kept secret in the country.
I've been reading through Crabcakes recently, and so I'm wondering if you could describe the experience of putting it down on paper—especially the recollections, when you're talking about the house in Baltimore on Barclay Avenue.
I'm writing something now about a community in North Carolina named Princeville. In 1999 there was hurricane Floyd. It swept up the east coast and devastated a lot of places, but it hit hardest in North Carolina, and it destroyed a black community named Princeville; it was put under forty feet of water. So, my aunt, Eva Clayton, who is in congress, representing a district in North Carolina, asked me if I would go look at it because the people had refused money from FEMA and also refused help from the state of North Carolina into order to rebuild, because it was the first incorporated black community in the country; founded by former slaves in 1865, and so I went, and I was so proud because I was talking to an elderly lady in a trailer, and I was trying to quote something from the bible and I couldn't get it out and the lady knew it. There was a sense that they were holding on to something that we are lacking now. I'm trying to find out what that thing is or was. But to answer your question, I had that feeling about the lady in Baltimore [Ms Washington from Crabcakes] in that house, that she was holding onto something ... that was slipping away, and I admire that.
Throughout the first few recollections, there are some fascinating
narrative conventions. I think the way you remember past events is
given a sort of unique and mysterious texture. The way you season the
prose lends itself to a richer interpretation, or at least that was my
take on it.
I think the most interesting example is the bidding on the house in the second recollection...
I was trying to relocate that moment in terms of the rituals of the past, and so, I was focused on rituals.
There is a sense that as you have progressed in life that you've felt the need to take on more responsibility in helping others as was the case with the house. I'm curious to know if you feel satisfied in that regard?
No, I don't want to vote myself as a goody-goody. Sometimes a moment comes when you have to act, or you regret not acting all your life. It's an interesting thing that we talk now; I had a call yesterday from a man named Howard Smuckler and he came over this afternoon at four, and we talked until about half an hour ago. But Howard Smuckler is a white fellow who came to my college in Atlanta (Morris Brown college) in 1961—he was a transfer student from Ohio. He and another man were the only two white males at my college back then. We spent all of the
evening catching up, from the time in 1961 until now. We talked about the same things, we both tried to encase the years since then in
rituals in terms of looking deeper into what happened. For example, we talked about how the black kids talked about Jews—"Do the Jews still
kill their first born? Do they?" I never heard that in my life!
He was talking about the wounds that he suffered when he was there without my knowing it. I thought back, and I never heard those kinds of comments in my community, but he did... But here is a Jewish guy who went from Miami University in Ohio to Morris Brown College in Atlanta during the first wave of optimism during the civil rights movement—there he was, within a lower middle-class black community having to take that!
All these years later, not having seen him in so long, brought back all kinds of things into my mind, so to speak. But it is a time when you look back at those kinds of things and sort of put them into a deeper context. Do you see what I am trying to say?
Yes. I think it's remarkable that you bring all that back after forty one years or so.
Well it's a miracle. He was having lunch with a Japanese lawyer in California, and the lawyer mentioned that he had dinner with me at Thanksgiving at the center [Stanford University Writing Center] where I am now, and he remembered me and so he called me. He and the lawyer came over tonight. It was like: now I've got to re-focus on those years and put them into context apart from the sociology.
[ed note: After James finished his point, we were both somewhat distracted by dogs barking in the background.]
I hear those dogs barking in the background, are those your dogs?
No, my landlord has a dog—I had the back door open... and the dog was in his yard. It gives you a sense of where we are now—he was working in the computer industry and he told me a week or two ago that he had just gotten a new job (because he had just gotten laid off). He brought the dog around—the dog is trained to smoke out bombs. And he is going to go to meetings with business people in San Francisco with that dog to smoke out bombs. Isn't it sort of sad that we live in that kind of country now?
You're right. There is a lot of paranoia... absolutely right.
I was in New York in January attending a meeting for a literary foundation and you had to check-in with the doorman downstairs, and they call up and get okay for you to go up to the twenty-forth floor, then you get off there and check-in with another clerk and they call up to the twenty-seventh floor to get an okay for you to go up there... and then you have to have somebody come out because the door is locked. It's socialized hysteria.
When you turn on the television to CNN or Fox News and there is a terror alert graphic they display between the commercials, but there is a lot more to it...
Yes, I've seen it on television. Is it that the country has given into a technological sense of reality? [pause] We're living in terms of virtual reality.
Probably both, and more. What do you think of the media's treatment of news items?
I watch the news in the evenings. I watch NBC and I think its changed over the years. I remember Walter Cronkite who put his soul into his broadcasting, but now its theater. I don't care about Michael
Jackson's private life; I don't care about his bedroom. But there was a
[television] special on all that last week.
I don't care about Trent Lott's extemporaneous expressions. Its a mood that has become a substitute for deeper felt, closely held feelings, and I call it Moral Dandyism. You could say "Trent Lott, how dare he! Shame Shame Shame," and then go on about your business because you've done your moral work. It's easy.
Like Martha Stewart. It's made morality a commodity, I think. I don't want to preach about this but, it has become numerative—so that every week, there has got to be smut in the arena. Then you have, as a consequence, what I call marathon mourning; like with Princess Di and I hate to say it, but also with the Columbia tragedy. You don't always feel for those people, but the media wants you to put a flower on something.
I remember Princess Diana's death occurred on my birthday. I think companies and corporations look to these events as a means of increasing the bottom-line—though, I don't always think it is malevolent. Maybe I am too much of a cynic?
I'm a cynic too! What I did when Princess Di died, and I saw all that media attention on her, I wrote a song called "Dody is in the cold cold grave." Dody was the guy in the car, but they didn't really mention him.
People seem to be eating it up.
Well that's too bad because when I teach I try my best to expose my students to the broadest possible range of ethical systems. When the thing happened with Iraq, I got my students to read The Arabian Nights [by Husain Haddaway] because those stories were taken from Persian and Hindu traditions—and in those traditions, the act of storytelling is medicinal... its healing. I read Japanese traditions. I read everything that can add to my understanding of human life. I'm not trying to be a moral dandy, I'm just trying to say that after a certain point, you recognize that what you have is [decision] in comparison to what has come before. I am speaking now as a black American who had to try and understand white Americans; and who had to go beyond that to understand the rest of the world. That is what I am trying to say.
When you learn, you say: "What is this shit doing here?"
That's a good way to teach. When I was in college, I was an English major at a small state school...
I went to a negro college in the south!
You know, I think you got me on that one! But I remember (about my professors) it was: publication, publication, publication, get tenured, et cetera and "here is your assignment", by the way. I didn't feel that there was that too much idealism or pride...
That's the way the system works. What happens when the intellectuals become a commodity cast? You don't have any new ideas, because you know what you should say to get ahead. You know? Political correctness. I sent an essay to your journal about the commerce that's screwing up Martin Luther King day, and it's sad because it means that on Martin Luther King day, everybody is on television selling something. I don't like that!
That really does get at me.
What I am trying to say is what is wrong that we accept that? What's wrong with us? Do we have any sense?
I wonder. I wrote an essay about the entertainment industry because I think there is a problem. I'm concerned, like a lot of people, I suppose.
Publish it someplace! A cynic is a person who can only stand up against what is, a person who goes around and says this is what it could be!
I would urge you to read that Morris Berman book because he talks about what he calls the Monastic Option. He says "Don't waste your energy waving against it." Its based on an old movie called Fahrenheit 451; and he was saying you can't beat it, but you can preserve what was best. And so you take it to your own environment which you consider the best of human thought, and you hold onto that.
I guess I'm trying to say that if you have a resource that can be useful, then you let it out.
So I have about three thousand movies that I bought and I have all kinds of books (I would name the books). Those books have taught me the difference between my own theory of black American culture in the south and the larger world. So, they're essential to me. I think you should try to take what's best of the old and bring it to the future in some way.
I think people use their livelihood as... an excuse.
privileged in that I am a teacher. I try to teach without preaching at
people. But if a student raises a point that a book I have can't
answer... I wouldn't defend the book. But to be a teacher I have to
have the book.
In that essay I sent to your journal I talked about Trent Lott—there is a mood of what I called Moral Dandyism. Anybody who goes against the ideological lines is denounced, and that prevents us from seeing the deeper human truths or the deeper human complexities. I read a piece in the paper when he was under fire—that his mother named him for a female character in a radio soap opera called "The Romance of Helen Trent." What has that done to him?
If you dismiss him as a racist, then you miss out on what the popular culture does to all of us. I'm not defending him, I'm just trying to say: what has he paid, in terms of an emotional price to live up to the image of a white female?
Well, this happens a lot... this kind of controversy, you know? Lott said Strom Thurmond should have been President a few times—although I don't really think there was a sense of malevolence this last time.
Sometimes these things are stuck so deep in his speeches that he just said it.
What I'm concerned about is not Trent Lott's attitudes or his speeches but about the mood out there that says that we need to re-assert American moral sensibility so that we would choose Martha Stewart and Trent Lott as a substitute for revitalizing basic American values. That frightens me.
You can choose something every week, and people go to sleep thinking "well, we got him".
So they get a sort of sense that the world is a better place?
Yeah and its not! All these guys are doing with the bureaucracy is protecting each other. I am so sad for what is going on and I can't do anything about it. Neither can you or anybody.
Ultimately, I try to look at it as a step on the path of evolution. There are a lot of practices that we've been a part of... practices we eventually grew out of.
Well, what Howard Smuckler did tonight was quote something from one of the Greek gods. The idea was that times like these are times when the wise people begin to assert what's best—make the assertion and move on.
On a typical story how many drafts would you say you go through?
Now you're talking about my youth. I could write a story overnight at
one point. But as I got older, I realized I couldn't do it any more.
I'm trying to get back into writing fiction now because I've written essays for a long time. I think that it takes a disengagement of the imagination from this world to write fiction. And I think my imagination has been engaged in this world for so many years.
What was the origin of "A Loaf of Bread" from Elbow Room?
I haven't thought about that story for a long time, but the origin of it was that I had been asked by the Atlantic Monthly to go to Chicago to investigate an organization called the Contract Buyers League.
These were black people who had moved to Chicago in the 20's, 30's and 40's and couldn't get mortgages to buy houses because FHA redlined certain areas. And so they had to buy from slumlords who used racial tactics to drive whites out [in order to] resell to black people as double purchase contracts (because the FHA wouldn't). Many thousands of migrants from the south bought houses in Chicago... So in the 60's, a Jesuit seminarian named John McNamara went in there and began to investigate and saw that people were working two or three jobs just to pay their mortgages... they would [ultimately] lose their houses, and so McNamara organized the Contract Buyers League; and it was joined by Catholics, Black Baptists and Jewish people because the sellers were Jewish. They fought without cases and stood against the evictions and all that. They had a spiritual solidarity and I wrote about it, and the piece was in the Atlantic sometime in 1973.
What I saw (and this comes close to what I was talking about earlier) was that the people on the west side of Chicago were migrants from Mississippi; and they were true to their Baptist background—but they were joined on the south side (in Hyde Park and places like that) by people who were moral dandies... black people. They began to make political capital out of it; whereas before, what had been a moral struggle had become a PR struggle. So I was confronted with the problem of what happens when commitment itself is superseded by a commitment to the period movement... then you get a moral dandyism and you begin to denounce people. I think that's what happened to the people on the south side. That's what the story is about—when a moral thing becomes a license and you become a moral dandy because you lose sight of the basic thing you're doing. You become committed to the rhetoric of the commitment as opposed to the concrete thing that you're really committed to, and that's not right.
So, I didn't mean to put down the people of Chicago. I just wanted to talk with fiction about what happens when the concrete right/wrong issue becomes an opportunity of moral dandyism. That's where we are now.
How do you react when people in an academic setting respond favorably to a negative character that you've written?
I was talking to Howard Smuckler this evening about how years ago, a
Jewish novelist, Bernard Malamud, had sent me his manuscript of a novel
he was wanting to publish called The Tennants.
It was about a conflict between a black guy and a Jewish guy—he asked
me to read it because he was concerned about being called a racist. I
read it and the only objection I had was that the black people sounded
Jewish. And so I decided to work on this idiom. But he touched a point
that I think is important—I mention moral dandyism… society has given
us the excuse of racism and white supremacy; and I'm for that except
when it threatens to destroy our internal ancestral values.
It's easy to say racism accounts for everything wrong with my life, but it is harder to say "Yes, there's racism, but I account for it in my life." What I am trying to say is that despite racism, my people are great people because in the past, we persevered despite racism. What I fear now is that we've been given the excuse to say: "I can't, I won't," because of racism. And that's sad... that's sad because it wipes out the idea of heroism.
You know, the blues is a synthesis of Greek tradition in that the Greeks in their religious festivals each year, would go to the temple dance or whatever, and dramatize tragedies during the day and comedies at night. And the two together said that life was hard but well worth living. The blues captured that. But we have lost the sense that they have transcended something; and the society encourages us to say that it is all very tragic and it doesn't give us any room to say we transcended it.
We have lost sight of what we did to affirm who we are and we've allowed the larger society to tell us who we are or who we would be.
It's a sad thing that the media has given us the right to not be heroic—to become social science heroes. By that I mean: instead of confronting the dragon, we confront sociological theories—and the hero always confronts the dragon, not a sociological theory.