Savannah Morning News
September 11, 2016
It’s one thing to read the words and stories and meditations of James Alan McPherson. And then, after a while, to pull down the books from the shelves and re-read them because the narrative is not always clear (which is a good thing), the meanings (and timeline) are multiple, the characters (and the narrator) complex.
It’s quite another thing altogether to speak with his sister, Mary McPherson. She lives outside Charleston. Mary is one of many relatives and friends who planned yesterday’s memorial service at their childhood church, St. Phillip Monumental AME on Jefferson Street. McPherson died July 27 in Iowa City. He was 73.
McPherson, a graduate of Beach High School, may well go down as one of Savannah’s finest writers. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winner in fiction (the first black person to do so), an early recipient of the MacArthur Prize Fellows Award and a beloved professor at the respected Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City.
Saturday’s service was not the only celebration for McPherson’s life. After his death the University of Iowa rented the local theater, the Englert Theater in Iowa City. Two hundred colleagues, students and friends crowded together to remember someone they called the moral center and backbone of the Writers’ Workshop. That same day there was a memorial service at the nearby Trinity Episcopal Church.
According to Mary, one year older than McPherson, she and her siblings left Savannah as soon as they could. “in the early 1960’s, opportunities for African-Americans were very, very limited,” she said. “Sometimes I look at the raw talent that got away and think what a shame.”
Her brother Richard joined the military. When he finished his term he worked as an aircraft mechanic with Delta in Atlanta. Mary became a corporate librarian and worked in the northeast for 40 years.
Before McPherson left Savannah he found a home at the Carnegie Library on Henry Street, a branch of Savannah’s Live Oak Public Libraries that has deep roots in the African-American community.
“At first the words without pictures were a mystery,” he said in an earlier interview. “But then suddenly they all began to march across the page. They gave up their secret meanings, spoke of other worlds, made me know that pain was a part of other people’s lives. After a while I could read faster and faster and faster. After a while I no longer believed in the world in which I lived. I love the colored branch of the Carnegie Public Library.”
McPherson’s daughter, Rachel, wanted the Savannah memorial to be at the Carnegie library. But when she found it only seated 75 they moved it to the church.
After high school McPherson left for Morris Brown College. Then he graduated from Harvard Law School and followed that up with a Masters of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers Workshop.
“I remember he always read a lot,” said Mary. “He would write poems, too. He was like a god in Iowa. People were always coming around making special noises. When I visited I would have to say, ‘Back off. I’m here to see Junior.’”
In between degrees, McPherson worked as a waiter on the Great Northern Railroad and he was a lecturer in Japan. He spent years in Baltimore, where, as the owner of a house with deep connections to the people he rented to, he based many of his short stories and much of his ruminations in, “Crabcakes, a Memoir.”
McPherson kept in close touch with his family. In the last five years Mary would visit every three months or so. The siblings spoke on the phone two or three times a week. But he had put down deep roots in Iowa.
“One Thanksgiving I decided to go visit,” Mary said. “I was all set to cook. Then I noticed a sign he had put up: ‘Any student who can’t go home please come to my house.’ He cooked everything.”
At the Iowa City memorial writer ZZ Packer recalled how McPherson would invite students to his house and lend them books, maybe give them some crab cakes, sometimes, “If you’re real good friends some bourbon.”
During one particular visit to Iowa Mary suggested the two of them visit Savannah.
“Believe it or not he really wanted to visit. There were people who wanted to bring him there. But by then he had fallen a few times. His mobility was not good. Then he was afraid people might have expected more from him than he could deliver. It just wasn’t meant to be.
“While we were considering it Jim turned to me and said, ‘How should I go back? Dead?’ I said, ‘What? We’re not talking about death.’ That’s when he said, ‘I’m just kidding, Mary.”
When Mary decided to move back South she considered Savannah. But everything was too expensive.
“I came and drove around the old neighborhoods,” she said. “Every place I used to live they had torn down our home. My father’s house on Florance Street between 39th and 40th street was a vacant lot. It was the only house that was missing. It was like they just didn’t want us here.
Her brother, she was, “would be appalled at all the fuss we are making. He was so gentle and humble. After he got the Pulitzer he wanted to run into the woods and hide. He’s a very low key, thoughtful person. Everything he did was from the heart.”