Photo by Tom Langdon.
Although I didn’t yet know of his dying, I was thinking of James McPherson in the hours afterward, as I listened to President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. I wanted very much for him to explain how these two lodestars of our current political life, Obama and Trump, could exist in the same galaxy. Years ago, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I had witnessed Jim’s unerring ability to find the pulse of the weakest story. Similarly, during the reigns of Reagan and Bush the First, he had listened intently to the whispering of a far right wing not easily heard in the din of that era’s culture war. I knew I had neither Jim’s wisdom nor imagination, and the night of the convention I could only sense that he again, in a way that most of us could not, would understand the spiritual impoverishment that drove this most incredible of political narratives.
I had to content myself with remembering the rumble of his laughter, the way it could start from the tips of his splayed feet and rise up to his fraying straw cap. I thought, too, of the hesitations in the murmur of his hushed voice, the result perhaps of a stutter long mastered, or the refusal to speak anything other than the truth—his truth perhaps, but a truth that many of his students learned to rely on.
I became friends with McPherson, as his students usually referred to him, because I touched his hand. Until then, during my nearly two years at the Workshop, we hadn’t managed a conversation outside of the classroom that didn’t end within minutes, and more often seconds, in profound irritation on his part, even open anger. Shy, acutely sensitive to criticism, and admiring of him as I had been of no teacher before, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, aside from being myself. But maybe I really wasn’t being myself because McPherson, with his precisely calibrated social radar, quickly detected my own prickliness, more habitually disguised than his own. I was too young, too unwise, too white, and too ignorant of the facts of his life to understand that his sensitivity might have very little to do with me. He was in the most acute private pain and if he lashed out, I only can wish now that I had concentrated less on protecting myself and more on understanding him.
I touched his hand the night of a final party to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Workshop, held in the late spring of 1987 on the grounds of the university’s art museum, nestled along the banks of the muddy Iowa River. At last, we had stumbled into a real conversation, Jim in a dark-blue suit and for once without his cap, and me in a red linen dress that was the only nice thing I owned. Our best clothes seemed to enable us to find our better selves. Jim was amused and amusing, held aloft in a flight of high spirits that allowed me to soar as well. Our conversation sputtered, though, when two friends of mine approached. He had no patience for polite chitchat, and I touched him in appeal, not understanding the potency of my gesture. I only wanted to hold onto him, but to him, I imagine, a certain reassurance was given. That is what it seemed. That is what it seems.
I knew very little of Jim’s life at that point. He was divorced and a father. That I learned from a friend who attended the Workshop a few years earlier and had witnessed Jim’s gentle ways with his daughter, Rachel, during a visit to his house. It was all I knew of him, beyond the books and prizes, and it seemed a better reason than many to join his workshop. The next fall we learned from Jim, when he was forced to miss a class, that he had been in court in Charlottesville, where Rachel lived with her mother. He didn’t say much, but his voice was grave, and every student in the room seemed to bow his or her head. I appreciate now that he made nearly as heroic an effort to be there for his students as he did to be there for his child. Later I met Rachel when Jim pulled me out of a group of students to introduce her to me. Rachel was perhaps seven or eight and a little shy and prickly herself, but clearly sensitive to her father’s desire that she turn outward to meet the world. I was confused given my history with him but happy—I sensed that there was no greater honor in his book than to be introduced to Rachel Alice McPherson.
Now I think, during the years of our friendship, Jim was enduring the dissolution of his youth, the enormous potential of it, and reconciling himself, or not, to the limitations of age. For me he was an Icarus-like figure. He’d flown unimaginably high from supporting his family with his paper route in segregated Savannah to the halls of Harvard Law School, all the while writing the incomparable first stories. Then he had risen even further with the brilliant second book and all the glittering prizes that so dogged him. But middle age, with its lack of free flight, was difficult for him, both psychologically and physically. He was both very young and very old, and at times, a calcification of thought, a relentless return to the rut of familiar ideas, seemed to dim his brilliance and enable a self-immolating rage. But he found a way forward as he traveled to Japan, exploring both himself and our country through another people and country, his restless mind and soul expanding for this largest of tasks. By the turn of millennium he had written a memoir, Crabcakes, and the even less classifiable book of essays, A Region Not Home, capstones to the brilliant early career.
Our friendship—ever fraught, fragile, fragmented—foundered for good when Clarence Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court. Today that seems utterly ridiculous, but again there was much confusion on my part and much anger on his as we tried, mostly in letters, to discuss our political differences. I found his stance utterly contradictory, as he defended a legal thinker and man he clearly found indefensible. I had moved to New Haven the year before, while my husband attended graduate school there, and the move to that city, where he had spent the year before Rachel’s birth, seemed a complication as well as the fact that I was pregnant with my first child. In the end, though, it seemed to come down to this: I believed Anita Hill; he did not. Our friendship had to become distant in order to exist at all.
We became our differences: man and woman, southerner and northerner, conservative and liberal (most loosely defined), protector of a certain male prerogative and feminist, father and prospective mother. The racial difference seemed the least of it. Now I wish I had been more attendant to the sources of his pain; I wish I had been less protective of my own territory. I should have known better; I did know better.
During one of the first days of our friendship, Jim and I took a walk in the countryside near Iowa City. This seemed immensely important to him, despite the heat and humidity of the day. We turned back, though, after encountering someone else walking there—a white man, large, rough looking but not obviously a threat in my eyes. Jim knew better, and he knew better every time we drove in a car together. For him it was always a red-dirted nighttime Mississippi road, as he wrote in Crabcakes, especially with a white woman in the car. He really could only feel safe within the confines of his own home, within the confines of Iowa City, and wonderful as that was, it was a prison, too.
And there were less tangible threats. I saw him once after he had attended a memorial service for Edward Weeks, who had published Jim’s first stories in The Atlantic Monthly. Peter Gomes, a chaplain at Harvard, an African American man who bore no resemblance to Jim, had spoken, and afterward people came up to Jim, thinking he was Gomes, to congratulate him on his remarks. I try to remember his exact tone as he told this story, and I hear a weariness, a loss of hope that the world would ever be put right. I felt a helpless responsibility for Boston, my native city, that most unreconstructed of northern cities—how far we were from basic human courtesy, never mind an equality of opportunity.
Jim gave so much to his students and friends, the countless classroom hours, the endless reading of manuscripts, the relentless typing of letters, as he gentled his students, and most of us were white then, into the reality that our country and culture is not exclusively white. We might have thought we knew that the world was ruled by color, but he made us inhabit that truth in all its contradictions.
The time spent on others seemed to come at the expense of his own writing. Rereading his work now, I hear his voice in every line, and I so wish for more lines to read, more ways of knowing him. He is the landlord all the way from out in Ioway, as Mrs. Channie Washington, his tenant in a little house he owned in Baltimore, described him. As he recounted in Crabcakes, it was yet another relationship in which he gave far more than received. Once again he had answered a silent plea, that day as he encountered Mrs. Washington being evicted from her rented house, and once again, by purchasing the house and charging minimal rent for many years, he entered an inequitable contract. His death makes all this at last clear to me. The house he built for his friends and students cost him dearly, and over the years we have lived there nearly rent free; we have never paid him his due.
Cynthia Payne is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She grew up outside of Boston and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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