James Alan McPherson’s Powerful, Strangely Frightening Stories


Arts & Culture

I first “met” James Alan McPherson in the College of the Holy Cross bookstore in Worcester, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1969. I had come to find something to read beyond the nineteenth-century British novels of the course I was taking. Beyond Dickens. Beyond the Brontës. Beyond Thackeray. It was not that I had not been pleasantly, wonderfully nourished by such authors, but I had spent my teenage years in Washington, D.C., primarily devouring American writers, black and white. The literary world beyond America was still a generally new one to me, still a feast of rich, though unfamiliar food, as it were. And because Dinand Library at the Cross was still several months away from being a place that I, a black sophomore at a predominantly white school, could comfortably go and know that I could find something familiar, I went once more to the bookstore.

Familiar, then, was what I began to feel when I came upon the paperback Hue and Cry on the store’s shelf. Black cover, orange lettering. And on the back, a black-and-white stamp-size photograph of Jim, as I would come to know him, as a graduate student more than ten years later at the University of Virginia. Standing in the bookstore aisle, I had a growing feeling that I knew that man in the photograph in a way that I had not felt years earlier seeing pictures of James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison on the backs of their books. Perhaps it was because their photos were those of seasoned, established, older writers. Jim, obviously a long way from being even thirty years old, stood almost shyly in a peacoat, looking as if having his picture taken would never be one of the things he would get used to doing. I felt I knew this man because he looked like me.

I do not now remember how quickly I read all of Jim’s stories, but it could not have been more than a day—college work must have been pushed to the side for several hours.

What struck me, as I again read Hue and Cry for perhaps the third or fourth time in 2018, is how powerful and at times strangely frightening the first five stories of the book are with their men and the often crushing burden of their work. Young Thomas Brown of “A Matter of Vocabulary” bagging potatoes in a supermarket. The waiters and sleeping-car porters slaving away on trains in “On Trains” and “A Solo Song: For Doc.” Robert the janitor forever lugging his “three overflowing cans of garbage” in “Gold Coast.”

The last time I saw Jim, it was winter in Iowa City, nearly fifty years after that sophomore fall of discovering Hue and Cry. The world and life had done many good and bad things to both of us. He was coming to see me read at the University of Iowa. He could barely walk because of illness, but he still had the look of a wise man with secrets he was more than willing to share. I don’t think he knew what part he had played in my getting to that moment in my life.


Upon reading the first stories in Hue and Cry in 2018, I was struck again at how work can become such a yoke for a black man. Jim has this incredible ability to show how much a black man’s work—tied so much to his being—could ultimately contribute to his undoing, no matter how well the job is done. “A Solo Song: For Doc” is a splendid example, well worth, as the worn phrase goes, the price of admission. I always get a feeling of grand relief when I get to the end of “Gold Coast” with Robert’s liberation from his garbage cans, with his realization that his world can be a bigger place than a building of sad and failed people. There’s a reason John Updike chose that story as one of the best of the twentieth century.

The first time I met James Alan McPherson in person, it was 1978 in Washington, D.C. He was alone in a corner of someone’s home, a few hours before his reading at the Library of Congress. He held a glass of white wine in a living room with ten or so people waiting to go to the reading and he indicated to me with a nod that I should come over, something I would never have done on my own. He had already won praise and prizes for Elbow Room, his second book. We talked for some ten or fifteen minutes. He was humble and funny and shy, and it was somehow quietly evident that he knew a lot of things, which was the major reason I would go to the University of Virginia, where he was then teaching.

With the sixth story in Hue and Cry, Jim begins to explore relationships, especially those between black men and white women (not including “An Act of Prostitution”)—complicated relationships made even more so by the element of race. What comes through with each page is an empathetic understanding coupled with a writer’s knowledge that when dealing with human beings there are no right or wrong answers. There is, to be sure, so much to admire in those final six stories, starting with the dialogue. This is all true, a reader wants to say. Those six, like the first four, are to be savored, each word, which is the way a craftsman like Jim would have wanted it.


Edward P. Jones, the New York Times best-selling author, has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the Lannan Literary Award for The Known World; he also received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2004. His first collection of stories, Lost in the City, won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was short-listed for the National Book Award. His second collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has been an instructor of fiction writing at a range of universities, including Princeton. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt from Hue and Cry, by James Alan McPherson. Copyright 1968, 1969 by James Alan McPherson. Preface copyright 2019 by Edward P. Jones. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.