The University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, the oldest program of its kind in the country, has churned out 16 Pulitzer Prize winners.
One is James Alan McPherson, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, awarded in 1978 for his collection of short stories, Elbow Room. He earned a MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1971.
But McPherson, who by then also had a law degree from Harvard University, was not done with Iowa. In 1981, he returned to teach in the writers’ program. He has been there ever since, as the first and only African-American on its seven-member permanent faculty.
“I had such fond memories of my time here,” says McPherson, when asked why he returned. “Jack Leggett was director of the workshop. He invited me back.”
McPherson, now 66, grew up in Savannah, Ga., where he laid his intellectual foundations by plowing through books in the then-segregated branch of the Carnegie Library. He worked on the railroad briefly as a dining-car waiter before attending Morgan State University and then finishing his bachelor’s degree at Morris Brown College.
After completing advanced degrees at Harvard and Iowa, he taught at several colleges, including the University of Virginia, Morgan State, and Meiji and Chiba universities in Japan. He settled down in Iowa City the same year he won the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” award.
He teaches undergraduate and graduate students. Besides fiction writing, he has led seminars on humor, tragedy and other styles. His writing classes are small, 10 to 12 students, to allow time for individual attention.
“I see my job as interacting with students on an individual basis,” not only in class, McPherson says. “I like to focus on the writing they’re doing and talk about their approach to writing, their craft (and) their art. But I also like to get them involved in the exchange so that we have a communal voice. It’s not just my voice pontificating.”
He adds, “It’s a matter of creating a personal bond with each student so that they trust you. They know — I hope they know — I’m not trying to impose any ideology or any kind of personal thing on them.”
Many of his former students, such as Workshop Director Lan Samantha Chang, have gone on to distinguish themselves, though McPherson declines to call them protégés.
“It’s truly a fellowship, a friendship. They share the intimacies of their imaginations with me,” he says.
The value he attaches to rich personal relationships is one reason McPherson finds the Midwest so comfortable.
“Apart from the prestige of teaching in the Workshop, there is the prestige of having neighbors, people who care about you. Iowa is full of that camaraderie,” he says. “It’s the sophistication within a rural context, the mores that derive from the countryside nourished with intellectual sophistication.”
There in the heartland McPherson is working on his next book. His last, published in 2000, was a collection of essays and reviews titled, A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile.