Before Ta-Nehisi Coates: On James Alan McPherson’s “Crabcakes”

Anya Ventura in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

JAMES ALAN MCPHERSON’S memoir Crabcakes begins with the death of his tenant, Mrs. Channie Washington. A traditional memoir might have sketched McPherson’s upbringing: the strapped childhood in segregated Savannah, Georgia, as the son of an electrician and a maid, and his ascent to Harvard Law School in the late ’60s. He might have noted that during that time, his short story “Gold Coast” won a competition sponsored by The Atlantic, and that two years later, with the story collection Hue and Cry already under his belt, he received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He could have also mentioned that his second collection Elbow Room, published in 1977, earned him a Pulitzer Prize: the first African American to win one for fiction.

In 1981, McPherson was among the first to be awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. A different kind of narrative might have illuminated all these facts — a true Horatio Alger story — yet McPherson includes none, nor does he elaborate his pains (to the dismay of early critics, who grappled with this absence of biographic detail). Instead, in courteous and precise prose, he begins with Mrs. Washington.

More here.

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