Pulitzer Prize Writer Teaches At Iowa

James Alan McPherson

James Alan McPherson (Photo, Stefanie Schultz)

By: Stefanie Schultz

It’s a typical Iowa City fall morning. Bursts of chilly air blanket the campus. Hints of orange and red pop amongst the green leaves. Professor James Alan McPherson sits in his office. He is carefully reviewing a student’s file, preparing to write a recommendation.

“This is what makes [my job] enjoyable. It’s fascinating to see where the [students] come from and to see where they are going,” said McPherson, a professor at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop.

As we discuss his love for teaching, his passion for writing and story telling begins to illuminate the room. To say his professional life has been successful is a vast understatement. In fact, before Professor McPherson began teaching at the University of Iowa he was an award-winning southern fiction writer.

Remembering Racial Difficulties

Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1943, Professor McPherson personally endured the racial tensions that ripped through America’s south. Consequently, his work has been devoted to many of these issues. His book, “Hue and Cry,” deals with a variety of issues, such as homosexuality and racism, which remain just as relevant and captivating as they did during the late 1960s and 1970s.

“I grew up in the south during a time of white domination. My work took me across racial lines. It introduced me to a variety of stories,” said McPherson.

Pulitzer Prize Winner

Through the 1960s to the early 2000s, McPherson’s work flourished. In 1978, he became the first African-American writer to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his short story collection “Elbow Room.” Later, he was awarded a MacArther Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995.

McPherson’s professional life has been filled with bountiful amounts of success. Yet, while talking with him, it is easy to recognize his natural humble and passionate persona.

“[Winning the Pulitzer Prize] made me more of a target. It puts pressure on you to excel. Even at a time when you may not be able to do so,” said McPherson.

Still, awards, Pulitzer Prizes, and national recognition was never his ultimate goal. Instead, his love and passion for writing is what drove him to succeed.

“I’ve never wanted a conventional and traditional life. I just wanted to do something different,” said McPherson.

Before attending the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, McPherson attended Morgan State University, Morris Brown College, Harvard Law School, and Yale Law School. Additionally, Professor McPherson taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz and lectured in Japan at Meiji University and Chiba University.

“Teaching in Japan was a great experience. I loved socializing with the people. I was fascinated with their mannerisms and their socialization skills,” said McPherson.

Settling Down in Iowa City

Today however, Professor McPherson’s exotic traveling has come to a standstill. Instead he can be found teaching writing courses at the Dey House at the University of Iowa.

“He [McPherson] really gives it his all. He truly wants students to succeed and wants to help them. He is an extremely dedicated teacher,” said Janice Zenisek, Secretary at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop.

Although his zest for traveling may be gone, his love for the Writers’ Workshop and Iowa City remains.

“[Iowa City] has and old-fashion deeply embedded communal sense. Here [Iowa City] you receive reinforcement of who you are on all levels. I admire and appreciate that,” said McPherson.


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