About James Alan McPherson
James Alan McPherson mocks the Horatio Alger aspect of his background via the young writer-narrator of his first published story, "Gold Coast" (an
Atlantic Monthly First in 1968), in a passage where Robert dreams that "there would be capsule biographies of my life on dust jackets of many books, all proclaiming: ?...He knew life on many levels. From shoeshine boy, free-lance waiter, 3rd cook, janitor, he rose to...'" This self-mockery aside, McPherson's own life and career embody what he calls in his essay "On Becoming an American Writer": "a synthesis of high and low, black and white, city and country, provincial and universal."
McPherson was born in 1943, in Savannah, Georgia. Later, as he writes in "Going Up To Atlanta," he worked at odd jobs to help support his mother, brother, and sisters while attending a Catholic school where all the nuns were white and the children black, then the public schools, "where all the mean people went." As a boy he loved comic books but soon discovered the Colored Branch of the Carnegie Public Library, where he learned that words without pictures "gave up their secret meanings, spoke of other worlds, made me know that pain was a part of other people's lives." All the while, surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends of his father's, he was struggling with the enigmatic figure of his father. McPherson senior had become the first black master electrician in the state, but only after the racist suppression of his repeated applications to get a license had caused him "irrevocable pain" and led to a drinking problem and a period in jail. At the time, McPherson did not understand the
forces that had broken his father. "I had...been working every kind of job to help support the family I thought he had abandoned," McPherson writes. "During all my years in Savannah, I had never had peace or comfort or any chance to rely on anyone else. I blamed him for it. I was very bitter towards him." When his father died in 1961, he felt that "my father had died many years before." Only twenty years later would he come to appreciate his father "as an intelligent and creative man" and forgive him.
McPherson's progress as a young man was a movement away from Savannah and into the world. He worked as a dining-car waiter for the Great Northern Railroad in 1962 (an experience that contributed to two early stories and to his nonfiction book
Railroad), attended Morgan State University in Baltimore from 1963-64, and then, having gotten a National Defense Student Loan, finished at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, graduating in 1965.
In 1967, he attended Harvard Law School, where he studied fiction writing with Alan Lebowitz. The publication of "Gold Coast" in
The Atlantic Monthly initiated a close relationship with the editor Edward Weeks and led to McPherson's promotion to contributing editor in 1969. He went on to take his M.F.A. at the University of Iowa (where he worked briefly with Richard Yates) and published his first collection
Hue and Cry in 1969, as well as a cover interview with Ralph Ellison in
The Atlantic Monthly in 1970 (Ellison soon became his primary friend and mentor, along with Albert Murray, author of
In 1972, McPherson received a Guggenheim Fellowship, married, and moved to San Francisco. He taught at the University of California Santa Cruz in 1974 and was hired by the University of Virginia in 1976. While at Virginia, he published his second collection,
Elbow Room, and, in 1978, became the first African-American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize; however, his sense of being exploited at Virginia was so extreme that he felt exposed by the awards. "I was brought in to be in the window," he commented in a 2001 interview with Trent Masiki. "I was really frightened of that environment. That's why when I got the Pulitzer, I didn't respond to calls. I stayed at home and hid out. You should be allowed to take joy in what happens to you. But I was scared of the backlash....For them to see me doing well wasn't what they expected....Some whites get resentful when someone from the lowest levels of society starts winning ?their' stuff. So I've been very careful about protecting my privacy ever since those years."
McPherson's daughter Rachel was born in 1979. Not long after, his marriage began to unravel and he found himself involved in a divorce which he was later to describe in "Disneyland" as both bitter and complicated. At this point two forms of "kindly interference" occurred. Jack Leggett offered him a job at the Iowa Workshop, and he was notified that he had won one of the first MacArthur Foundation "genius" grants. He told a caller from National Public Radio, "The gods are playful."
In the years that followed, McPherson bought a house on auction in Baltimore, which he then rented at nominal rates to needy tenants; he also bought a house in Iowa City and settled into a life that was largely reclusive, other than for his teaching. He continued to fight unsuccessfully in Charlottesville courts for the custody of his daughter. In the early eighties, McPherson felt that he had to choose between his writing and the fathering of his daughter. During her regular visits from her mother's in Charlottesville, he took Rachel for special trips to Disneyland, and sought to introduce her to rooms around the "big house" of the United States: "My bedroom was in Iowa City. Rachel's bedroom was in Charlottesville. Friends had guest rooms, for Rachel and for me, in Richmond, in Washington, D.C., in Stamford, and in New Haven, in New York, in Boston, in Cambridge, in Chicago, in Oakland and in Los Angeles. All Rachel and I had to do...was to move from room to room in this huge house, bonding as we
went with each other and with our friends" ("Disneyland").
But gradually he began to connect with his Iowa City neighbors, with colleagues, and with students, and to see in Iowa City the basis of a spiritually centered democracy. "I have many friends here," he wrote, "black and white and other. ... I am confident that here I am first of all a person, a human being. I have been accepted into the life of the community. I have open and free access to what in this community has meaning and value" ("A Region Not Home").
In Iowa City, McPherson also befriended Japanese author Kiyohiro Miura, developing an interest in Japanese culture that led to his lecturing in Japan. He also immersed himself in Greek and Roman classics. He studied the racist right. He studied American popular culture, including the films of John Ford. He became a master teacher, mentoring Eileen Pollack (see her tribute below), Kathryn Harrison, Gish Jen, Adam Schwartz, Samantha Chang, Z. Z. Packer, and many others. He developed courses ranging from the Bible to American Humor and Mark Twain. He also vested himself in "working on the industry from the inside" (as he puts it in his interview with Masiki), serving emerging talents that promised "new stories" and a new American perspective. He co-edited two issues of
Ploughshares (1985, 1990), served as a
Ploughshares trustee (1989-2005) and a panelist for the Whiting Foundation (1985-present). He became a contributing editor to Robert Coles's magazine
Doubletake (1995-2007) and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995; following Frank Conroy's death, he served as acting director of the Iowa Workshop (2005-2007).
Once his daughter was in college, McPherson felt "free to get back to my work." He published
Crabcakes (1996), followed by a collection of essays called
A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile (2000). In addition, his significant, uncollected pieces include his two articles on "Chicago's Black Stone Rangers," the Ellison interview, articles on exile from the South, "Going Up To Atlanta," and "A Region Not Home: The View From Exile," a meditation on the film
Mississippi Burning, "Burning Memories, Mississippi 1964," an essay "To Blacks and Jews: Hab Rachmones," and an excerpt from a novel-in-progress,
In his fiction and nonfiction alike, McPherson penetrates to the soul of different perspectives, traditions, and values with his extraordinary mind and heart. His writing is remarkable for its humor, its tireless Socratic intelligence, stylistic invention and variety, and meta-fictional urgency. In terms of his observant conscience, he is as subtle and rigorous as George Orwell and James Baldwin, whom he professes wryly never to have read. Above all McPherson is writing the uncreated conscience of democracy itself, appealing to both personal and social justice, and "an enlarging of our humanity."
A Tribute to James Alan McPherson
I was a member of Jim McPherson's first class at Iowa, and, like generations of students to follow, I was relieved to discover that Jim was the teacher I had been looking for all my life. The literature courses Jim taught-I studied "Literature and the Law" and "The American Vernacular"-were brilliant and original. And though Jim tended to be Zen in workshop, I soon figured out that a person could learn everything she needed to learn by meditating on the koans he whispered in class, by listening to his asides as he watched John Wayne hunt down Natalie Wood in
The Searchers for the fiftieth time, and by hanging out at Hamburg Inn and witnessing the ways a genius transforms the stuff of everyday life into the stuff of art.
Once, in the early eighties, Jim and I were walking through Harvard Square when we passed a very upscale furniture store. A very upscale black couple-the man wore a stylish three-piece suit and carried a walking stick and leather case-stood inside the window, considering the purchase of a very fashionable living-room set. The woman sat primly and tried the sofa. The man sat stiffly and tried the chair.
"Dress that window, brother," Jim muttered, laughing to himself (
heh heh heh), unable to resist the dig not at the couple but rather at the practice by which a corporation or university hired a solitary black person (often an attractive, well-dressed black person), installed him or her in a highly visible position, and considered its obligation to minorities to be fulfilled.
Jim waved at the man and smiled. Then-full professor, Pulitzer Prize winner, Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow that he was-he scuffed off down the sidewalk in his well-worn moccasins, corduroy trousers, flannel shirt, and flat straw cap.
Rather than confine himself to administering lessons on point of view, Jim tries to convey a vision of what it means to be a writer, an American, a human being. He impresses on his students the dangers of losing or distorting what is most authentic about who they are and becoming "moral dandies." He celebrates the role of the imagination, not only in creating characters on a page, but in empathizing with people whose inner worlds are far different from your own and improvising new ways of behaving that might transcend the old. Instead of subject-and-verb agreement, Jim tutors his students in the grammar of love.
If one is not too strict in his conjugation of the verb to be
, he might wind up with a sense of living in the present. I believe now that love exists at just that point when the first person singular moves into its plural estate: I am, you are, he is, she is, we are.
... The saying of it requires a going out of oneself, of breath as well as confidence. Its image is of expansiveness, a taking roundly into and a putting roundly out of oneself. Or perhaps another word should be used, one invented or one transported from another context: I am, you are, he is, she is, we be. ("Just Enough for the City")
Jim believes in family. You can't know who you are if you don't know where you came from. But as Jim often says, each of us is entitled to create our own family from any kindred souls we meet. The guiding metaphor in
Crabcakes is the pilgrimage the author makes to Baltimore to bring home the perfect meal to share at a communal supper with his friends in Iowa City. For those of us who had moved so far from the families into which we'd been born, sharing such meals with Jim was the way we restored our souls.
Once, in my second year at the workshop, I needed emergency surgery, and since there were no free beds in the general wing of Mercy Hospital, I ended up in Obstetrics, where a sign warned visitors that only a patient's family would be admitted. My classmate Gish Jen showed up first and claimed to be my sister. Katie Estill, who is part Native American and looks it, showed up with a similar claim, after which David Nicholson, who is black, claimed to be my brother. Finally, Jim appeared and said he was "the father."
The diversity of my visitors confused the nurses, one of whom came in to say that the staff couldn't figure out which baby was mine since all the children in the incubators seemed "completely white." Then she leaned closer and asked me what it was like to be married to a black man. I bristled-what concern was that of hers?
"Well," she said, looking around to see if anyone was listening, "I'm dating a black man, and we want to get married, but I don't know what to expect. How people will treat us and all? And I've never found anyone in Iowa I could ask."
Like the black male narrator of "Why I Like Country Music," who prefers square-dance music to blues and bebop, Jim is always on the look-out for Americans who defy or contradict the dictates of their histories. Once, when I took him on a field trip to the Henry Ford Museum, which is housed in a former auto plant in Dearborn, Michigan, the museum turned out to be celebrating Motown music. After buying some Marvin Gaye in the gift shop, Jim and I wandered into a room in which a video of The Temptations was playing on the wall, with the musicians offering lessons on how to emulate their dance steps. Business was slow, and five or six white-haired, white docents had gathered in the room and were performing The Temptations' moves with a rhythm and grace that would have done a group of back-up singers proud.
If not for Jim, I would have spent a few minutes appreciating the refrain to "Heard It through the Grapevine" before moving on to the next exhibit. But Jim started dancing behind the women, smiling and applauding. Later, he explained that it made him cry to think that music invented by African-Americans laboring to build cars on an assembly line owned by Henry Ford should now be celebrated in a museum in that same factory, danced to and enjoyed by middle-class white women who once might have shunned it as vulgar, low-class, and black.
To which I now add the irony that a racist and anti-Semite like Henry Ford would roll over in his grave to know that a Jewish woman and a black man should have been standing in his auto plant in the middle of the day, appreciating the triumph of his workers' music over the kind of dancing he decreed must be played in the ballroom he ordered built adjacent to his factory because he wanted to combat the improvisation that was encouraged by newfangled dances such as the Charleston and jazz.
Many of Jim's lessons apply to everyone. But he also seems to sense what kind of lesson an individual student needs to learn. Once, at an after-reading party, Jim asked me to dance. As we stumbled around the room, he cried: "Ha, ha! I fooled you! A colored boy who can't dance!" This stunned me into silence. Wasn't this a racist thing to say? Didn't my being white preclude me from offering a similarly irreverent reply? But no, Jim loved contradictions and complexities, especially those involving gender, race, and class.
Suddenly, words popped in my head. I got into the calculus of the thing. I improvised. "Ha! I fooled
you-a Jew with no money!" It was the first funny thing I'd ever said. At least, the first funny thing that had an edge. At which I realized that Jim had tricked me into finding my voice-not only as a writer but as a person.
Sometimes, if you took what Jim taught, you took a part of Jim along with it. Yet he never seemed to mind. As Jim says, the best writers are the ones who know from whom to steal. First, you steal from someone you resemble, an elder in your own community-in Jim's case, Ralph Ellison. But a clever thief also steals from less obvious targets, as Jim stole from Isaac Babel, who, like Jim, had gone to live among the enemy (the fox among the hounds, the Jew among the Cossacks, the black Southern man living among aristocratic Southern whites or Northern intellectuals). Under Jim's tutelage, I learned to steal from Grace Paley, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth. Then I moved on and learned to steal from Jim.
Jim was the person who first suggested that I write about my family's hotel in the Borscht Belt, of which I'd always been ashamed. I didn't want to write about being Jewish-my world was larger than that. And I was starting to suspect that making too big a deal about one's ethnic identity-whether as a writer or an American-was to indulge in nostalgia and kitsch. But the longer I argued with Jim's suggestion in my head, the clearer it became that such questions were what my novel would be about.
According to Jim, even within seemingly monolithic groups there live and work immigrants, blacks, and Jews who help to shape that culture. Certainly, plenty of blacks and Christians worked at the predominantly Jewish hotels where I grew up. And so my book acquired a self-educated, reclusive handyman named Thomas Jefferson, to whom I gave the same vision of America that Jim had given me.
When I finished the manuscript and showed it to Jim, I held my breath for fear he would chastise me for plagiarism. Instead, he offered me his blessing. He had only this one complaint: I had made the character I'd based on him too perfect. "Rough him up," Jim advised. "Give the man some flaws. Give him more facility with the vernacular." I followed Jim's advice and allowed Mr. Jefferson-whom I originally had envisioned as one of the thirty-six righteous men and women for whose sake God refrains from destroying the world-to be seduced by the hotel's female guests. I made his very prissiness and intellectualism seem like flaws. Sad to say, Mr. Jefferson retained so much of Jim's influence that he remained a magic Negro (you know, the part that Morgan Freeman plays in so many movies). And, sadder for me, the best line in the novel, the one readers most often cite, is a line I stole from Jim: "The only real refuge for a person in pain is in another person's heart."
The danger in thanking your teacher for everything he's given you is that you end up talking too much about yourself. But how can I fail to note that I also have Jim to thank for my one nonfiction book? As I was graduating from the workshop, he told me about a white woman artist who had moved in with Sitting Bull in the last years of his life and acted as his translator, friend, and lobbyist in his battle to save his people's culture and their land. "Someone ought to write a book about that woman," Jim hinted. He didn't remember her name or the title of the book in which he'd read those few paragraphs about her life, but he knew that to figure out who I was, I needed to figure out who she was.
I spent fifteen years studying everything I could find about Sitting Bull and Catherine Weldon. What I learned was that despite every betrayal and indignity Sitting Bull had suffered, he managed to judge each person on his or her own merits. He invited Catherine Weldon and her son to live in his cabin and become part of his family. He accepted everything she had to give and taught her all he could convey about how his people lived. In her turn, Catherine Weldon gave Sitting Bull her money, her political advice, her friendship, her heart, her son.
Sometimes, what one person teaches another is how much she has to give. And that, I am proud to say, is a lesson Jim taught me.
Although Hollywood only recently discovered the role of the magic Negro, the character has long been central to American literature. Think of Queequeg in
Moby Dick, Jim in
Huck Finn, King Dahfu in
Henderson the Rain King, and all those black hipsters who guide Sal Paradise along his journey in
On the Road. The cliché has been rightly criticized. The magic Negro seems so perfect he isn't real; his oppression and suffering are given short shrift compared to his white protégé's struggles to figure out his identity; he seems to exist only for the sake of teaching what he knows to the white protagonist, as when Will Smith materializes from the mist, teaches Matt Damon to play the perfect game of golf and win the perfect white girl (whom Bagger Vance would have gotten lynched for so much as looking at), then tips his hat and wanders back into the mist on a segregated golf course in Depression-era Savannah, where, as it happens, Jim McPherson was born in the terrible days of the Jim Crow South.
The trope of the magic Negro may be too problematic to redeem. Yet Jim taught me to see the value in even the most problematic artifacts of our shared American culture. (My bootleg copy of
Song of the South, which Disney refuses to re-release because of the portrayal of Uncle Remus as a happy plantation darkie, I acquired as a gift from Jim.) Young black protagonists who set out on their quests don't usually need older, wiser white men as their spiritual guides since black people always have known white culture from the inside, if only as servants, and, if they did need such guides, were unable to find them. But sheltered, naïve white people who set out on quests to understand America usually need guides to those communities their parents have forbidden them to enter. A desire to transcend the categories into which a person has been born isn't racist; rather, as Jim often points out, such a journey is a prerequisite for understanding what it means to be human.
Once, when I was helping Jim check out of the hospital in Iowa City where he had been convalescing after a bout with pneumonia, the clerk assumed that Jim wouldn't be able to understand the medical bill and began explaining the math to me.
Another time, in Boston, I accompanied Jim and his daughter on an attempt to find Rachel a pair of comfortable shoes to replace the fashionable plastic sandals that were cutting her feet. We went from store to store, but none of the clerks seemed willing to wait on us. I grew so enraged I nearly shouted: "What's the matter? Don't you serve black people in this store?" Jim sensed my anger and steered me to a smaller store nearby, empty except for the Jewish owner, who waited on Rachel as if she were a queen. I was proud of my coreligionist, although even he, when making small talk with Jim, assumed that the only topic a black man would care to discuss was sports.
A few years after that, I flew to Charlottesville to testify on Jim's behalf in a court of law and was literally struck dumb by the blatant racism of the questions the judge asked me on the stand.
Recently, when I invited Jim to read in Ann Arbor, my partner and I escorted him to the check-in desk at the hotel adjacent to the university, at which the registration clerk (a beautiful young black woman, stylishly coiffed and polished) addressed my partner as "Professor McPherson," assuming, I suppose, that the black man by our side was our servant or our driver.
As one of the first African Americans to gain entry to Harvard Law (a period of his life that Jim describes with humor and restraint in his debut story "Gold Coast"), Jim is evidence that affirmative action benefits not only this or that minority but a geometrically expanding pyramid of people of all backgrounds. In the past quarter of a century, Jim has taught and nurtured writers as diverse as Breece D'J Pancake, Gish Jen, Daniel Woodrell, David Nicholson, Susan Power, Cynthia Kadohata, Lan Samantha Chang, Adam Schwartz, Julie Orringer, Ryan Harty, Alexander Chee, and me. Many of us have tried to pass along Jim's gifts to our own students, thereby creating a family whose members now number in the hundreds, if not the thousands, a family that takes this opportunity to gather around the table, pass the plate of crabcakes from hand to hand, and offer its thanks to Jim.
Eileen Pollack's latest collection is reviewed in this issue. She directs the M.F.A. program at the University of Michigan.
Like Eileen Pollack, I was a member of Jim's first class at Iowa; and like her and others, felt him my dream teacher. He could, it was true, be gnomic in class. As we might have expected from the author of "Elbow Room," whose narrator "declares himself the open enemy of conventional narrative categories... [insisting] that ?borders,' ?structures.' ?frames,' ?order,' and even ?form' itself are regarded by him with the highest suspicion," Jim was not a fount of writing tips. Often he said nothing, and when he did say something, he spoke with extreme softness, as if to be sure that his inability to control his impulse to tell us something did not result in our-horrors!-being told something. Neither was he "supportive" in a conventional way, although he did share, from time to time, maxims such as "Never look to others for ego support." I'm not sure this was always what we would have chosen, but in retrospect I can see how very right he was to raise us, not as artistes, but warriors: His bracing support has
proved a true gift over the years, as has his important tacit insistence that we find not only our own voices, but our own forms.
Our own visions, too; though, impressionable creatures that we were, some of us "found" visions that, well, bore a resemblance to his. Eileen will perhaps recall giving me, as a birthday present, a poster with the words "American Vision" emblazoned across the bottom-terms so embedded in our outlook that I only see them as worthy of remark now. As for how we came to be so imprinted, I must mostly credit osmosis, though it is true that in the one recollection I have of Jim commenting on something I was reading ("It's good to get that under your belt," he said), the book in question was William Carlos Williams'
In the American Grain. So perhaps there was some facilitating of the osmosis.
Americanness, in any case, preoccupied Jim, as did-and this too strikes in retrospect-the related notion of citizenship. That was a strange idea to writers then; and indeed, "good citizenship," as conventionally defined, will always clash with literary values. But Jim was nothing if not a magpie, and viewing fiction, as he did, as kind of magpie's nest, he characteristically took a preoccupation of the law and ported it into fiction, forging en route a vision in which citizenship and literature were not opposed, but deeply related. In his beautiful memoir, he writes movingly of his early experiences with books, as DeWitt has noted. I quote here the same passage at slightly greater length:
At first the words, without pictures, were a mystery. But then, suddenly, they all began to march across the page. They gave up their secret meanings, spoke of other worlds, made me know that pain was a part of other peoples' lives. After a while, I could read faster and faster and faster. After a while, I no longer believed in the world in which I lived.
I loved the Colored Branch of the Carnegie Public Library.
Books were liberation and subversion; they alienated but also connected; they inspired one to choose new allegiances. They were in no way about "representation"; the mind boggles at the idea of Jim screening books for those about his "group." Rather, they were about fluidity. They were about imagining others and re-imagining oneself. "Imagining community," as we might say today, too-imagining family, as Eileen has described, as well as a citizenship that is not about the suppression of the self, but its expression. Jim went on to write wryly but insistently about the small interactions through which one claimed one's whole humanity, including its public face. In his story, "I am an American" (first published in
Ploughshares), for example, he gives us a narrator in London who asserts his Americanness to a Japanese tourist in attempted Chinese-a delicious exchange:
"You are African?" the man asked, smiling pleasantly as we shook. "Nigerian, yes?"
"Woo sh Meei-gworen," I said.
He looked perplexed. "I do not know this tribe," he confessed.
As things happen, the Japanese tourist is eventually recognized as Japanese and the narrator as American, but in quintessentially McPhersonesque style, the recognition comes as part of a larger recognition of both characters' humanity. It is a lovely, luminous, blooming development: hurt, healing, identity, and possibility all coming together in an unsentimental, even matter-of-fact way.
Who could forget it? I note in homage that my entire career, such as it is, can probably be traced to the passage above, and to Jim's magpie example; without him, I am inconceivable to myself. It is therefore with the deepest gratitude that I here join DeWitt, Eileen and others in raising a heartfelt crabcake: To you, Jim! May you ever chuckle to think how many writers trace their ancestry to the Colored Branch of the Carnegie Public Library-a most American story. -
Gish Jen is the author of four books, most recently The Love Wife.
During my first term at Iowa in 1982, I enrolled in Jim McPherson's fiction writing workshop. Jim began the semester by reading an Isaac Babel story titled "My First Fee," in which a twenty-year old proofreader and would-be writer goes to an older prostitute named Vera for his first sexual encounter. But when they get to Vera's room, the young man becomes despondent when Vera removes her clothes and he sees she's not nearly as beautiful as he had imagined. Vera senses that the young man has lost interest and he responds by inventing a story about having been a boy prostitute. Vera is visibly moved by the story, and pays him a high compliment: "So you're a whore. A whore like us bitches." The young man bows his head and, accepting Vera's praise for his story, replies, "Yes. A whore like you." At some point during Jim's reading of the story, I looked under the table and noticed that he didn't have laces in his shoes. He hadn't bothered to put on socks, either. The next week I looked under the table again.
Still no laces or socks. Jim was certainly eccentric-in the more than twenty-five years I've known him, I've never seen him without his mangled jockey cap-but I wondered if he would find some socks and shoelaces before the weather turned cold. By the third week of the term, Jim was still without socks or shoelaces and the rituals of workshop had become well established: after class ended at six, all of us, except for Jim, would congregate at the Green Mill for dinner and drinks. Of course we would have loved for Jim to join us, but he seemed too inaccessible-too brilliant for us, too much in pain to bear company. Just as class was drawing to a close during the fourth week of the term, Jim looked anxiously around the table and then asked me if I wanted to go get a drink with him. It was like being asked out on a date in front of fifteen other people. Of course I said yes.
Jim walked splayfooted to his car at a rapid pace, as if he were trying to get away from me despite the fact that he asked me to join him. At one point, he paused to catch his breath and light a cigarette. "I'm a failure to the race, Adam," he said, "a failure to the race." He laughed, then so did I, and then watched with alarm as his laugh turned into a coughing fit. His comment was an acknowledgment of the poor way he cared for his physical health, but an also effort to put me at ease, to let me know that we could be open about about race without letting it define us. We drank and talked for many hours that night. Jim spoke mainly about the pain of being apart from his daughter. My own parents had divorced when I was very young-did he know that? was that why he asked me to join him for a drink?-and, drawing upon my own painful memories, I tried to share with him my experience of being a young child caught in the middle of a bitter divorce. That night was the beginning of my friendship with Jim and
my true education as a writer and a human being-Jim, of course, would see both types of education as one and the same. Perhaps the central lesson I learned from Jim is that the imagination is the medium through which we develop a moral self. When he read "My First Fee" in that first class, I had no idea of what the story was about, but rereading the story years later, rereading it through the lens of everything I had learned from Jim, I understood that he was trying to teach us that imagination springs from empathy. The would-be writer in the story finally gets it right when his own pain inspires him to emotionally inhabit the reality of a prostitute. I'm still not sure why Jim reached out to me that semester. Certainly he sensed something sympathetic about me. Like all my classmates, though, I regarded him as a genius, and spent every class waiting expectantly for him to come down from Sinai and reveal The Word about our purple mimeographed manuscripts. But perhaps he knew that I was also looking under the
table, looking to see if my teacher, my friend, had remembered to keep his feet warm.
Adam Schwartz's stories have appeared in The New Yorker
and elsewhere. He teaches at Wellesley College.