In "Elbow Room," James McPherson writes about barbers, mechanics, mail clerks, street hustlers, an assembly-line worker and a man who repossesses automobiles. There's one college professor and one writer in the group, but for the most part, McPherson's characters do not make a living in the same way he does. Not one has gone to Harvard Law School or won Pulitzer Prize.
His friends say McPherson doesn't want to put any more distance between himself and the people he writes about, so he tries to keep a low profile in the newspaper. He wants his work known and not his wife. His work is the important thing, and it's possible for fame and its trappings to make work seem less important. He's wary of fame.
So when he agrees to meet with a reporter it's with the reservations that he not be asked about himself and not be quoted. He says he'll talk about University of Virginia, where he teachers, and the writing program there, but he wants his remarks summarized, not quoted.
He's a slender, walnut-colored man of 34. (In his stories in "Elbow Room," his black characters are carefully shaded; they're not just coffee-or chocolate-colored, but alos peanut brown and honey brown and deep reddish brown.) He wears a checked wool shirt and no topcoat although it is brisk and drizzling outside. On the top of his head is a small, blue knit cap. He speaks softly and rapidly, and with a slight mumble, as if he's telling secrets. There's little trace in his voice of Savannah, Ga., where he grew up.
On the way across campus to lunch, people approach McPherson to offer congratulations on his Pulitzer Prize. he does not seem embarrassed by the attention, but neither does he warm up to his congratulators. His face is blank and his voice is without inflection as he thanks them. He does not put off these people, but neither does he let the moment ripen. If he feels a glow of pride in having won the award, he doesn't share it.
At lunch, McPherson says the University of Virginia is an interesting place to be just now because it is feeling some of the tensions the rest of the country felt in the '60s. U. Va. was for most of its history a sanctuary for white, upper-middle-class males. Now there are as many women as men there. There are blacks and scholarship students. It creates tensions, he says, the good kind of tensions, when things change and people grow.
It's the kind of situation out of which creativity comes, he says. He thinks writers are drawn to such a situation, and that might be a reason why there are so many good ones in Charlottesville right now.
He speaks earnestly, and leans forward over the table to draw the listener in. If the subject leads him into personal territory, he doesn't shy away, but he often mentions that this is just between us, of course.
He's a very serious man. At one point he allows himself to be quoted when he is talking about the diversity of the English department at U. Va. "It's good to be able to crack jokes with a Medievalist," he says. But even when he talks of cracking jokes he does not smile. He doesn't crack any jokes with reporters, apparently. But "Elbow room" is often quite funny. The very first paragraph of the first story, which is told by a black man, goes:
"No one will believe I like country music. Even my wife scoffs when told such a possibility exists. 'Go on!' Gloria tells me. 'I can see blues, bebop, maybe even a little buckdancing. But not bluegrass.' Gloria says, "Hillbilly stuff is not just music. It's like the New York Stock Exchange. The minute you see a sharp rise in it, you better watch out.'"
People in Charlottesville who know McPherson well, like Peter Taylor and John Casey, were reluctant to talk about him publicly because he's so publicity-shy. Most people mention his seriousness, but one said he's not always so serious privately. "He's very witty," this friend said.
On the way back to his office, McPherson is sympathetic when told of the difficulties of writing about him under the restrictions he's made. He's asked if he will at least talk about why he thinks such restrictions are necessary.
The answer comes pleasantly. The answer is no.