On Saturday, May 16, Pulitizer Prize-winning novelist James A. McPherson Jr. was a bit depressed. He walked into Wilson Hall, which is right on the sprawling lawn Thomas Jefferson designed to flow out from his Rotunda on the University of Virginia campus. And pinned to the door of Room 208, McPherson's office, right next to the posted grades of his English students, was a letter from the MacArthur Foundation.
"Oh no," McPherson thought to himself. "Another bill." He took it off the door and threw it in a drawer in his cluttered office.
He went home to his small rented apartment, the sort of place that might be occupied by a down-and-out graduate student. He was giving his daughter Rachel a bath when the phone rang. On the line was Roderick MacArthur, the son of John D., who had bought Bankers Life and Casualty for a borrowed $2,500 in 1935 and eventually saw it show assets in excess of $1 billion in the last quarter of business before his death on Jan. 6, 1978.
"I gotta call you back, I'm giving my daughter a bath," McPherson told MacArthur. And then he hung up.
When he called back, and confronted the man he thought was another bill collector, McPherson was told that a committee of 13 trustees had decided to award him $192,000 -- $36,800 for each of the next five years -- so that he could do anything he wanted. No strings. Irrevocable.
Like 20 other award winners selected to receive up to $300,000 each, McPherson had no idea that he had even been nominated. The goal of the program is simply to give the gifted recipients enough financial support to "provide economic freedom."
"Sort of like the old TV show, "The Millionaire,'" McPherson was saying last week, trying to focus on the light side of the situation.
But then James Alan McPherson Jr., the 37-year-old man with no laces in his shoes, has been through too much to make light of many situations. "No matter what they say about no strings and freedom," he says, "you've chained to the expectation that the public has of this. So you have to do better than you ever have before."
Which may explain why McPherson looks and acts more like a shellshocked marine who has just watched a dozen buddies die within an arm's reach than a struggling writer who has just had the gods rain down blessings on his spirit. He is hardly known as a man who seeks such recognition. Three years ago when he won the Pulitzer for his book, "Elbow Room," he was seen running out a back door and into the woods to avoid journalists who had come to write of his accomplishments. This is the first interview he's granted, he says. "It's part of my therapy," he says. "I'm trying to make myself confront things.
"Maybe it would have been better not to get this," he muses aloud, walking across the campus. "You know, this country rewards thieves. That's really the message in Huck Finn. And so you get a little confused if you start to take all this to heart. I studied the law [J. D., Harvard Law School, 1968] because I thought it would teach me about morality. And what you learn in three years is that the law simply attempts to arbitrate justice. Lawyers are not preachers. Nothing is what it seems."
He's in his little beige Datsun now, heading out on the winding Barboursville Road to pick up Julia Smith, an elderly woman whom he met last year when his car got stuck in a ditch and he had to use her phone. Smith has a sick nephew, and McPherson is taking her to visit him.
Rachel is in the back seat, surrounded by what McPherson refers to as "all the bribes": a waxed-paper-wrapped stack of Ritz crackers (cookie), a tube of sugarless mints (candy), six-ounce, orange-and-white cylinders of Tropicana OJ (juice) and a stuffed gray elephant that inexplicably is defined as mouse. And around each turn she is rattling off yet more of the primary material of any novelist: enouns.
"Cow," says Rachel.
"Kitty cat," says Rachel.
McPherson repeats each word, rejoicing in man's way of rediscovering fire and the wheel: children; children learning language.
"I don't know what I'm going to write about next," he says. This is obviously a sensitive topic for a man whose office contains not a single copy of the three books he's written. He changes the subject quickly as he winds around another curve at 25 miles an hour. "Once I was stopped on an interstate by a cop. He said, 'Do you know how fast you were going?' 'No officer.' 'You were going 35.' 'Well, officer, I'm so used to riding on these little windy country roads where I can't go but 35. And I have to be careful of my daughter here . . . ' He let me go.
"About writing. I don't write as much as I used to anymore. And for me, writing was life and if I didn't write I wasn't alive. And now I have this child and that's changed things. I don't want to do everything for her. I don't want her to be a hothouse plant. I want her to have some sense of strength. It's confusing for me. I never was middle class, and I think some of my strength came from being poor and having to hustle.
"I think some of that's true about MacArthur. I never heard about him before this. Well, maybe once last year. I contribute to the Atlantic Monthly. Last year I heard about the MacArthur Foundation rescuing Harper's when it folded. But they sent us a pack of information on him. He was poor as a kid and a hustler. He seems to have been purely an American product. I've heard lots of stories of billionaires acting like janitors, hanging out to see what was going on around the old building" something MacArthur himself did often.
McPherson seems just the sort of man his benefactor would have singled out if MacArthur were still alive.Both of them were born into poverty. Both had struggled to get ahead. McPherson, who has two sisters and a brother, has worked since age 11 as a newpaperboy, janitor and a waiter in a dining car on the Great Northern Railroad. He grew up in Savannah, Ga., where his father died an alcoholic when McPherson was 16. He went to Morris Brown College and then on to Harvard Law, where he met John Casey, who would later become an English professor at the University of Virginia. In 1976 Casey invited McPherson to apply for a vacancy in the department, which he accepted.
MacArthur too was a hustler: He wrote more than a million dollars worth of life insurance in his first year in the business; acquired companies left and right for tiny investments; marketed agressively by mail; bought and sold real estate (including, for $6 million, the Frontier Hotel in Los Angeles, which he sold to Howard Hughes, who was living in a neighboring hotel, within a year for $9 million after Hughes became disturbed by a neon sign that MacArthur refused to dim); tended to stray dogs and wounded birds and beached whales; transplanted 11,000 trees to save them from a bulldozer; lived in a three-room apartment; placed unfinished cigarettes back in their pack; had no office; and worked out of a nearby lunch counter, where he would consume 30 cups of coffee a day. By a codicil in his wall, MacArthur stipulated that he not be given a funeral, "to spare my friends and relatives the inconveniences involved in attending a funeral such as the canceling of appointments and flying all night to arrive on time."
McPherson understands all that intuitively. "If you haven't got anything," says McPherson, driving well under the speed limit, "You hustle or you die."
"Amen," says Julia Smith, aged 90.
"Kitty cat," says Rachel McPherson, aged 2.
"My mother was a domestic," says McPherson. "If you're a black man, you grow up with a very strong need to nurture, which may explain why I teach and why I'm so in love with Rachel."
"Cow," says Rachel.
"Moo, moo," says Julia Smith.
"I don't know," says McPherson. "I'm not a rich man and I need to work and I'm looking around for something to work on and I keep thinking about Rachel."
"Cookie," says Rachel.
"I think," says James MacPherson, "that I'm just going to spend all the money on her."
"Candy," says Rachel.
And with the help of the MacArthur Foundation, all the candy she wants.