In a life defined by restless searching, William McPherson was a three-time college dropout, a Merchant Marine seaman (“one of my attempts to try on a new identity and escape the world around me”) and a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic for The Washington Post.
He was editor of The Post’s Book World section in the 1970s and wrote two novels in the 1980s, one of which the Atlantic Monthly declared “a flawless literary achievement.” He was 53 and at the pinnacle of his craft when he left The Post in 1987 to seek adventure in Eastern Europe ahead of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries.
He freelanced, but bad investment decisions and health reversals shriveled his savings. To considerable attention, he wrote a self-lacerating essay in 2014 about his slide into what he called the “upper edge of poverty” — not quite destitution but where “a roof over your head and a wardrobe that doesn’t look as if it came from the Salvation Army is as good as it gets.”
He described the confluence of events — largely of his own making — that acted as a current tugging him away from the middle class and beaching him on “Grub Street.”
Mr. McPherson, 84, died March 28 at a hospice center in Washington. The cause was complications from congestive heart failure and pneumonia, said his daughter, Jane McPherson.
Mr. McPherson had come to The Post in 1958 as a copy boy and was travel editor within five years. After an interlude in New York as a senior editor at the publishing firm William Morrow & Co., he was lured back to The Post in 1969 by executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee to run Book World.
He poured out reviews, applying what the 1977 Pulitzer jury commended as “broad literary and historic perspective” to authors as varied as poet Archibald MacLeish, essayist and children’s book author E.B. White and novelist Saul Bellow.
In a biographical sketch for the Pulitzer, Mr. McPherson wrote in the third-person dry: “Grateful to be able to pick the books he likes. Does not enjoy reviewing books he does not like.”
Soon after his win, he moved to the editorial page staff as a letters editor and occasional columnist. “I didn’t want to edit Book World anymore,” he later told the Chicago Tribune, “because I knew how hard it was to write a book, and I didn’t want to criticize other books.”
Meanwhile, he was busy writing his first novel, the lavishly praised “Testing the Current” (1984). Set on the cusp of World War II, it chronicled the lost innocence of a remarkably observant 8-year-old boy in Michigan who struggles to understand a world that is at once destabilized and destabilizing, with his mother’s affair and the death of a schoolmate.
Writing in the New York Times, author and poet Russell Banks called “Testing the Current” an “extraordinarily intelligent, powerful and . . . permanent contribution to the literature of family, childhood and memory.” He placed the book, fictional with some clearly autobiographical elements of Mr. McPherson’s Midwestern youth, on equal footing with such first-rate memoirs as Frank Conroy’s “Stop-Time” and Russell Baker’s “Growing Up.”
Mr. McPherson’s second book, “To the Sargasso Sea” (1987), picks up with the same character at 40, a successful playwright suffering a domestic and professional crisis.
With two well-received books to his name, Mr. McPherson took early retirement from The Post, went to Europe to see the Berlin Wall come down and spent six years freelance writing about post-Ceausescu Romania.
He badly miscalculated how far his savings would take him. “I’d acted like one of those people who win the lottery and squander it on houses, cars, family, and Caribbean cruises,” he wrote in his 2014 essay, “Falling,” published in the Hedgehog Review academic journal. “But I hadn’t won the lottery; I’d fallen under the spell of magical thinking.”
His newspaper pension was paltry, he said, and medical costs soared. He suffered a major heart attack that brought on congestive heart failure, enervating him and curtailing his income from writing.
In “Falling,” he described the humiliation of asking friends and family for handouts, which managed to keep him off welfare, Medicaid and food stamps. He lived in Washington, where he received a housing subsidy from the federal government. The city helped cover medical insurance payments. He was able to afford a cellphone and a computer — instruments that for a writer, he said, were needs more than wants.
The essay was admired as an unvarnished reflection on a precarious freelance existence. Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin offered that it was also broadly, even frighteningly, relevant to circles beyond the world of journalism.
“The issue here is hardly exclusive to writers,” Ulin noted, “although it’s hard to read this essay as a writer without a blade of apprehension slicing through your heart. Why? McPherson was working, is still working; ‘Falling’ is beautiful, deft.”
William Alexander McPherson was born on March 16, 1933, in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., where his father was manager at a Union Carbide chemical plant.
He told the Washington Independent Review of Books that in childhood he “read omnivorously and indiscriminately. . . . It was my father who kept the Index of Prohibited Books. He saw me pull ‘Anthony Adverse’ off the shelf . . . and told me to put it back. I was too young to read it. That was all I needed. I devoured the book.”
He attended the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and George Washington University but, he later told the Times, “I never did snag a degree.”
His marriage, to Elizabeth Mosher, ended in divorce. Besides his daughter, of Athens, Ga., survivors include two grandchildren.
“Testing the Current” was reissued in 2013 by New York Review Books Classics. The next year, Mr. McPherson wrote “Falling.”
“I am glad that none of my friends has ever found himself sitting on a bench in a park with a quarter in his pocket, as I once did, and nothing in the bank,” he noted in the essay. “It gives new meaning to the sense of loneliness and despair.
“I wallowed in that slough for a bit. It was not, after all, a happy situation and I am not a dimwitted optimist. But I had two choices, die in the slough or move on. I thought of the last two lines of Milton’s ‘Lycidas ,’
At last he rose, and twitch’d his mantle blue:
To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
“So I got up, forever grateful to Mr. Barrows, my college English instructor, for teaching me to study ‘Lycidas’ seriously and realize what a great poem it is and why that matters.”