Lan Samantha Chang | James Alan McPherson
#APStogether • February 5, 2021
During the summer months of 1967, James Alan McPherson, studying for a law degree at Harvard and working as a janitor, started to write short stories, which would be published the next year in his first collection, Hue and Cry. "What comes through with each page is an empathetic understanding coupled with a writer’s knowledge that when dealing with human beings there are no right or wrong answers," Edward P. Jones wrote in the preface to the fiftieth-anniversary edition of the book. Join us this February to read an under-appreciated masterpiece in American literature with Lan Samantha Chang.
James Alan McPherson (1943–2016) was the first African-American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was among the first group of artists who received a MacArthur Fellowship. At the time of his death, he was a professor emeritus of fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. In addition to Hue and Cry, his books include A Region Not Home, Crabcakes, and Elbow Room.
Lan Samantha Chang is the author of four books, including the novel The Family Chao, which will be published next year. She is the Elizabeth M. Stanley Professor in the Arts at the University of Iowa and the Director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Day 1 (Feb 15) | A Matter of Vocabulary
Day 2 (Feb 16) | On Trains
Day 3 (Feb 17) | Gold Coast
Day 4 (Feb 18) | All the Lonely People
Day 5 (Feb 19) | A New Place
Day 6-7 (Feb 20-21)| Hue and Cry
Day 1 | February 15
A Matter of Vocabulary
Instead of going to church, young Thomas Brown visits the Saturday-night drunks “waiting in misery for the bars to open on Monday morning. His own father had been that way and Thomas knew that the waiting was very hard.”
Here is Thomas’s knowledge, and the story’s knowledge, imbued with pain and compassion.
In II, an inventory of the people Thomas and Eddie watch from their shared room at the top of the gray wooden house next to the funeral parlor. The mortician, the policemen with their red noses, Mrs. Quick sweeping her porch with potash and water. The Barefoot Lady whose declaration of love haunts Thomas, and the story.
The story reveals bigotry and oppression through its use of scenes, but its structural spine is the catalogue of beautifully described, eternally remembered characters Thomas observes and vows to record during their time on earth, before the Horn blows, “and all them in the graves will hear it and be raised up.”
Thomas, the listener, takes in these final, searing dialogue non-exchanges:
“And I’m gonna learn all the big words in the world too.”
“You’ll see. I’ll do it, too.”
Mr, Jones! I love you, Mr. Jones!
In a letter to McPherson, Ralph Ellison wrote, “While others generalize about ‘The' Black man and ‘The’ white man, you’ve stuck to thorny human realities and individuals, some of whom triumph and some of whom fail, but most of whom are caught with the abiding confusion of good-and-bad.”
Day 2 | February 16
“The waiters say…”
The echo of a vanishing train story caught by the young summer worker just prior to the folding of the Pullman Company in early 1969.
“The lady at the deuce looked at her fiercely.”
So much contained in the adverb: the fierceness is private language, aimed with heat, ignored by the receiver. It’s aimed to unsettle, missing the mark, but stubborn in its righteousness and bigotry and contempt.
“…and his eyes, which had only minutes before flashed brightly from the face of the conductor to the enraged face of the lady, now seemed to dull and turn inward as only those who have learned to suffer silently can turn their eyes inward.”
A description of human suffering told with honest authority.
Day 3 | February 17
Re: the narrator’s jokes about his janitorial job, I’m recalling Jim’s sense of humor, which scholar Cammy Brothers has described as “quietly outrageous.” “Jim’s friends will remember that his answering machine and one of his business cards said, ‘Mr. Jefferson is not at home, he’s down at the cabins making contradictions.’”
“Being imaginative people, Jean and I played a number of original games. One of them we called ‘social forces,’ the object of which was to see which side could break us first.”
Opening sentence of perhaps the finest, most unself-pitying, and tragic breakup passage ever.
“In those days I had forgotten that I was first of all a black and I had a very lovely girl who was not first of all a black.”
One of many penetrating and sad, unvarnished reminiscent sentences in this story.
“I had the feeling that I should never dare to make love with gusto for fear that she would overhear and write down all my happy-time phrases, to be maliciously recounted to me if she were ever provoked.”
A great sentence. This brilliant story has several deftly dark and funny, winding sentences too long to tweet.
Day 4 | February 18
All the Lonely People
“I could not touch him, although I wanted to; I dared not touch him, although he needed just the slightest touch, the merest sign at that moment more than anything else in the world.”
A complex and troubled sequence revealing honesty, guilt, and fear.
The passage about how successful hunters become the hunted has a Baldwin echo:
"And you know what happens in this water, time? The big fish eat the little fish. That’s all. The big fish eat the little fish and the ocean doesn’t care.”–Giovanni's Room
"I called Alfred Bowles from a telephone booth at the far end of the park."
Loneliness, disorder, truth-seeking, self-doubt: this story had to go here, and it did.
“But it all feels in service of conveying the dark, confusing, self-loathing that comes with questioning one's sexuality. I think it's what makes the story—and the scene where he calls Alfred late at night in particular—so compelling.”
A great reading of the story by Ruben Reyes.
Day 5 | February 19
A New Place
“But then Ellen got pissed at me too and stalked out the door, that long brown hair trailing behind her in the breeze she made.” “Some of that long brown hair of hers was stuck to her face where it was wet.”
I enjoyed Joe’s ironic references to his girlfriend Ellen’s whiteness.
“There’ll be new things tomorrow but it’ll be the same place.”
Again, reminded of Giovanni’s Room, “one of the real troubles with living is that living is so banal.”
“I’d like to see one of you guys bleed anyway ‘cause I got this bet with a buddy that you ain’t human.”
After the scene with the trucker, Joe thinks Jack is “losing it,” losing touch with reality. But both must accept a reality in which a white stranger’s disparagement is commonplace. How to define masculinity in such a reality?
“Thinking too much can be a bad scene. I guess that’s what happened to Jack. His mind must have beat him out of the straight life.”
In "A New Place," it’s as if we see the protagonist of “All the Lonely People” from the outside.
Day 6-7 | February 20-21
Hue and Cry
“Eric wrote small poems for her in the wet, white sand and she learned to memorize them very quickly, in the moonlight, before the white foam, pushed in by the inevitable sea, came up the beach to wash them away.”
Such transitory beauty in this relationship, and such irrevocable damage.
“These were the autumn days when the dialogue over making a revolution and a truly democratic society flowed loosely and desperately in the air…when everyone felt he had to make some movement, however slight or inconsequential, toward the attainment of goals not yet defined.”
It’s meaningful to read about this time this now.
“’You’ll see,’ he assured her. ‘Only people over thirty-five have this thing. If we can’t change them, we’ll just wait them out.’”
Everyone who was 35 years old in the summer of 1964 would be now be 92. Still waiting…
“’Don’t,’” he said, “’It was so beautiful. Don’t dirty it.’”
Because it was once so beautiful, it must be dirtied, and so she tries to destroy it.
I’m as struck by this work’s magnitude and scale as I’m frightened by its deep hopelessness. Who asks these solemn existential questions? Who sees Eric Carney, Margot Payne, Charles Wright? Who knows that Charles is coming into his morality as he fears looking at the bird after it has been crushed?