James Alan McPherson was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943, and raised there. His background was lower-middle class, and he grew up at a time when Georgia’s public schools were still segregated. He enrolled in Morgan State University in 1963 and earned his bachelor’s degree from Morris Brown College in 1965. During the summers of his college years, he was a waiter in the dining cars of the Great Northern Railroad, an experience that allowed him to see what the world was like beyond the segregated South, influencing his sense of social justice and providing the breadth of experience from which he has drawn to craft his fiction.
After college, McPherson attended Harvard Law School, receiving his law degree in 1968. While still in law school, he began writing fiction. His story “Gold Coast” won a contest in the Atlantic magazine, which gave him encouragement to abandon his law career. McPherson’s first short story collection, Hue and Cry, was published in 1969 by the Atlantic. He taught at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the 1969–1970 year while enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he received a master of fine arts degree from the famed Writers’ Workshop program in 1971.
After 1969, McPherson worked as a contributing editor of the Atlantic. His collection Elbow Room, which contains this story, was published to critical acclaim in 1977 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year. McPherson has been on the fiction writing faculty of the Iowa Writers Workshop since 1981 and has been a Behavioral Studies fellow at the University of California, Stanford, since 1997. In 1981 he won a MacArthur Foundation grant. He has contributed essays to numerous magazines throughout the years. In 1998 he published Crabcakes: A Memoir, his first book-length publication in over twenty years. His essays are collected in A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile, which was published in 2000.