“There Is No White Cul­ture in This Coun­try”: An In­ter­view with James Alan Mcpher­son

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Iwas a fresh­man in col­lege in 1987, when I did the in­ter­view that fol­lows as an as­sign­ment. The class was “The Lit­er­a­ture of So­cial Re­flec­tion,” taught by Robert Coles. We read Ge­orge Or­well’s The Road to Wi­gan Pier, Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Fa­mous Men, and other sim­i­lar books. Less in­tent on the anal­y­sis of lit­er­a­ture than on the nur­tur­ing of moral sen­si­bil­i­ties, Coles left his fi­nal as­sign­ment open-ended. It was not meant to be a con­ven­tional re­search pa­per or lit­er­ary anal­y­sis; some stu­dents slept on the streets to ex­pe­ri­ence what it was like to be home­less. I in­ter­viewed Jim. It was a long, di­gres­sive con­ver­sa­tion. I had done some re­search, reread his es­says, and came pre­pared with a list of ques­tions. But Jim lead the con­ver­sa­tion. He’d known me since I was twelve, and both my youth and my naive ques­tions may have al­lowed him to lower his guard. The tone is dif­fer­ent from the ban­ter of his pub­lished in­ter­view with Bob Sha­cochis in the Iowa Journal of Lit­er­ary Stud­ies, from 1983. Here, Jim was ed­u­cat­ing me, telling me how it was. I’d grown up around the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop (my mother has worked there since 1974), go­ing to read­ings and din­ners, and I knew plenty of in­ter­est­ing peo­ple and good talk­ers. Jim was like an in­verse mir­ror of the gre­gar­i­ous writ­ers I knew. He was never ca­pa­ble of small talk, and ev­ery­thing he said cut to the heart of the mat­ter. He could be cryptic, wise, sub­ver­sively funny, or say noth­ing at all. At Work­shop par­ties, he of­ten sat in a cor­ner, and I would come talk to him. A few things strike me about the in­ter­view, reread­ing it decades later. Iowa seems to have been al­most the first place where Jim felt he could trust his neigh­bors and friends. His po­lit­i­cal and moral per­cep­tions per­vaded ev­ery­thing he said, from his vi­sion of his own his­tory to his view of the present world. His con­stant pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, which run through both his fic­tion and es­says, were the in­ter­sec­tions of race, class, his­tory, pol­i­tics, and what it is to be an Amer­i­can. Our con­ver­sa­tion took place dur­ing Rea­gan’s sec­ond term, and Jim’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tions were rooted in that po­lit­i­cal mo­ment; a num­ber of th­ese have new res­o­nances to­day. Some of his con­cerns, which at the time seemed

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