For two decades following his winning the Pulitzer Prize for "Elbow Room, " James Alan McPherson retreated from the literary world while he held a teaching position at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Written during this time spent teaching, "A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile" is a deft collection of McPherson's brilliantly composed essays that cover a broad spectrum of his intellectual pursuits. They offer poignant and lively interpretations of life that, placed side-by-side, create a medium through which the sublime speaks to the ordinary -- and the ordinary to the sublime. McPherson writes of the longing of the human soul by unifying thoughts of his deep affection for his daughter and the meaning of Disneyland; transcendental meanings in life and the tedium of long waits in airports; coming to self-knowledge and the cruel rituals of fraternity pledge week.
McPherson combines his past with his present by writing of such people and places as Ralph Ellison, a friend and source of inspiration; James O. Freedman, former president of Dartmouth College and crusader against the conservative "Dartmouth Review; " Rachel, his daughter; Morris Brown College, his alma mater; El Camino Real, the main thoroughfare of affluent Palo Alto, California; and Iowa City, a place he holds close to his heart.
McPherson's prose uncovers his profound understanding of the ebb and flow of life's sorrows and delights and reveals his search for connections between everyday drudgery and a greater sense of purpose. Reaching every note on the register of human emotions, "A Region Not Home" is a meditation on what it means to be human -- an enlightening and soulful work reaching to thecore of suffering and joy.
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The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Elbow Room--an esteemed short story writer and essayist--offers a powerful and graceful collection of his ruminations.Review:
James Alan McPherson's essays are purposive in the largest sense of the word: These narratives are headed somewhere, specifically, toward an America that he is in the process of imagining, a place of equity and deliberate thoughtfulness. Born poor and black in the American South, McPherson has had a great intellectual adventure leading him a merry, brainy chase all over the States, into all levels of society. This Pulitzer Prize winner spends half his book, it seems, listing the towns where he has lived, centers of American thoughtfulness: Cambridge, Berkeley, Iowa City. And his writing, while never losing sight of his greater intent, reflects this sprawling journey. Certainly, in terms of topic: A Region Not Home finds him holding forth on Disneyland, homelessness, a suicidal student, Ralph Ellison. And also in form: He's fond of expansion, inclusion, never-quite-explicit connectives between disparate events. His far-reaching "Ukiyo" recalls the best essay of the last decade--Jo Ann Beard's " The Fourth State of Matter"--in its juggling prowess: All the balls stay in the air, all the time. In "Ukiyo," 20 short pages encompass McPherson's bout with meningitis, the legacy of the '60s, Clinton's impeachment, family reunions, and the golden rule. He also weaves in a singsong recitation of all the names of all the people who helped him during his illness ( "Ted Wheeler, a track coach, cooked a meal and brought it to me for a special lunch"), offering a homey counterpoint to his philosophizing. Along the way, McPherson mentions a lesson from his education:
Paul Freund, who taught me constitutional law at Harvard, used to say that his students knew all the answers without knowing any of the basic questions. I think now that I was trying to learn the basic questions through reading so that, when combined with my own experiences, I could develop a national mind--a sense of how the entire culture, regional, ethnic, class, institutional, functioned together, as a whole.McPherson's peculiar derring-do is that he attempts, every time, to think with a "national mind." Sometimes he succeeds, but even his failures are gallant, edifying, and spectacular to watch. --Claire Dederer
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