Before Ta-Nehisi Coates: On James Alan McPherson’s “Crabcakes”

By Anya VenturaJuly 4, 2019

Before Ta-Nehisi Coates: On James Alan McPherson’s “Crabcakes”

Crabcakes by James Alan McPherson

JAMES ALAN MCPHERSON’S memoir Crabcakes begins with the death of his tenant, Mrs. Channie Washington. A traditional memoir might have sketched McPherson’s upbringing: the strapped childhood in segregated Savannah, Georgia, as the son of an electrician and a maid, and his ascent to Harvard Law School in the late ’60s. He might have noted that during that time, his short story “Gold Coast” won a competition sponsored by The Atlantic, and that two years later, with the story collection Hue and Cry already under his belt, he received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He could have also mentioned that his second collection Elbow Room, published in 1977, earned him a Pulitzer Prize: the first African American to win one for fiction.

In 1981, McPherson was among the first to be awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. A different kind of narrative might have illuminated all these facts — a true Horatio Alger story — yet McPherson includes none, nor does he elaborate his pains (to the dismay of early critics, who grappled with this absence of biographic detail). Instead, in courteous and precise prose, he begins with Mrs. Washington.

Published in 1998, Crabcakes marked the end of a decades-long hiatus for McPherson. Damaged by sudden fame and disillusioned with writing, he sought refuge in his mentorship of young writers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he taught until his death in 2016. A kind of spiritual autobiography, the book loosely follows McPherson’s recollection of the events that led him from the East Coast to Iowa City (a bitter divorce and an unhappy academic post in Virginia, where he felt tokenized, spurring the chapter titled “The Usual Light Luggage of the Runaway Slave”). A departure from the tidiness of his short stories, the memoir is segmented into elliptically titled chapters that encompass a broad tonal range — an experimental collage of oral history, letters, quotations, and personal narrative. If the short stories remain tethered to the national scene, probing what scholars Michael D. Hill and Lena M. Hill call “the quieter collisions” between black and white, North and South, Crabcakes expands the scope to explore what it means to be a global citizen.

For the past 18 years, McPherson begins, Mrs. Washington had been living in a house McPherson owned in Baltimore, mailing rent checks wrapped in letters laced with platitudes: May God bless you. He receives a letter from her partner, yet he must inform him that he has decided to sell the house, which has become a financial burden. “Their needs have become infinite while my own surplus has shrunk,” McPherson writes. Describing the purchase of the house in 1976, McPherson is at once present at two economic spectacles — the auction block and the scene of foreclosure — exploiting black bodies.

It is a public square in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia. It is 1676, 1776, 1876, not 1976. The relentlessness of the ritual has only temporarily sucked open black holes into the flow of time, opening a portal into a finished past that has come alive again and oozed out and forward, into the future. […] The white auctioneer points disinterestedly and mouths the sacred incantation: “Sold!

McPherson, who had reported on redlining in The Atlantic some 30 years before Ta-Nehisi Coates reported on predatory lending practices for the same publication, knew foreclosure to be one further systemic injustice designed to write African Americans out of the American Dream, creating a permanent underclass with serious institutional impediments to bootstrapping one’s way toward greater material security. The scene is also a haunting: the uncanny restitution of the dispossessed. He evokes a history that is not over: the legacy of slavery that, as some scholars suggest, was not a “peculiar institution” but a cornerstone of American capitalism. As Jonathan Crary writes, “The spectral is, in some way, the intrusion or disruption of the present by something out of time and by the ghosts of what has not been deleted by modernity, of victims who will not be forgotten, or unfulfilled emancipation.”

Time in Crabcakes is simultaneous, subjective, phantasmic. It is neither linear nor efficient. It is not “Bottom Line Time,” as McPherson says, but “Colored People Time,” or “time as the duration of feelings.” Time not as a commodity but as a way of being-with. In Baltimore, McPherson visits the family of Channie Washington with the intention of informing them he is selling the house. Inspired by their goodness, he then begins to find his way again, both spiritually and geographically, as he recalls the route to the Lexington Market, navigating the streets of the once-familiar city, to buy crabcakes. Once the crabcakes are consumed, cast as “the body and blood that had been lost,” the language slips into the plural: “[W]e are recollected.” The idea of “recollection,” one of the refrains of the memoir, refers to the retrieval of memory, history, feeling, community, and self — the disconnected parts of the alienated individual. Rather than coming to any new knowledge, McPherson instead returns to an older wisdom he had known and lost. The narrative is the opposite of a hero’s journey of individuation. “It is November of 1976 and I do not have an ‘I’ in the upper case. My ‘I’ is still small-scale. It is a communal ‘i,’ one bustling with people other than myself,” he remembers.

McPherson’s use of shifting pronouns, his refusals to use the “I,” troubles the first-person perspective that is the hallmark of memoir. In Crabcakes, the self finds its coordinates not through a sense of proprietary individualism but in relation to others, through what McPherson calls “neighboring.” Though the Western literary tradition furnishes us with the notion that we might know ourselves more fully through solitude, McPherson instead emphasizes the importance of community, the barn-raising ethic of the rural, as a question of survival. As Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing notes, describing the 16th and 17th sugarcane plantations in Brazil:

As cane workers in the New World, enslaved Africans had great advantages from growers’ perspectives: they had no local social relations and thus no established routes for escape. Like the cane itself, which had no history of either companion species or disease relations in the New World, they were isolated. They were on their way to becoming self-contained, and thus standardizable as abstract labor.

McPherson rewrites emancipation not as a project of self-determination — the assertion of the singular “I” — but as communal experience.

Through his interactions with Washington, and then, later in the book, through his exposure to Japanese culture, he relearns this process of “de-selfing.” McPherson visited Japan in 1986. Like Baldwin in Paris, he finds in the country a place to recover from the brutalities of being a black man in America. He found in Japan, just as he discovered in Washington’s house and in the “small-town intimacy of Iowa City,” a set of ritual behaviors that structured collective life. It was this sense of obligation, the small self-evacuating ceremonies of care, that made him feel human again after living in a society that treated him as less than human. He describes an experience of being ministered to on a hot Tokyo subway: “But I do know that when she wiped away my sweat from my face with her own handkerchief, which was damp with her own sweat and her tears, something of her, far beyond the human sympathy of the gesture itself, perhaps a kage of it, entered into me. Did her chemicals enter the chemicals of my face?” It is an image of merging, the thawing of the borders of the individual self with the merging of bodily melt. “The ancient Latins,” he wrote later, “evolved a complex web of obligations and sanctions to bind members of the community, the profonos, into a larger, integrated whole.”

The second half of the memoir takes the form of a letter to his Japanese friend Kiyo, an extended apology explaining why he was late to a dinner. Again, it is significant that the memoir, instead of turning inward, stretches further toward the other through this direct address. McPherson’s reasons are unfolded slowly, as he searches for a way to explain his seemingly rude behavior. It is finally revealed that McPherson kept his friends waiting at the restaurant because a neighbor, a white man whose son was dying of brain cancer, had stopped by unexpectedly in need of support. In this moment, immersed in neighboring, McPherson explains how he abandoned mechanistic “clock time,” where “time is money,” to enter into a deeper, more sacred and experiential sense of time. Though the American ideal of freedom is often defined as immunity from the demands of others, McPherson suggests that our humanity in fact resides in slowing down to answer these summonses. He came of age at the height of the Civil Rights movement, but McPherson wasn’t known for protest fiction. His revolution was on the scale of friendship, the personal encounter, the quotidian moments where difference reveals itself and needs are met.

For both the revolutionary and the confessional, language — the public articulation of the invisible self — is a tool of liberation. Yet for McPherson, language is not a clarifying instrument but rather overlays deeper forms of expression, communicated by “nuances of sounds that only employ words as ballast for the flight of pitch and intonation.” Silence, he writes, is the most important of all. “And so I do the best I can by, periodically, dropping into silence — your kind of silence which has a vocabulary of its own, a kind of yohaku — in order to restore communion with my old simultaneousness, in order to renew myself,” he writes to Kiyo. Permeated by italics and white space, there is a Zen austerity to his prose, a restraint that gestures toward the inexpressible.

The idea of integration, social and spiritual, is at the center of McPherson’s work. Like his mentors Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, he was a critic of nationalism, any separatist politics that relied upon strict categories of identity. A major influence was Murray’s The Omni-Americans, which held that American culture is a synthesis of black and white cultures, what he called “incontestably mulatto,” a recombination of forms. America, Murray argued, has always been a bricolage of contradictory and scattered parts — and so too does McPherson’s memoir, in its blending of East and West, black and white, interior and exterior, recombine to create a new whole. Like Murray and Ellison, he believed in the unrealized promise of the nation’s founding documents, the importance of the social contract, and the idea that all people may be valued equal. “Traditionally, it has always been black Americans who call attention to the distance between asserted ideals and daily practices, because it is the black American population that best symbolizes the consequences of the nation’s contradictions,” he wrote in his essay collection A Region Not Home. In this gap between utopia and reality, he found a source of acid humor. (He called his house “Little Monticello,” and the message on his answering machine informed callers that “Master Jefferson isn’t here right now. He’s down by the cabins, making contradictions.”) But he never gave up hope that these paradoxes of American identity could be incorporated under a more radical practice of citizenship.

It can be hard, against so much ugliness, to place as much faith in transcendence, in a multiracial cosmopolitanism, as McPherson did. When many invocations of the “we” sound like nothing more than liberal bullshit, McPherson offers hope for a connection across difference — a “we” that is rooted not in a naïve notion of sameness but in ritual kindness, the repetition of daily graces. Offering a handkerchief. Welcoming guests. Sharing food. Saying, Hello, How are you? God bless. He finds a “we” not in the abstraction of an imagined community (e.g., nationalism) but in the particular gestures of everyday togetherness. More than a bromidic appeal to goodness, McPherson’s “we” reclaims our endangered social being, a “we” that exists outside the individualist ideologies of the marketplace, the bottom-line time — the “we” of the public square. It is a “we” that is not blind to color, and the ways it structures our subjecthood, while still presenting the possibility of connecting human to human, stranger to stranger, through the quiet virtues so little modeled currently in public life: those of politeness, modesty, generosity, and restraint.


Anya Ventura is a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

LARB Contributor

Anya Ventura is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Iowa.


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