James Alan McPherson's 1977 collection of twelve short stories, Elbow Room, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1978. In his second collection of short stories, McPherson explores the search for, or in some cases the resistance to, psychological elbow room in twentieth-century America. For Virginia Valentine of “Elbow Room”, the ideal is “a self as big as the world”.For others, like the intrusive narrator of the same story, the goal is to discover fresh dimensions of stories and of selfhood. For still others, like the narrator of “Story of a Scar”, the point is to resist growth and human intimacy.
McPherson's handling of the latter narrator illustrates what critics have widely praised as one of his greatest achievements: the ability to universalize the experience of African Americans. The narrator of “Story of a Scar”is black, but his need to translate a scarred woman's story into self-confirming terms and thus remain ignorant of his own inadequacies is a human, not a racial trait. The same point may be made of Virginia's desire to broaden her sense of self. She confronts racism at every turn, but her ideal transcends color.
Critics have also admired McPherson's objectivity and craft. Whether they be black or white, cruel or kind, McPherson's characters are multidimensional and emphatically alive, especially in their speech, for Elbow Room is rich with compelling voices that ring in the ear long after the reading is over. McPherson's narrative voice is equally engaging. Like a poet, he is as interested in modulating a sentence as he is in telling a tale. As a consequence, his stories convey a satisfying sense of order and narrative control even though many of them describe suffering and struggle.
Two secondary themes in Elbow Room are the power of storytelling (for good and ill) and language. Both themes are central in “The Story of a Dead Man”and “Elbow Room”.Each is told by a first-person narrator whose conflicts with other characters, and whose dubious assessment of them, is of primary interest.
So is their language. In “The Story of a Dead Man”, for example, a law-abiding narrator uses the vocabulary of the white, educated middle class to resist the appeal (to him as well as to others) of a jive-talking and probably criminal cousin. By pitting his polished vocabulary and syntax against his cousin's crude and occasionally obscene vernacular, the narrator protects himself against self-discovery.
Although critics are not unanimous on the issue, most find an optimism in Elbow Room that distinguishes it from the bleakness of McPherson's first book, Hue and Cry (1969). In addition to claiming that McPherson is mainly concerned with black, not universal, issues, William Domnarski believes that misery and despair prevail in Elbow Room as they did in Hue and Cry (“The Voices of Misery and Despair”, Arizona Quarterly, 1986). Edith Blicksilver and Jon Wallace argue otherwise, seeing in Elbow Room evidence of McPherson's belief in the possibility of justice, openness, and change.
Edith Blicksilver, “The Image of Women in Selected Stories by James Alan McPherson”, CLA Journal 22.4 (1979): 390–401.Jon Wallace, The Politics of Style in Fiction by Berger, McGuane and McPherson, 1992.— Jon Wallace