McPherson on Americans’ identities

LITERARY LIFE/A distinguished author discusses a constantly shifting topic.

According to novelist and essayist James Alan McPherson, most Americans are con artists, adopting multiple identities as their lives and desires change. The nature of those identities was a subject the Pulitzer Prize-winning author returned to often during his two-day visit to Penn April 19 and 20 as the last Kelly Writers House Fellow of the academic year.

McPherson’s works, from the 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Elbow Room” to his most recent collection of essays, “A Region Not Home” (Simon & Schuster, 2000), deal with issues of identity, especially what constitutes Americanness.

In his Monday evening reading, McPherson chose two works that reflected on character. One, an essay commissioned by his hometown newspaper, the Iowa City Press-Citizen, to commemorate 9/11, celebrated the Midwestern habit of neighborliness. Noting that the practice extended to inviting Middle Eastern students at the University of Iowa to dinner on the second anniversary, he wrote, “The evolution of the United States into a multicultural society has brought it into a situation like that of Rome during its transition from a republic to an empire.”

After reading the piece, McPherson explained that he liked living in Iowa City. “It’s a small town that is internationally flavored,” he said.

The other reading was “The Reflections of Titus Basefield,” an excerpt from a work in progress based on the short-lived history of the state of Franklin, proposed and established after the American Revolution but never admitted to the Union. In the excerpt, the title character, one of the people involved in the founding of the abortive state, contemplates the people he sees leaving it on the National Road for new opportunities further west.

In a conversation with McPherson Tuesday morning, many of the audience members returned to the subject of identity. In response to a question about reconciling the duality of being black with being American, he replied, “I think I resolved that, especially during the 20 or so years I spent in Iowa. I’m not on guard racially. My racial identity is not what defines me to my neighbors, my friends, my students.”

He added that he identified with both his blackness and his Americanness. “To me they’re one and the same.”

McPherson also commented on some other Americans who have adopted new identities, such as Martha Stewart, who he called “the female Great Gatsby” and an American archetype. “Stewart filled the vacuum left when the American upper class stopped sending signals about proper decorum,” he said, shedding her working-class Polish family background to do so.

An audience member told him, “You’re African-American, you have a Scottish name, and you speak the thoughts of a Diaspora Jew.” McPherson replied, “Thanks for the compliment.”

Originally published on April 29, 2004