James Alan McPherson (b. 1943)

    Contributing Editor: John F. Callahan

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Students are unfamiliar with the railroads and the extent to which black men were a fraternity in the service jobs on the trains. There is some need to explain the argot of railroading, to familiarize students with the vocabulary and syncopated accents of the black vernacular.

    Involve students with the rich variations of the oral tradition. Get them telling stories, in particular stories of how they met and came to know people of very different backgrounds because of summer jobs. It helps to read chunks of the story out loud.

    Students are often interested in Youngblood's attitude toward the story-teller and the story-teller's attitude toward Doc Craft.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    The complexity and richness as well as the hardships of the lives lived by black traveling men; the initiative and kinship developed by the black workers; the qualities of the trickster; also the ways racism surcharges the attempts by blacks and whites to master situations and each other. Once again, the fact that the story is told by an old-timer about to quit (in 1964 or so) to Youngblood--the college student in a temporary job-- about working on the road for the last twenty years or more sets up important contrasts between the past and the present, particularly the impact of technology on older ways of work and life.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    The relationship of oral story-telling as an initiation ritual to McPherson's craft of fiction writing, particularly his resolve to initiate readers of all races into a facet of their culture passing quickly out of sight.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    See Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues"; Ellison's "King of the Bingo Game"; Walker's "Nineteen Fifty-Five"; and Silko's "Lullaby."

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    What is the significance of the name Doc Craft?


    Ellison, Ralph and James McPherson. "Indivisible Man." Atlantic (December 1970): 45-60.

    McPherson, James. "On Becoming an American Writer." Atlantic 242, no. 6 (December 1978): 53-57.