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  • The Politics of Style in Three Stories by James Alan McPherson
  • Jon Wallace (bio)

"I'm black," declares Virginia Frost in the title story of James Alan McPherson's Elbow Room:

"I've accepted myself as that. But didn't I make some elbow room though?" She tapped her temple with her forefinger. "I mean up here!" Then she laughed bitterly and sipped her tea. "When times get tough, anybody can pass for white. Niggers been doing that for centuries, so it ain't nothing new. But shit, wouldn't it of been something to be a nigger that could relate to white and black and everything else in the world out of a self as big as the world is?" She laughed. Then she said, "That would have been some nigger!"


As a seeker of personal space, of the elbow room she needs to develop herself and a sympathetic understanding of other human beings, Virginia represents one end of a psychological continuum within the book. At the opposite end stand other characters who also seek elbow room—but for antithetical reasons. My intention is to show that, unlike Virginia, who wants room to grow, the narrators of "The Story of a Dead Man," "The Story of a Scar," and "Just Enough for the City" seek a space within which they can defend themselves against the claims of intimacy, human involvement, and personal history. The tool they use to accomplish this goal is language. Masters of what is primarily a white linguistic code, these narrators attempt to look out at the world from deep within the safety of conventional institutions and ideologies that implicitly justify their [End Page 17] failure to see beyond them: In their mouths Standard English becomes a defensive weapon—a means of self-protection that, like Standard English in the mouths of defensive Whites, enables them to "hold the floor" at the expense of speakers of other codes (language varieties or dialects) who want, and often desperately need, to be heard. As a consequence, these characters avoid developing, or even considering, Virginia's admirable ideal of a self "as big as the world."

"It is not true," declares William, the narrator of "The Story of a Dead Man," "that Billy Renfro was killed during that trouble in Houston." Thus begins a narrative designed to accomplish in fiction what the dramatic monologue accomplishes in poetry: unconscious self-revelation. The difference between most first-person fiction and the dramatic monologue, however, is that in the latter the identity of the audience is clear—and of course relevant to what the speaker is saying and why he is saying it. In "The Story of a Dead Man" McPherson does not identify William's audience, but he continually reminds us that William is speaking, or writing, to someone and that his motive is self-defense. Indeed, the narrative is William's response to stories told by Billy about his own heroic adventures on the road and to rumors about William's mistreatment of Billy. Both the stories and the rumors threaten William: the rumors for obvious reasons, the stories because they reveal, by implication, the staid pointlessness of William's very conventional : life. "Neither is it true," William tells us in the second paragraph, "as certain of his enemies have maintained, that Billy's left eye was lost during a rumble with that red-neck storekeep outside Limehouse, South Carolina" (33). At this point, William seems to be interested in establishing the truth about his cousin Billy. He says as much shortly thereafter: "I bother to refute these rumors because the man is my cousin, and I am honor-bound to love him as I know he really is" (34). In this wonderfully rationalized construction, we discover William's underlying motive and the identity of the audience he is addressing. He speaks not of love here but of an obligation that requires love. He speaks also of Billy as "he really is." Given his "honor-bound to love him" construction, his casual fusing of love and obligation, we have to infer that William is both unable and unwilling to give us his wildly mythic cousin as "he really is...


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pp. 17-26
Launched on MUSE
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