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William McPherson, a man of rich words

The life of William McPherson (1933-2017) is a parable of the fate of many a journalist. Most will see it as a tale of riches to rags. If so, that’s because of “Falling,” the wrenching essay McPherson himself wrote about how he spiraled into poverty.

A successful journalist born to an upper-middle class family—his father was a manager at Union Carbide in Michigan—McPherson had a comfortable living in the first part of his life. He joined the Washington Post in 1958 and, after an interlude of a few years, he returned to the paper in 1969, this time to run its book review section.

That earned him a 1977 Pulitzer, the highest honor in journalism, from a jury that praised him for applying a “broad literary and historic perspective” to authors as varied as poet Archibald MacLeish, essayist and children’s book author E.B. White and novelist Saul Bellow.

Shortly after the prize, he chose to move on to the editorial section, for he found too painful critiquing books he disliked. Passing judgment on such a difficult and noble endeavor as a book had a component of condescension McPherson found contrary to his spirit.

Critics acclaimed his two novels, Testing the Current (1984) and To the Sargasso Sea (1987), especially his opera prima. And then, with some savings to his account, he took early retirement from the Post and went on to freelance to Eastern Europe, covering the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the downfall of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania.

He miscalculated, badly. The long sojourn in Europe ate up his savings and he spent the latter decades of his life in the “upper edge of poverty”, as he described it.

In hindsight, it is interesting to ponder that his fate was prefigured by Romania, the former Communist country where he was mostly based during his Eastern European venture. The hardships endured by Romanians under the Communist dictatorship were too harsh even by the dour standards beyond the Berlin Wall.

Poverty is ugly, and undesired by those who endure it. It may well be “a state of mind”, as McPherson’s mother used to say in his childhood. But it is also a tale of daily humiliations that can be aggravating for the most hardened spirit. Yet as anyone who has had contact with people who are poor—materially, that is—there is often a nobility to the struggles that come with it and the camaraderie it brings among those who are less fortunate. And in the end, we all leave this world with all we came. Nothing unto nothing, but the memories we leave behind. McPherson left us his rich words and a lesson or two about what life is all about.

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