By William Grimes
The New York Times News Service
William McPherson, a novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for The Washington Post who won late-life acclaim for a rueful essay describing his descent into poverty, died Tuesday in Washington. He was 84.
The cause was complications of congestive heart failure and pneumonia, his daughter, Jane McPherson, said.
McPherson had been working as a senior editor at William Morrow in New York when Benjamin C. Bradlee, the editor of The Post, lured him to the newspaper in 1969 and placed him in charge of its Sunday book supplement, then called Book Week.
When Book Week, jointly produced by The Post and the Chicago Tribune, ceased publication in 1972, McPherson became the first editor of its successor, Book World, produced solely by The Post.
Under his editorship, Book World took its place as one of the leading literary publications in the United States, and his wide-ranging, elegantly written reviews played no small part in establishing its reputation. In 1977, awarding him the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism, the prize judges noted his “broad literary and historic perspective.”
In late middle age, McPherson unexpectedly delivered a novel, “Testing the Current,” a coming-of-age tale about an 8-year-old boy living in a small Midwestern town in the late 1930s. More than five years in the writing, it was published in 1984 to the kind of critical superlatives to which McPherson, as an editor, might have applied the blue pencil.
Novelist Russell Banks, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called it “an extraordinarily intelligent, powerful and, I believe,…
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