Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Memory, Death, and Delta, and St. Augustine: Autobiography in Lewis Nordan's the Music of the Swamp

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Memory, Death, and Delta, and St. Augustine: Autobiography in Lewis Nordan's the Music of the Swamp

Article excerpt

When Lewis P. Simpson published The Dispossessed Garden in 1975 he could not have had in mind Lewis Nordan. Although Nordan graduated from college in 1963, got his Ph.D. in Shakespeare ten years later from Auburn University, and began writing seriously in 1974 (because he could not find a job in the tight market), he did not publish his first book of fiction until 1983. It was a collection of stories called Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair, published by LSU Press. His next collection, The All-Girl Football Team, came out three years later, and in 1991 he published The Music of the Swamp. In 1991 he also found a new publisher--Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Before they were collected, Nordan's stories appeared in such journals as the Southern Review, Harper's, and New Orleans Review. Despite his wide publishing record, and despite his having written three novels since The Music of the Swamp--Wolf Whistle (1993), The Sharpshooter Blues (1995), and Lightening Song (1997--Nordan has garnered scant critical attention. A recent computer search of the MLA International Bibliography for contemporary literature revealed but three entries under his name--and one was a listing for the abstract of his dissertation on Shakespeare. Nordan deserves better. He should get critical attention for several reasons. Clyde Edgerton, for example, has written that he'd rather read a story by Lewis Nordan "than win money."(1)

Nordan deserves attention, that is, because he is a fine writer. When I first encountered Nordan's work, I felt much the same as Blake Maher, whose interview with Nordan appeared in the Fall 1995 issue of the Southern Quarterly. "Who is this writer," Maher writes in his preface to the interview, "and why haven't I heard of him before?" (113). Maher had come to Nordan first through The Music of the Swamp, and so did I. Similar in form to Welty's The Golden Apples, The Music of the Swamp resists easy classification. Some reviewers called it another collection of stories, while others described it as a "novel-in-stories." Most agreed, however, that it had a lyricism all its own.(2) In a review article for the Southern Review, Robert Phillips notes that Nordan's "great talent is with language and its telling particulars" (422). As Maher has written, "It was Nordan's style that captivated me,... the strange and stunning mix of lyric and offbeat language" (113).

A high regard for language, of course, is a characteristic of good literature anywhere, not only in the South. And yet Nordan displays poignant similarities with some of the icons of southern literature. Like Faulkner, Welty, and Gaines, Nordan uses a fictional home town--Arrow Catcher, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta--as the setting of his stories and novels. Arrow Catcher corresponds more or less to Nordan's own Delta home town--Itta Bena, Mississippi. And Nordan resembles Faulkner and Welty not only in the cultivation of his own little "postage stamp of native soil" but also in his reliance on recurrent characters, notably the young Sugar Mecklin and his family, to say what he has to say about the Delta. Yet Nordan does not simply recall and retrace the steps of an earlier era in southern fiction. He speaks to his own era as well.

In The Dispossessed Garden Lewis P. Simpson argues that writers of the first few decades of the 20th century South upheld a "covenant with memory and history" as an effort to stem the rising tide of modernity. Later writers of the South, in what Simpson calls their "striving with agnostic modernity," have forgotten memory and history, as it were, and come to see "the self as the constitutive realm of being--the source of its possibilities and limitations" (99). "The covenant with memory and history," Simpson continues, "has been abrogated in favor of a covenant with the existential self' (99).

While Simpson could not have had Nordan in mind when he wrote those words in the early 1970s, he has proven himself nonetheless prescient. …

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