A hauntingly comical
transportation into Lewis Nordans fictional Mississippi Delta
world highlights his rare and stunning ability to construct short
stories and novels in which his unique fusion of tragedy and pathos
invite the reapppearance of the same unforgettable Southern characters
again and again.
August 23, 1939, in Forest, Mississippi, to Lemuel and Sara Bayles,
Lewis Alonzo Nordan was raised by Southern storytellers in Itta
Bena, Mississippi. “I was a storyteller,” he explains
to Contemporary Authors, “a long time before I became
a writer. Everyone in my family is a storyteller, though none of
the others are writers.”
The author of four novels and three
collections of short stories, Nordan commenced a life of letters
at age thirty-five after spending two years in the U.S.
Navy and twelve years in universities both teaching and attaining
degrees. Nordans B.A. from Millsaps
College in Jackson, Mississippi, and M.A. from Mississippi
State University preceded his final move from his home state
when he earned a Ph.D. from Auburn
University in Alabama.
His various work as a high school
teacher, college instructor, orderly, nightwatchman and clerk all
contributed to his first great steps into literary success. Initial
public acknowledgment of his gift for writing came with the University
of Arkansass John Gould Fletcher Award for fiction in
1977 for his short story, “Rat Song.” Many awards were
to follow. A year later, Nordan received a National
Endowment for the Arts grant that anticipated the upcoming accomplishment
of his first publication of collected works. His stories would be
published in The Southern Review, Greensboro Review,
Harpers and Redbook.
His first published collection
of short fiction, Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Club in 1983,
marked Nordans transition from three-year assistant professor
at the University of Arkansas to the university that boasts his
residence as creative writing professor today, the University
of Pittsburgh. Of his first work of fiction, critics pronounced
his art “splendid,” an illustration of Nordans
capacity to produce an amazing variety of short stories that adhere
to the evident theme, as Edith Milton of the New York Times Book
Review puts it, of “the juxtaposition of an unglamorous
modern reality, comically reduced, against an equally comic but
larger-than-life mythology about the past that surrounds it.”
With Nordans next collection
of short stories, The All-Girl Football Team (1986), this
Mississippian introduced to his reading audience some stories of
a family whose history would reappear throughout his literary works,
ultimately defining one facet of his creative theory. As he claims
in an interview with Blake Maher, “writers will find a little
postage-stamp size plot of land, their spiritual geography and a
handful of people that live there, and they will write those peoples
stories over and over again.
Ive just invented
out of pain and joy a family and a place they live and have watched
them move in love through that place.”
The Porter Fund Prize was awarded
to Lewis Nordan in 1987 and in 1991 his first novel, Music of
the Swamp, was published. The first in a series of novels that
would reveal his Mississippi Deltas tragic and humorous world
of heartbreak creates characters for whom, as Nordan indicates,
“Magic is the imagination”something that “seems
to be both necessary and evil and destructive in these characters.”
It quickly received best fiction awards from the Mississippi Institute
of Arts and Letters and the Prize for Notable Fiction from the American
Library Institute of Arts and Letters.
The following six years catalogue
a wealth of well-received publications, including Wolf Whistle
in 1993, a work that Nordan describes as the exploration of characters
in whose world “just the smallest thing elaborate[s] into
the whole texture of their lives, their parents lives and
hopes and dreams”; and The Sharpshooter Blues in 1995,
which won the American Library Associations
Notable Book Award and the Best Fiction Award of the Mississippi
Institute of Arts and Letters. According to Bill Kirchners
review, Nordan sketches characters “as innocent, wayward children
trapped in their own misguided notions and geography, looking only
to be lifted from the burden of facing their own relative puniness
Another short story collection,
Sugar Among the Freaks (1996), presents a series of tragic
and comical tales pulsing with a hauntingly comical eagerness to
paint a Mississippi Delta fictional world in which hope and love
appear indefinitely lost.
Nordans most recent novel, published in 1997, Lightning
Song, and a nonfiction memoir, Boy with Loaded Gun (2000),
continue to affirm this Southern writers cohesion of what
Blake Maher terms a “strange and stunning mix of lyric and
offbeat language,” a comically “weird strain of magical
realism,” and a “fictive vision through explorations
of racism and violence” throughout his texts. Lewis describes
his artistic self-image in this way: “I became a comic writer,
but I always see writing from the same place, that is that deeply
serious, melodramatic horror thats at the heart of my work.”
His view that “all comedy is underpinned by loss” remains
the undercurrent of his vivid Mississippian community of Delta dreamers.
Nordan died April 13, 2012, of complications from pneumonia in Cleveland, Ohio. His obituary in the New York Times described him as a writer whose “fiction conjures a dreamlike world that straddles the whisker-thin margin between a legend and a lie.”
(Article updated 29 April 2012)
Related Links & Info
Interview with Lewis Nordan by Dory Adams in 2007
- Music of the Swamp. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonguin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991.
- Wolf Whistle. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1993.
- The Sharpshooter Blues. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonguin Books of Chapel Hill, 1995. (Excerpt available at Washingtonpost.com)
- Lightning Song. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel
Fiction—Short Story Collections:
- Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
- The All-Girl Football Team. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986.
- Sugar Among the Freaks. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonguin Books of Chapel Hill, 1996.
Selected Short Story Periodical Publications:
- “A Hank of Hair, A Piece of Bone.” The Southern Review
24 (1988): 366-70.
- “Cabbage Opera.” The Southern Review 27 (1991): 575-84.
- “Field and Stream.” Southern Humanities Review 25 (1991):
- “Sugar, Eunuchs and the Big G.B.” The Southern Review
22 (1986): 860-75.
- “The Cellar of Runt Conroy.” The Southern Review 25 (1989):
- “Train, Train Coming Round the Bend.” The Southern Review
26 (1990): 844-55.
- “Growing Up White in the South, an essay.” Chapel Hill, N.C.:
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1993.
- “Shakespeare’s Dramatic Poetry: Its Development (1591-1601) and
its Specialization in Cymbaline and The Tempest.” DAI 34
(1974): 7199A-200A. Auburn University.
in America: A few observations on guns and love,” by Lewis Nordan.
From The Algonkian.
- Boy with Loaded Gun: A Memoir. Chapel Hill,
N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000.
Book Reviews and Critical Studies:
- Casey, Maud. Rev. of Lightning Song, by Lewis Nordan. Salon (May 1997).
- Coughlan, Ruth. “Swamp Creatures.” Rev. of The Sharpshooter Blues. The New York Times (5 November 1995).
- Christian, John C., III. Rev. of Sugar Among the Freaks, by Lewis Nordan. BookPage (May 1996).
- Halio, Jay L. Rev. of Welcome to Arrow Catcher Fair, by Lewis Nordan. Studies in Short Fiction 21 (1984): 74-75.
- Hegi, Ursula. “In Short: Fiction.” Rev. of The All-Girl Football Team. The New York Times Book Review (30 November 1986): 22.
- Johnson, Greg. Rev. of The All-Girl Football Team, by Lewis Nordan. The Georgia Review 43 (1989): 406-16.
- Maher, Blake. “An Interview with Lewis Nordan.” The Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South 34 (1995): 113-23.
- Mason, Jeff. “Waterhead.” Rev. of The Sharpshooter Blues, by Lewis Nordan. The Boston Book Review (1997).
- Milton, Edith. “Making a Virtue of Diversity.” Rev. of Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair, by Lewis Nordan. The New York Times Book Review (15 January 1984): 22.
- Nicosia, James R. “Still I am Not Sure What was Real and What My Mind Invented: The Southern Tradition of (Re)Creating the Past in Lewis Nordan’s Music of the Swamp.” Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South 4 (1993): 67-80.
- Parker, Laurie. Rev. of Lightning Song, by Lewis Nordan. BookPage (May 1997).
- Phillips, Robert. Rev. of Music of the Swamp, by Lewis Nordan. The Southern Review 28 (1992): 420-30.
- Sayers, Valerie. “Mystery Women.” Rev. of Lightning Song. The New York Times (25 May 1997).
- Sullivan, Jack. “In Short: Fiction.” Rev. of Wolf Whistle. The New York Times Book Review (2 January 1994).
- Welch, Nancy. Rev. of Music of the Swamp, by Lewis Nordan. Prairie Schooner 28 (1992): 135-36.
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