Some have coined music as a universal language. Perhaps, the complexity of the notes, the consistency of the beat, the array of instruments, or the flow of lyricism offers this universal appeal. Nevertheless, the unique composition of each song enables it to sustain its own magnetic aura, much like the musical implication in Lewis Nordans Music of the Swamp. Though, many argue Nordans piece suggests merely a collection of short stories rather than a novel, Nordan uses his singsong methodology- a novel-in-stories- to incorporate an anthology of his transformative memory- an autobiography of the way it was.
By examining the structure of Music of the Swamp, it can be broken into a series of short stories, though it is described by some as a novel-in-stories (Dupuy 1). Although the novel is divided into three parts and an epilogue, each chapter within each part relates a different episode throughout the childhood of Nordans main character Sugar Mecklin. The first part begins in third person, while Nordan presents the rest of the sections in first person. Critic Edward Dupuy believes that considering the novel as a short story collective makes the part in the third person less engaging, and somewhat disconnected to the others. If seen as a novel-in-stories, however, the first part serves as a type of overture to the opera that follows (Dupuy 3). This musical analogy suggests the ideas of the novel flow, though the novel itself is structured as a compilation of differentiable events.
Nordan actually accredits a musical influence as a determining factor in writing his prose. In an interview with Sam Staggs, Nordan mentions that the the rhythms of nursery rhymes and songs are a significant inspiration in his writing (Staggs 1). In fact, he includes an assortment of songs throughout the novel to articulate the emotions felt during a specific occurrence in his main characters, and perhaps his own, early life. For instance, Sugar awakens in the beginning of the story to Im so Lonesome I Could Die, by Elvis Presley, who Nordan admits was his first hero (Staggs 2). Furthermore, Nordan represents the misery of Sugars father through the description of Bessie Smiths music, which Sugar termed wrist-cutting music (Nordan 17). The use of these tangible songs further insinuates Nordans autobiographical connection to the story as each song represents some critical part of Sugars life.
Though actual songs and their performing artists are prevalent throughout the stories, Nordan also conveys the sounds of the swamp, his homeland, as a musical benefactor to his personality. He relates this idea through the following passage about Sugar Mecklin:
This summer Sugar Mecklin heard the high soothing music of the swamp, the irrigation pumps in the rice paddies, the long whine and complaint, head the wheezy, breathy asthma of the compress, the suck and bump and clatter like great lungs as the air was squashed out and the cotton was wrapped in burlap and bound with steel bands into six-hundred-pound bales, he heard the operatic voice of the cotton gin separating fibers from seeds, he heard a rat bark, he heard a child singing arias in a cabbage patch, he heard a parrot make a sound like a cash register, he heard the jungle rains fill up the Delta outside his window, he heard the wump-wump-wump-wump-wump of biplanes strafing the fields with poison and defoliants, he read a road sign that said WALNUT GROVE IS RADAR PATROLLED and heard poetry in the language, he heard mourning doves in the walnut trees (Nordan 6).
Very vividly, Nordan recounts his recollection of his adolescent experience growing up in the Delta by providing this artistic image through melodious prose.
Furthermore, Nordan accredits the Delta for shaping his personality because of the events his own life as well as Sugar Mecklins. In the interview with Sam Staggs, Nordan recalls when he was 16, he first learned of the lynching of Emmett Till, a black teenager from Mississippi. He notes:
The other boys were making lots of jokes about the lynching, and I was laughing, too. Then an ol redneck boy like the rest of us said something amazing. He saidThats not right. I dont like that kind of joke.And that changed my life so abruptly, so profoundlythats when I knew I would have to leave Mississippi and try to find a larger world(Staggs 1).
Nordan tries to convey this lifelong lesson through Sugars character, too. While thinking on his friends parental situation, Sugar says to himself: Daddies aint your trouble, Sweet Austin. Your trouble is the geography. You better learn to like it (Nordan 23). In other words, Nordan reiterates the blame he gives to the South for his own distressing experiences through Sugars thoughts, further integrating the idea of autobiography.
Although many claim that the structure of Music of the Swamp is none other than a set of short stories, Nordan structured it to carry an autobiographical appeal. He uses reflective imagery and the right musical notes to allow his readers, and even his students, a sense of the emotion behind his prose. Because his novel-in-stories is so autobiographical, the central idea of transformative memory serves as a centrifugal force that sucks readers into the hearts of Sugar Mecklin and Lewis Nordan, disallowing the victims to detach themselves from the series of stories but rather forcing them to accept and appreciate the memory of life.
Dupuy, Edward J. Memory, death, and delta, and St. Augustine: autobiography
In Lewis Nordans Music of the Swamp. Literature Resource Center
(1998): n. pag. Online. Internet. 13 Apr. 2000. Available WWW:
Nordan, Lewis. Music of the Swamp. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 1991.
Staggs, Sam. Lewis Nordan: his new novel offers a surreal portrait of an event
that changed his life. Literature Resource Center (1993): n. pag. Online.
Internet 13 Apr. 2000. Available WWW: / hits?c=3&b=1939&origSearch