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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 Nordan’s Music of the Swamp. Though, many argue Nordan’s 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 Nordan’s 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 character’s, and perhaps his own, early life. For instance, Sugar awakens in the beginning of the story to “I’m so Lonesome I Could Die,” by Elvis Presley, who Nordan admits was his first hero (Staggs 2). Furthermore, Nordan represents the misery of Sugar’s father through the description of Bessie Smith’s music, which Sugar termed “wrist-cutting music” (Nordan 17). The use of these tangible songs further insinuates Nordan’s autobiographical connection to the story as each song represents some critical part of Sugar’s 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 Mecklin’s. 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 saidThat’s not right. I don’t like that kind of joke….And that changed my life so abruptly, so profoundly…that’s when I
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Lewis Nordan, Emmett Till, Sugar
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