Nordan, Lewis
Author Lewis Nordan (Photograph © David G. Spielman)

Lewis Nordan

(1939–2012) Author

Lewis Alonzo “Buddy” Nordan, a novelist and short story writer, was born on 23 August 1939 in Forest, Mississippi. Nordan grew up in Itta Bena, a Delta town whose landscape and residents provided much of the raw material for his three short story collections, four novels, and memoir. Nordan’s childhood home appears in his fiction as a realm of mystery and magic where the lines between the grotesque and the beautiful, the comic and the tragic are always blurry and indistinct. His work has drawn comparison not only to southern chroniclers of the gothic and grotesque such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor but also to Latin American magic realists such as Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges and comic writers such as James Thurber.

Nordan’s father, Lemuel Bayles, died when the boy was eighteen months old. His mother, Sara, married Gilbert Nordan, and for much of his life Lewis believed that Gilbert was his biological father. Nordan’s early family life in Itta Bena, especially his complicated relationship with his stepfather, plays a major role in his fiction, particularly the stories about Sugar Mecklin, who bears Nordan’s childhood nickname and whose stepfather, like Nordan’s, is a loving but distant alcoholic housepainter named Gilbert. As Nordan put it, “I’ve been writing about wanting a father all my life.” His frequent visits to blues bars as a young Deltan exposed him to the music that so powerfully informs both the style and theme of his fiction and that he has called “a visceral and early literary influence.”

After leaving Mississippi for a two-year stint in the navy, Nordan enrolled at Millsaps College, where he met his first wife, Mary Mitman. Their troubled marriage and the deaths of two of their three sons—one as an infant, one from suicide—contributed to Nordan’s careful examination of tortured family relations in his fiction. Nordan graduated from Millsaps in 1963 and taught public school in Titusville, Florida, from 1963 to 1965 before returning to his home state to pursue a master’s degree at Mississippi State University. He went on to receive a doctorate in 1973 from Auburn University, where he wrote a dissertation on Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry. Dissatisfied with literary scholarship, Nordan decided in 1974 to pursue writing as a vocation.

Nordan’s first notable success came with his story “Rat Song,” for which he received the University of Arkansas’s John Gould Fletcher Award. Continuing to write, Nordan soon took a position teaching creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. In 1983 Nordan’s first collection of short stories, Welcome to the Arrow Catcher Fair, appeared, and he accepted a job as professor of creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. In these stories and those included in his next collection, The All-Girl Football Team (1986), Nordan explored the fictional Delta town of Arrow Catcher, a richly imagined hamlet to which he would often return in his fiction, populating it with fantastic creatures such as freshwater swamp dolphins and talking parrots as well as human citizens both freakish and ordinary. All of them struggle with the awareness that “we are all alone in the world.” In Music of the Swamp (1991), a novel in stories about Sugar Mecklin and his family, Sugar “senses the tragic limitations of a society defined by racial hatred and alcoholism and geographical isolation.” Wolf Whistle (1993), perhaps Nordan’s finest achievement, reimagines the 1955 murder of Emmett Till from the perspective of the white community, probing the social and personal traumas that drive some individuals to horrific acts and others to sit silently by. Nordan’s 1995 novel, The Sharpshooter Blues, a meditation on grief and loss and an investigation into the American preoccupation with firearms and outlaws, tells the story of hydrocephalic Hydro Raney, who, traumatized by the events surrounding his shooting of two would-be thieves, eventually takes his own life. Sugar among the Freaks appeared in 1996 and collected all but three of the stories in his first two volumes of short stories. Nordan’s next novel left Arrow Catcher behind: set on a hill country llama farm, Lightning Song (1997) follows twelve-year-old Leroy Dearman’s sometimes comic, sometimes terrifying initiation into the mysterious world of love and sex amid the near collapse of his parents’ marriage. Nordan published a memoir, Boy with Loaded Gun, in 2000, chronicling the misadventures and tragedies of his Delta boyhood as well as his adult life. However, he cautions readers that “the ratio of fiction to nonfiction is about the same, in inverse proportions, as in the novels.”

Nordan retired from the University of Pittsburgh in 2005 and lived there with his second wife, Alicia Blessing Nordan, until his death on 13 April 2012.

Further Reading

  • Barbara A. Baker, Southern Quarterly (Spring 2003)
  • Thomas Aervold Bjerre, Mississippi Quarterly (Summer 2001)
  • Mary Carney, Southern Quarterly (Spring 2003)
  • Edward Dupuy, Southern Literary Journal (Spring 1998)
  • Edward Dupuy, Southern Quarterly (Spring 2003)
  • Margalit Fox, New York Times (16 April 2012)
  • Huey Guagliardo, Southern Quarterly (Spring 2003)
  • Russell Ingram and Mark Ledbetter, Missouri Review (Summer 1997)
  • Blake Maher, Southern Quarterly (Fall 1995)
  • James F. Nicosia, Southern Studies (Spring 1993)
  • Robert Rudnicki, Southern Quarterly (Spring 2003)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Lewis Nordan
  • Coverage 1939–2012
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 6, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 9, 2020