I recently read a line from a critic that said Twain introduced an earthy, vernacular-rich aesthetic to American literature (obviously), but the comment made me wonder if earthy, vernacular-rich fiction is mostly out-of-style today. What do you think? I think it is.
In my experience, editors are sometimes scared of dialect and rural settings–settings where characters might not behave in ways deemed “appropriate” by liberal cosmopolitan elites. It’s an interesting irony: many of these highly-educated progressives display a smug regional bias that reeks of classism. The notion of “regionalism” itself–the history of that term–is interesting because implicit is the idea that there exists an opposite of “regional,” an a-regional, universal territory immediately recognized by all. Is it a coincidence that so many “regional” writers write about marginalized and/or working-class characters?
I know this: I am tired of reading stories in literary magazines that might as well be set in a shopping mall parking lot–even though we never get the name of the shopping mall or what distinguishes it from other shopping malls–stories where none of the characters have last names, where the style is uber-plain and neat and lacks voice, where the plots are always linear and clean and every other character is working on a doctoral dissertation or engaged to someone working on a doctoral dissertation. Last year, I went through a major literary magazine that accepts less than 1% of submissions and three of the four stories featured graduate students working on dissertations or theses.
Anyway, here are six contemporary works that continue the tradition Twain helped establish in the 19th C. I return to this list whenever I become despondent over this particular issue (or pet-peeve of mine):
1) Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
2) Edward P. Jones, All Aunt Hagar’s Children
3) Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule
4) Mark Richard, House of Prayer #2
5) Toni Morrison, Beloved
6) Lewis Nordan, Sugar Among The Freaks
How can we—your students—improve ourselves as writers?
It’s hard to talk about something like that without sounding prescriptive, but I think that there’s a reluctance in all writers in early stages of their development to really commit themselves to trust their interests as being actually focused on things that are interesting. To realize that they do not have to talk in the same dialect that is being talked around them, in terms of literary convention and all the rest of it. Something that I sometimes say, and even sometimes believe, is that there has been a loss of the cult of genius. When I was younger, I remember going around totally deluded by the idea that other people might, in fact, be geniuses or at least be able to express this in any intelligible fashion. The idea that you might do something radically brilliant—that assumption is very empowering and it has given the world a lot of really interesting things to look at. It’s a side effect of the cult of normality—the idea that it would be preposterous and perhaps undesirable to single yourself out in that way. I think that’s why a lot of stuff that basically amounts to breaking china is seen as being creative when, in fact, it’s as subservient to prevailing norms as anything else is, as obedience to them would be.
Lewis “Buddy” Nordan was a Delta bluesman. The author of Lightning Song, Boy with a Loaded Gun, The Sharpshooter Blues, Wolf Whistle—a tragicomic novel about the Emmett Till murder—and Sugar Among the Freaks was one of two writers (the other Mark Richard) who gave me permission to write in a tragicomic aesthetic.
Humor, specifically the soulful kind applied to tragedy, seems out-of-fashion. Nordan, who died last April, was an anachronism to current trends. According to Barbara Baker:
all of Nordan’s writing, whether memoir, fiction, or journalistic observation, contains a heavy dose of the details of his personal life, transformed by a blues-oriented craft that speaks to Ralph Ellison’s contention that ‘the blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal existence alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically’ (34).
I cannot get Ellison’s last sentence out of my head: “the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” Neither can Cornel West in this Big Think piece that inspired my post’s title:
Nordan’s “The Sin Eater,” which originally appeared in Welcome to The Arrow Catcher Fair and was later recollected in Sugar Among the Freaks, is Nordan at his most blues-drenched. Robert McIntyre, a ten-year-old, accidentally causes his younger brother’s death when he leaves lying around a Coke bottle filled with kerosene. His brother drinks the gas and
[weaves] drunkenly, like a comic actor on a television screen. Who was that actor, Robert thought? The child fell, and the bottle clattered against the floor. The kerosene darkened the wood, and Robert saw the future. He knew his brother would not live. As soon as he knew that, he screamed. (50)
The brother’s death, the most climatic event in the story, is revealed on the second page. The rest of the story is blues-magic, as Robert’s parents, before leaving with the ambulance that takes their son’s body to the hospital, send Robert to the house of a neighbor, a strange, old woman who lives alone in a “slave built house, with its spacious porch and gently sagging roofline, visible from the child’s bedroom if he had thought to look a hundred yards away (49)….kindly fat rich ancient shaky-hands Mrs. Tremble, with the white hair and wild peacocks and the gaseous aroma of pipe tobacco and face powder [with] breath [that] preceded her like a messenger of lightning and thunder” (51). The heart of the story navigates the strange and wonderfully bizarre interactions between Robert and Mrs. Tremble during this time of catastrophic grief. Mrs. Tremble is an outcast who tells Robert a story about an outcast from her own youth, the Sin Eater, a shunned, “jaundiced” homeless man who visited a wake in town unannounced and proceeded to eat a bowl of food over the deceased’s body:
‘I am the Sin Eater,’ he said. ‘I am the propitiation for your sins. I have taken unto my flesh all the sin and guilt of those here assembled, and especially those of the woman who lies dead before me. I am unclean with them. They burn inside me. Despise me, and beware of me. Touch nothing of me, neither of my body nor of my clothing. Azezial rages inside me. I am the Sin Eater, and I am doomed.’ (63)
Read “The Sin Eater” in Sugar Among The Freaks and the rest of Nordan’s work. You’re bound to fall in love:
The marvel was, in fact, that everything could be so much the same, that what his father said could be true: no blame, no guilt. Life was not a dream, he thought, or a story; the persons you meet are not fabulous or enchanted. Mrs. Tremble was no witch. The wonder, whether you liked it or not, was the choppy surfaces of lakes and the mounds of fire ants and the wild peacocks in the trees. The miracle was the hunger of wild dogs and the availability and vulnerability of goats. (66)
Barker, Barbara. “Transcendence and Hope in the Blues Life and Life Writing of Nordan.”
Lewis Nordan: Humor, Heartbreak, and Hope. Ed. Barbara Baker. Tuscaloosa: AL:
University of Alabama Press, 2012: 32-41.
Once when I was a small boy of ten or eleven I was traveling late at night with my father on a narrow country road. I had been counting the number of beers he drank that night, nine or ten of them, and I was anxious about his driving.
Neither of us had spoken for a long time. What was there to say?–the beers, the narrow road, the stubble fields, a bare bulb shining out in the darkness from a porch far back from the road, the yellow headlights? What was there to talk about? The car held the road on the curves, the heater was making its familiar sound.
Then I saw the road sign, bright yellow and diamond-shaped, and on it I read the word SLOW. My father kept driving at the same speed and did not slow down, though I knew he had seen the sign. So I was bold. I said, “Did you see that sign?” (185)
We drove on in the darkness for a minute. My father said, “The sign didn’t say SLOW.”
I said, “It didn’t? I thought it said SLOW.”
My father said, “It said OWLS.” (186).
Then the sign came into view again, the back of the sign, of course. My father slowed the car and pulled over to the right and when he had come to a complete stop he checked over his shoulder for safety and made another U-turn so that we might face the sign again and read its message. The headlights made the sign huge and bright.
My father had been right. The sign said OWLS.
We kept sitting there for a long time. The engine was running, there was a small vibration.
Then my father turned off the engine. The early-spring night air was cool, but he rolled down the windows.
I knew my father wanted me to be quiet. I’m not sure how I knew this. I knew he wanted us to listen. I scarcely breathed I was listening so hard. I did not move at all.
Then I heard the owls overhead. I heard the soft centrifugal buffeting of their feathers on the night air. I heard a sound from their owl-throats so soft that I believed it was their breathing. In my mind I counted them and thought that they were many. The owls were circling and circling and circling in the air above us.
I don’t know what I believed would happen. I think I believed I would feel the fingers of my father’s hand touch my arm, the sleeve of my shirt. I believed I would turn to him and for the first time in my life I would know what to say. I would tell him all my secrets. I believed my father would say, “I love you.” This is what it meant to sit in a car with your father in in the middle of the night and listen to a flock of owls while looking at a diamond-shaped sign that said OWLS. (186-187)