- Hellhound on His Trail: Faulknerian Blood-guilt and the Traumatized Form of Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle
For writers who hail from the U.S. South, especially from Mississippi, confronting the legacy of William Faulkner can be daunting. Lewis Nordan, a writer born and reared in the Mississippi Delta, describes his version of the dilemma: “The first thing I did as a writer was to imitate Faulkner without having any strong idea of what he was really doing.” Nordan adds that, “as I didn’t have a grasp on what he was doing, it prevented me from getting to what I really wanted to do.” For Nordan, Faulkner’s influence functioned as a potentially debilitating force that severely compromised the development of his artistic identity. Not surprisingly, then, Nordan declares with emphatic frustration that “when I’m compared with Faulkner . . . it drives me nuts” (qtd in Arbeit 633). In spite of Nordan’s consternation, examining his work in the context of Faulkner’s legacy is a worthy endeavor, though not merely for the purpose of demonstrating the anxiety of influence by casting Nordan as ephebe opposite Faulkner as grand literary Master, a tendency that Michael Kreyling defines as pervasive in southern studies (128). Indeed, the practice of comparing southern writers to Faulkner in purely qualitative terms is by now a well-worn critical path with predictable turns that lead to a seemingly foregone conclusion: Faulkner, like his envisioned mankind, endures and prevails. [End Page 19]
A far more productive aim for considering Faulkner’s influence on Nordan is to examine how it colludes with received historical and cultural narratives of Mississippi and the U.S. South to insist that attention must be paid. Wolf Whistle, Nordan’s fictional account of the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and the sham of a murder trial that followed, is a useful text for extending this line of critical inquiry. A postmodern panoply of various points of view, styles, and genres, Wolf Whistle exhibits a pattern of textual inconsistency that can be read as evidence of Nordan’s urgent desire to move beyond Faulkner’s signature treatment of southern history—what he calls with great understatement “some Faulknerian something-or-another blood-guilt” (“Growing” 297). Employing a strategy of defamiliarization, Nordan crafts a surreal version of his native Mississippi Delta that “exists on a plane sometimes comic, even burlesque, just askew of the ‘real,’ historical universe” and thus in some ways seems “unearthly” (296). This technique, which various critics and the author himself have aligned with magical realism, seems to be Nordan’s preferred method of gaining a perspective from which to develop his singular style while avoiding tired repetition of “the Quentin thesis” that Kreyling identifies as “learned behavior, style rather than substance” on display in the self-fashioning of a southern historical consciousness shaped by torment and tragedy (105). Nevertheless, as examination of Wolf Whistle in the context of pertinent biographical, historical, and cultural issues reveals, this view of history remains influential, not unlike the legendary hellhound that stalks souls in the Delta blues songs that Nordan mentions frequently in Wolf Whistle and other works. Consequently, Nordan’s attempt to escape the hellhound of Faulknerian blood-guilt on his trail by defamiliarizing Mississippi ironically makes it seem all too familiar. Wolf Whistle winds its fantastical way full-circle in what might be called a traumatized literary form, exposing the dogged—or, better yet, hounded—persistence of the limiting and haunting historical and cultural narratives that the author is compelled to rehearse.
Nordan’s tale of how Wolf Whistle came into being is a useful starting point for tracing the origins of the novel’s formal registering of historical trauma. In “Growing Up White in the South,” Nordan recounts the harrowing experience of appearing as a guest on an Atlanta television talk show and, owing to a twist of fate, discovering that he would soon undertake an even more formidable task: becoming the first white author to translate the murder of Emmett Till into fiction. Nordan recalls answering a question from a woman in the exclusively African American audience about the subject matter of his next book and unexpectedly...