(Donald) Pat(rick) Conroy Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Atlanta, Georgia, 1945. Education: The Citadel, B.A. 1967. Career: High school teacher, Beaufort, South Carolina, 1967-69; elementary schoolteacher, Daufuskie, South Carolina, 1969. Awards: Anisfield-Wolf award (Cleveland Foundation), 1972; National Endowment for the Arts award for achievement in education, 1974; Georgia Governor's award for Arts, 1978; Lillian Smith award for fiction (Southern Regional Council), 1981; inducted into South Carolina Hall of Fame, Academy of Authors, 1988; Thomas Cooper Society Library award (Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina), 1995; South Carolina Governor's award in the Humanities for Distinguished Achievement (South Carolina Humanities Council), 1996; Humanitarian award (Georgia Commission on the Holocaust), 1996; Lotos Medal of Merit in Recognition of Outstanding Literary Achievement, 1996. Agent: IMG-Bach Literary Agency, 22 East 71st Street, New York, New York 10021-4911, U.S.A.
The Boo. Verona, Virginia, McClure Press, 1970.
The Water is Wide. Boston, Houghton, 1972.
The Great Santini. Boston, Houghton, 1976.
The Lords of Discipline. Boston, Houghton, 1980.
The Prince of Tides. Boston, Houghton, 1986.
Beach Music. New York, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1995.
The Prince of Tides, Columbia Pictures, 1991.
Introduction, Even White Boys Get the Blues: Kudzu's First Ten Years by Doug Marlette. New York, Times Books, 1992.
Foreword, Savannah Seasons: Food and Stories from Elizabeth on 37th by Elizabeth Terry with Alexis Terry. New York, Doubleday, 1996.
Preface, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. New York, Scribner, 1996.
Foreword, Entertaining for Dummies by Suzanne Williamson withLinda Smith. Foster City, California, IDG Books Worldwide, 1997.
Introduction, Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth by Thomas Wolfe. New York, Scribner, 1999.
Pat Conroy: A Critical Companion by Landon C. Burns, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1996.
* * *
In a sense, once you've read one Conroy novel, you've read them all, for characters, themes, and setting remain fairly constant, regardless of any given novel's plot. As an ideological son of both William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe, Conroy places his novels squarely in the South. He even writes about the perpetual themes of the Southern artist, such as family conflict, racism, a sense of place, and coming of age. As a result, each novel is like looking at oneself in the mirror only once every few years: the basic features remain the same with only slight variations as time passes.
So where lies the appeal of Pat Conroy? Why do his novels become instant bestsellers? Why do diehard fans return for more, knowing that each novel will be remarkably like the last? Answers to these questions must lie somewhere in Conroy's use of the language and his sense of his native South, both its geographical aspects and its struggles with timeless issues. Even if the story and characters are the same, Conroy entices the reading public every time.
Conroy's first two books were strictly autobiographical in nature. The Boo, a tribute to a respected teacher, was written and published by Conroy while he was still a student at the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, a locale that recurs, both generally and specifically, in many of his novels. His second book, The Water is Wide, is somewhat of an exposé, chronicling his experiences teaching poor, disadvantaged children on Daufuskie Island, off the coast of South Carolina. Conroy began teaching at the height of idealism but realized quickly that fighting "the system" was more difficult than he expected. This personal experience engendered a frequent theme in his novels: seeking the approval of any authority, be it institutional or individual, is a vain pursuit. Instead, one must find intrinsic worth in standing for values held within. Because of his disrespect for the school's administration and his unconventional teaching style, Conroy was fired after only one year. He may have lost his job, but he gained material for more books than just one. He also garnered an award from the National Humanitarian Association for his work on Daufuskie Island.
While The Boo and The Water is Wide are strictly autobiographical, Conroy's subsequent "novels" are more correctly termed "auto-biographical fiction," for characters, places, and even plot often reflect his own life. Conroy's 1976 novel The Great Santini begins a common theme in both Conroy's work and his life: family conflict. Over and over again, we read of the father with a strong military connection, typically a Marine Corps pilot, who is physically and mentally abusive but elicits a mixture of love, loyalty, and fear from his son, who is usually the protagonist of the novel. Bull Meecham, the unchallengeable "Great Santini," is a South Carolina Catholic, like all of Conroy's protagonists, and a Marine fighter pilot of 20-plus years. Ben Meecham, the son, is a young man coming of age—a son in conflict with his father. Though he initially tries to reach the stature of his father, he despises his father's authoritarianism and finally realizes that he is a worthwhile human being, with or without his father's approval. When Ben finally breaks away from his father's tyranny, he does so through a symbolic basketball game in which he becomes the first person to beat his father at anything. In some areas of the South, sports have become almost an institutionalized religion, and Conroy employs this arena as the archetypal battle between good and evil—a microcosm of life itself, full of rules yet pervaded by chaos. In fact, most of Ben's role models and father figures are coaches. After his victory, Ben seems to make a clean break from his father's authority, yet he puts on his father's fighter jacket when his father crashes his plane, seemingly illustrating Conroy's feelings toward his own father. Although Conroy's memories of his father have been overshadowed by ill will, Conroy admits that lurking beneath those negative feelings is a certain degree of affection and respect.
Conroy's 1980 novel The Lords of Discipline contains the same sort of father figure, only in the form of an institution rather than an individual. However, the novel does develop Conroy's archetypal mother with a depth not accomplished in The Great Santini. Similar to the fathers, the mothers in Conroy's novels are reflections of his own mother, whom he once described as "a beautiful Southerner out of Gone With the Wind. " Conroy's mothers are from the "Old South": typically aristocratic women (or women who aspire to social heights) who are refined, educated, lovers of art and literature. In The Lords of Discipline the character Abigail St. Croix epitomizes the Conroy mother, as she teaches Will McLean, the best friend of her son Tradd and the novel's protagonist, "the difference between Hepplewhite and Regency, and between Chippendale and Queen Anne." The family's lineage goes so deeply into South Carolina's history that "a passing knowledge of the Tradd-St. Croix mansion was a liberal education in itself."
The Lords of Discipline is also the stage for new developments in Conroy's repertoire of themes: racism, betrayal, and tradition. Racism is a key issue as Will, a senior at the Carolina Military Institute (Conroy's fictional version of The Citadel), is called upon to protect the school's first black student during the Civil Rights/Vietnam era. The brutality of military life comes not from a father but from the institution itself and the elitism it transfers to its students. CMI is similar to the stereotypical, small, Southern town, with its closeness and sense of tradition and security. This close-knit setting operates much like the Southern barber shop or pool hall, where men gather to find comfort in orthodoxy or plot a lynching, should someone dare violate the customs of the community. This demand for conformity yields The Ten, a hate group on campus that operates much like a lynch mob. Even the stereotypical "crooked sheriff" is present in the character of General Durrell, who at first seems to only ignore the presence of The Ten but, as the reader learns, actually participates in its activities.
Will witnesses a great deal of cruelty at CMI toward any student viewed as different by The Ten, yet he feels a fierce love of the school and its traditions. Not only must he deal with his conflicting feelings toward the school, but he must also face betrayal by Tradd, who is not only a member of city's aristocratic elite but also of The Ten, after his roommates defy the school's code of honor. Through these circumstances, Will confronts the ultimate question: does he remain true to the traditions of the academy or to his personal sense of honor?
Although Conroy's books always take place in Beaufort, Savannah, Charleston or some variety of these cities, the importance of the South as a geographical locale is most obvious in his 1986 novel Prince of Tides. Though Conroy was born in Georgia and moved a great deal due to his father's military career, he bears deep connections to the southeast coast of South Carolina, especially Beaufort, where he graduated from high school. Some of his most lyrical passages are pastoral descriptions that make South Carolina sound like the Garden of Eden. Though Conroy's primary literary influences, Faulkner and Wolfe, rarely varied from their respective Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, and Altamont, North Carolina, Conroy does take his characters to distant places; however, they always make it "home."
In Prince of Tides, Tom Wingo's twin sister, successful but schizophrenic feminist poet Savannah, has moved to New York to escape the oppressions she feels in the South as a woman. Hoping to help Savannah, Tom goes to New York to open their childhoods to her therapist, Susan Lowenstein, and figuratively returns home through many anecdotal flashbacks, which are prime examples of Conroy's lyricism. Through Savannah and Tom's brother Luke, Conroy picks up the "Lost Cause" myth, which originated in the portrayal of Confederate soldiers as noble warriors protecting their beloved homeland from the rapacious, vile North. In this case, Luke sacrifices his life, not fighting off Yankees but battling the Atomic Energy Commission, which planned to build plutonium production plants on their beloved island. Conroy also utilizes the stereotypical "good ol' boy," a phrase actually created by Thomas Wolfe that connotes a blue collar, outdoorsman who is deeply patriotic and unwaveringly honest. Wingo slips into this role as he comfortably teaches a "Yankee" youth to play football and plays the redneck at a party of elite New Yorkers given by Lowenstein, with whom he has an affair.
While Prince of Tides travels the country to some degree, Beach Music travels the world but still keeps South Carolina at the center of its vision. In Beach Music, Jack McCall takes his daughter from South Carolina to Rome after his wife Shyla commits suicide, but he is drawn back to Charleston by the mystery of her death and learns of her parents' roots in the Holocaust that so haunted Shyla's life. McCall's life in Rome takes up a great deal of the narrative, but Nazi Germany becomes as much a real part of the setting as any city because it has pervaded every moment of Shyla's life. As Conroy writes, "The Foxes' house on the Point in Waterford was simply an annex of Bergen-Belsen, a rest stop on the way to the crematoriums."
While Conroy's popularity has never been in question, the critical assessment of his novels has been mixed. Only one book devoted to his work exists. Pat Conroy: A Critical Companion, by Landon C. Burns, contains analyses of all of Conroy's books, plus chapters on biography and genre. Other criticism has been confined to reviews at the release of each book and scattered analyses in critical journals. While Burns's assessments are largely positive, many feel Conroy has "sold out" to Hollywood since all his books, except for
The Boo, have been made into feature films. He has also been criticized for melodrama and sensationalism, and scenes like the tiger attack in Prince of Tides and the trial scene at the end of The Lords of Discipline give some credence to this criticism.
However, few challenge the emotional appeal of his novels, and his popularity remains steadfast. If a reader has experienced a Conroy novel before, he knows the book will be flawed, he knows the book is 500-plus pages, and he knows the characters are, in many ways, the same ones he knew in the last Conroy novel. But in ways, it's like returning to old friends and familiar places, and the lyricism of the prose is more than most readers can resist.