Contemporary southern author Pat Conroy wrote a number of highly popular books, including The Water Is Wide, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides, and Beach Music. Conroy also achieved considerable success as a screenwriter. He was the author or coauthor of several Hollywood and television scripts, most notably the film adaptations of his own novels, the Prince of Tides and Beach Music.
Early Life and Career
Donald Patrick Conroy was born in Atlanta on October 26, 1945, the eldest of seven children of Donald Conroy, a career U.S. Marine Corps pilot from Chicago, and Frances “Peggy” Peek Conroy, described by her son as “a north-Georgia beauty full of love and beauty.” Conroy credited his mother for instilling in him a love of language and literature.
Another early literary influence on Conroy was Eugene Norris, a high school English teacher who gave Conroy a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and also drove the young student to Asheville, North Carolina, to visit Wolfe’s home. From that time on Wolfe served as the literary model for Conroy. Like Wolfe’s, Conroy’s fiction is characterized by a lyrical, emotionally charged prose, a heavy reliance on personal and family experiences, and a strong sense of place.
A “military brat,” Conroy moved with his family numerous times during his childhood and youth—by his count twenty-three times before he turned fifteen. During his last two years of high school, however, the family settled in Beaufort, South Carolina, the town and state that figure so prominently in the settings of his novels. Nevertheless the constant moves, along with the abusive behavior of his father, produced a degree of uncertainty and insecurity in the young boy that undoubtedly contributed to the search for acceptance and belonging that is a dominant theme in his fiction.
At the encouragement (even insistence) of his father, after high school Conroy enrolled in the Citadel, the military school located in Charleston, South Carolina. There he enjoyed considerable success both academically and athletically (he was a starting guard on the school’s basketball team), but he also developed a strong ambivalence toward the school’s rigid code of military discipline and harassment. Seeing the domineering and abusive actions of his father now repeated at an institutional level, Conroy developed a heightened awareness and concern for individuality and personal freedom.
The Citadel experience also led Conroy to his first serious writing attempt. Three years after his graduation, while working as a schoolteacher in Beaufort, Conroy decided to record his fond recollections of the assistant commandant of cadets, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Nugent Courvoisie, in a volume entitled The Boo (1970). Conroy published that amateurish effort at his own expense. Although today copies of the first printing bring high prices on the collectors’ market, the author himself has called it “a book without a single strength.” He inscribed one copy to an English teacher with the note, “Teach them not to write like this.” Still, The Boo helped Conroy discover that writing was to be both his passion and his vocation.
Beginning with the publication of The Water Is Wide in 1972, Conroy produced a succession of critically acclaimed works, many of which have been adapted into popular and commercially successful motion pictures. In 1999 Conroy was presented with the inaugural Stanley W. Lindberg Award (named for Georgia Review editor Stanley Lindberg) for significant contributions to the literary heritage of Georgia. He was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2005. These literary and film successes, however, were not always accompanied by personal happiness. His life was marked by conflicts with his parents and siblings, as well as by two divorces.
In 2013 Conroy became the editor at large for Story River Books, a University of South Carolina Press imprint that publishes high-quality fiction with South Carolinian ties. Story River Books published Mary Hood’s A Clear View of the Southern Sky: Stories (which won the Townsend Prize for Fiction in 2016) and Seam Busters: A Novella, as well as Pam Durban’s Soon: Stories.
Conroy and his third wife, Cassandra King, also a writer, maintained residences in South Carolina and San Francisco. He died of pancreatic cancer on March 4, 2016, at the age of seventy.
In his memoir The Water Is Wide Conroy draws upon his sad and comical experiences as an elementary teacher of underprivileged Black children on Daufuskie Island, just off the South Carolina coast. He dramatizes the conflict between a young, idealistic teacher and a cumbersome, outmoded, and racist educational system on this isolated island. In 1974 the book was successfully adapted as the Twentieth Century Fox film Conrack, starring Jon Voight. It received further adaptation as the musical play Conrack, first produced at New York’s AMAS Repertory Theater in 1987.
Conroy’s first novel, The Great Santini (1976), depicts a chaotic household ruled by the egotistical and despotic Bull Meecham, a highly decorated Marine fighter pilot known to his family and others as “the Great Santini.” A mixture of harsh realism and outlandish comedy, the novel traces the growing resentment and rebellion of Ben, the teenage son who both hates and loves his abusive father. Judged to be too confessional by members of the Conroy family, The Great Santini led to a protracted estrangement between Conroy and his father—an estrangement that did not end until Robert Duvall’s portrayal of Bull Meecham in the 1979 film version of the novel made Colonel Conroy into a national celebrity.
Will McLean, the protagonist of The Lords of Discipline (1980), is a student cadet at a military institution much like the Citadel. In Conroy’s prefatory note it is identified more generally as “the military school as it has evolved in America.” A staunch individualist like other Conroy heroes, McLean finds himself in fierce opposition to “The Ten,” a conspiratorial group of fellow cadets appointed to enforce and perpetuate the institute’s policy of intimidation, prejudice, and harassment. The novel won the Lillian Smith Book Award (named for Georgia writer Lillian Smith and administered by the Southern Regional Council, University of Georgia Libraries, DeKalb Public Library / Georgia Center for the Book, and Piedmont College) in 1981.
In what is generally considered his most artistic novel, The Prince of Tides (1986), Conroy places the midlife crisis of Tom Wingo, an unemployed teacher/coach who is estranged from his wife, within the larger story of the dysfunctional but heroic Wingo family that must cope with the death of a beloved brother, the violent rape of both Tom and his mother, and the nervous breakdown and attempted suicide of Tom’s twin sister, Savannah. The 1991 movie version of The Prince of Tides, produced and directed by Barbra Streisand and featuring Nick Nolte and Streisand in the leading roles, was a tremendous financial and critical success. It was nominated for several Academy Awards, including one for Conroy as screenwriter.
Beach Music (1995) is based in part on the breakup of Conroy’s first marriage. The novel presents the struggle of middle-aged Jack McCall in coping with the suicide of his wife, the schizophrenia of his brother, and the impending death of his mother. Interwoven into this personal drama, making it representative of a wider historical and cultural tragedy, are the devastating legacies of the Holocaust and the Vietnam War. While continuing to demonstrate Conroy’s masterful skills in storytelling and characterization, this book, unlike his previous ones, fails to pull the various subplots into a satisfying whole.
Conroy’s second work of nonfiction, My Losing Season (2002), focuses on his senior year at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, and the basketball season of 1966-67, in which he and his college teammates lost 13 of 21 games played. Inspired by renewed acquaintances with several members of that team, Conroy came to realize that the experience had been as important to them as it had been to him. Conroy draws on aspects of his youth laid out in his earlier work, most notably his strained relationship with his father.
Fourteen years after the publication of Beach Music, Conroy released his final novel, South of Broad (2009), which chronicles the loves and tragedies experienced by a circle of friends in Charleston between 1969 and 1989. He followed this in 2010 with My Reading Life, a tribute to his mother and to the many writers who influenced Conroy’s own writing.
A third memoir, The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son (2013), explores Conroy’s changing relationship to his father in the wake of The Great Santini.
Pat Conroy’s novels are essentially “coming of age” or “initiation” stories in which the male protagonists undergo long and perilous quests in search of maturity and wholeness. His heroes are survivors who have been horribly wounded, both physically and psychologically, by various types of victimization—abusive fathers, overly possessive mothers, violent criminals, bungling bureaucrats, corrupt institutions, oppressive social mores, psychic disorders. The conflicts typically revolve around issues of gender, race, personal identity, and freedom. Male-dominated institutions (such as the military and sports) and prejudicial social codes (such as those in the American South or Nazi Germany) insist on clear lines between sexes and races and on an unswerving loyalty to established authority and the status quo.
Hence Conroy’s heroes are also rebels. Their ultimate goal, never fully realized, is expressed by Will McLean toward the end of The Lords of Discipline: “I wanted to live life passionately, in luxurious free form, without squads, without uniforms or ranks. Freedom was the only thing I had ever known, and it was time to walk with abandon, immune from the battalions, answerable only to myself. I would make my own way now, conscious of my singularity, proud of it.”
Because one of the major obstacles to the achievement of individual freedom is the traditional definition of masculinity, Conroy’s males must frequently depend upon females (loving mothers, sympathetic sisters, understanding lovers) as saviors who assist the males in discovering and developing the feminine side of their personalities.