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Pat Conroy is known primarily for his three best-selling novels, The Great Santini (1976), The Lords of Discipline (1980), and The Prince of Tides (1986), all of which were made into big-budget Hollywood films. Conroy’s writing blends fiction, myth, and personal revelation, drawing heavily upon his experiences growing up in a military family in south Carolina. issues of loyalty to family and friends, the male psyche, and the relationship between love and violence are recurrent themes in his popular books.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Youth as a Military Brat
Donald Patrick Conroy was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 26, 1945, the oldest son of seven children. His early years were spent as a military “brat” living short tours in ”some of the more notable swamplands of the East Coast”; he claims to have lived in more than twenty locations before reaching age eighteen. Conroy’s father, Donald Conroy, was a fighter pilot in the Marines, a gruff man whose methods of parental discipline sometimes veered into physical and emotional abuse. Various fictionalized portraits of his parents, and the harsh dynamics of his upbringing, appear in Conroy’s fiction.
The Citadel and ”The Boo”
Conroy spent part of his high school years in Beaufort, South Carolina, adjacent to a Marine base. The beauty of Beaufort’s antebellum mansions and stately trees affected him deeply, and his writing remains highly identified with the South. According to his father’s wishes, Conroy attended The Citadel, South Carolina’s venerable all-male military academy. in the military academy, Conroy recognized the authoritarian attitudes he had witnessed in his father’s behavior. He excelled at the academy, even editing its literary magazine, but he acquired some emotional distance from its rigid codes. His experiences there furnished material for his novel The Lords of Discipline.
Conroy’s most memorable teacher at The Citadel was Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Nugent Courvoisie, Assistant Commandant of Cadets, also known as ”the Boo.” Courvoisie became the subject of The Boo (1970), Conroy’s first novel, a romanticized account of his cadet years.
After graduating from The Citadel in 1967, Conroy taught English at several area high schools. He returned to Beaufort, to the high school from which he had graduated only four years before. in that time, the student body had been integrated, although the faculty was still white. witnessing firsthand the damage caused by racial prejudice, Conroy became determined to help provide equal educational opportunities for black children. in 1969, he accepted a position teaching disadvantaged black children on Daufuskie island off the Carolina coast.
From Teaching to Writing
Conroy was not pre pared for his new students, who were nearly all illiterate. They did not know the name of their country, or that they lived on the Atlantic ocean, although they did know how to skin muskrats and plant okra. Conroy enjoyed his work, but his unorthodox teaching methods, his unwillingness to allow corporal punishment of his students, and battles with school administrators resulted in his dismissal. in his fury, Conroy wrote The Water is Wide (1972), a caustic account of his experiences. The work was adapted for film in 1974 under the title Conrack starring Jon Voight. After this successful publication, Conroy returned to Atlanta and began writing full time.
Although Conroy’s next book, The Great Santini (1976), is a novel, it draws heavily on his family back ground and faithfully renders the dynamics of military family life. ”The Great Santini” is the nickname Bull Meecham, colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, calls himself in his most authoritative roles. Meecham is mostly unable to distinguish his family role from his military role, and he treats his family members like fellow Marines. His eldest son, Ben, a high school basketball player, clearly suffers from his father’s domination. Bull intensely desires for his son to succeed, but his efforts are totally misguided and cause conflict each step of the way.
Colonel Donald Conroy was at first taken aback by his son’s fictional treatment of his family. However, the movie adaptation, with a memorable performance by Robert Duvall as Bull, helped change the colonel’s attitude, and later in life, Donald Conroy took to referring to himself as ”the Great Santini.”
The Lords of Discipline
For his next work, Conroy returned again to the theme of military academies, creating the fictional Carolina Military Institute. In The Lords of Discipline (1980), Conroy explores the power struggles and viciousness often associated with military life. Will McLean, the narrator and a senior cadet, is assigned to protect the Institute’s first black student from hostile, segregationist forces within the student body. To carry out this assignment, Will must confront many of his fellow cadets, and his conflicting impulses between group loyalty and personal integrity are a source of the novel’s dramatic tension. The novel offended many of Conroy’s fellow graduates of The Citadel, although the author claimed he was not basing his depiction solely on his alma mater.
Conroy followed up this major success with his most popular book, The Prince of Tides (1986). It follows Tom Wingo, an unemployed high school English teacher and football coach, on a trip from coastal South Carolina to New York City, where he helps his twin sister Savannah recover from a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt. At the request of Savannah’s psychiatrist, Tom relates the Wingo family’s bizarre history. Despite the horrors the Wingos have suffered, including several rapes, the death of their brother, and a brutish father, the novel retains a sense of optimism due to the love that the Wingo children have for each other. Again, parts of the story were autobiographical: Conroy told the Toronto Globe and Mail, ”Yes, my sister is also a poet in New York who has also had serious breakdowns.” The film adaptation, directed by and starring Barbra Streisand, was a box office hit.
Conroy continued to mine his personal experience in his next work of fiction, Beach Music (1995). With its winding, complicated plot, Beach Music was not as successful as his prior best sellers. His latest autobiographical work, My Losing Season (2002), concerns his years playing college basketball.
Conroy now lives on Fripp Island off the South Carolina coast. The heritage and culture of the Carolinas are an underlying presence in all his fiction. In 1999, Conroy published The Pat Conroy Cookbook, which contains recipes and autobiographical anecdotes.
Works in Literary Context
Conroy cites his mother, Frances ”Peggy” Peek Conroy, as the source of his interest in literature and storytelling. He also had an influential high school English teacher, Eugene Norris. Norris introduced him to Thomas Wolfe’s coming-of-age novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929), and even brought Conroy to visit Wolfe’s childhood home in Asheville, North Carolina. Conroy sought to emulate Wolfe’s lyrical, self-revelatory style.
Most of Conroy’s writings follow the time-tested pattern of the coming-of-age story, or bildungsroman. His heroes are typically young men whose hardships, either in family trauma or struggles with authority, ultimately bring them to emotional maturity, freedom, and self-knowledge. Conroy thus fits into one of the dominant traditions of narrative, including the initiation stories of mythology.
Violence and the Male Ego Conroy has said that his father’s violent and tyrannical nature is the central fact of his life and of his art. Much of his work is concerned with male psychology and machismo. The codes of honor in The Lords of Discipline, for example, reflect the ways young men live with and care for one another in an all male, homophobic environment. Similarly, Bull Meecham tends to express affection for his son in rough fashion. In the climactic scene of The Great Santini, Bull and Ben play an intense game of one-on-one basketball. Ben wins the game (the first time he has ever bested his father in any activity) and Bull responds by bouncing the ball off his son’s head, repeatedly. Bull is in a dangerous rage, but he is also forced to acknowledge that his son is becoming a man. Ben, for his part, cannot bring himself to reject his father entirely. Ambivalent, love-hate relationships such as theirs are pervasive in Conroy’s books.
Works in Critical Context
With a string of strong-selling titles, Conroy is among the most commercially successful contemporary American authors. Although some critics find his fictional works implausible and melodramatic, others admire him as a courageous, imaginative, and ironically humorous writer on sensitive cultural topics. His rhetorical style, befitting a Southern raconteur, can strike critics as alternately lyrical and overblown.
The Great Santini
Some scholars, notably in the South, have taken an interest in the structure of Conroy’s narratives, noting his penchant for coming-of-age stories. In his analysis of The Great Santini, Robert Burkholder identifies myths that ”seem to consume the characters, functioning as ways of perceiving the world and as cushions against the reality that myths seem to ignore.” James Hutchins also notes Conroy’s theme, and concludes, ”The Great Santini is a fine, sensitive novel that deserves to be read by all servicemen with families.” Although critics have been quick to praise the emotional impact of the book and the genuineness of its characters, Conroy’s writing style has been the focus of some complaint. A reviewer in The Virginia Quarterly labeled the writing in The Great Santini ”somewhat juvenile.”
- Burns, Landon C. Pat Conroy: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
- Berendt, John. ”The Conroy Saga,” Vanity Fair. (July 1995).
- Burkolder, Robert E. ”The Uses of Myth in Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini,” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction. 21 (1979): 31-37.
- Hamblin, Robert. ”Sports Imagery in Pat Conroy’s Novels,” Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature.11 (1993): 49-59.
- Hutchins, James N. Review of The Great Santini, Bestsellers, 36:6 (1976): 180.
- Idol, John. ”(Un)Blest Be the Ties that Bind: The Dysfunctional Family in Look Homeward, Angel and The Great Santini,” North Carolina Literary Review. 9 (2000): 142-150.
- Malphrus, P. Ellen. ”The Prince of Tides as Archetypal Hero Quest,” The Southern Literary Journal.39 (Spring 2007).
- Review of The Great Santini, Virginia Quarterly Review. 52:4 (Spring 1976): 134.
- Toolan, David. ”The Unfinished Boy and His Pain: Rescuing the Young Hero with Pat Conroy,” Commonweal. 118 (February 1991): 127-31.
- York, Lamar. ”Pat Conroy’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Southerner,” Southern Literary Journal.19 (1987): 34-46.
- Hamblin, Robert W. ”Pat Conroy.” The New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 9, 2008, from http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org.
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