This Day In Writing History
On October 26th, 1945, the famous American novelist Pat Conroy was born in Atlanta, Georgia. The eldest of seven children, he was born Donald Patrick Conroy, Jr., the son of a Marine Corps colonel. Conroy's father was a domineering, emotionally and physically abusive monster who terrorized his children. He would later inspire the main character in his son's first novel.
Pat Conroy's mother, on the other hand, was loving to her children and tried to protect them from their father, who abused her as well. Conroy credits her for his early interest in reading and writing. When he was five years old, she read him Margaret Mitchell's classic novel, Gone With The Wind, (1936) which became his favorite book.
In addition to the abuse Pat and his siblings suffered at the hands of their father, they also had few friends because Colonel Conroy's position required the family to move frequently. He claimed that by the time he turned 18, his father had moved the family 23 times. While living in Orlando, Florida, Pat Conroy channeled his anger at his father into a constructive outlet: he became a star basketball player. His fifth grade basketball team defeated the sixth grade team that year.
As a college student, Pat Conroy attended the Citadel, a famous military college in South Carolina. He would later base two of his most popular novels on his experiences at the Citadel. After graduation, he became an English teacher and met and married Barbara Jones, a young widow who lost her husband to the Vietnam War, and adopted her children.
Conroy changed teaching positions, accepting an offer to teach in a one-room-schoolhouse in a remote location - Dafuskie Island, South Carolina. At the end of his first year as a teacher on the island, Conroy was fired for refusing to administer corporal punishment to his students and disrespecting the school's administrators.
Pat Conroy's first book, The Boo was published in 1970. It was a non-fiction work - a collection of letters, stories, and anecdotes about Lt. Colonel Thomas "The Boo" Courvoise, who had been Conroy's Commandant of Cadets at the Citadel. Courvoise was a close friend and father figure to his cadets, including Conroy.
In 1974, Conroy would publish his second non-fiction book, The Water is Wide, a memoir of his year as a teacher on Dafuskie Island, which is renamed Yamacraw Island. The book made Conroy's name as a writer. In the year of its publication, it won him a humanitarian award from the National Education Association and was adapted as an acclaimed feature film called Conrack (Most of Conroy's students called him Conrack) starring Jon Voight in the title role. It would be remade as a TV movie in 2006.
Though he had started out writing non-fiction, Pat Conroy soon began work on his first novel, which would be published in 1976. It would establish him as one of America's best and most popular novelists. The Great Santini was based on Conroy's horrific childhood. It told the story of Ben Meecham, a boy coming of age as he and his siblings struggle to deal with their monstrously abusive father, tyrannical Marine Corps fighter pilot Lt. Colonel Wilbur "Bull" Meecham, who calls himself The Great Santini.
The novel would become a bestseller, earning Conroy rave reviews and the wrath of his family, who accused him of betraying them by writing about his father. Some of Conroy's mother's relatives actually picketed his book signings and encouraged people not to buy his novel. The familial stress contributed to the failure of Conroy's marriage.
Ironically, the novel helped Pat Conroy finally reconcile with his father, who was so troubled by his depiction in The Great Santini that he was moved to change his ways. After reconciling with his son, Conroy's father would often sign copies of The Great Santini as "Donald Conroy - The Great Santini. I hope you enjoy my son's work of fiction!" The book would be adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1979, starring Robert Duvall in the title role.
Pat Conroy's next novel, published in 1980, was based on his years as a student at the Citadel in the 1960s. The Lords of Discipline told the story of Will McLean, a young Irish-Catholic cadet at the Citadel (renamed the South Carolina Military Institute) who finds himself pitted against the college's powerful and and ruthless secret society, The Ten.
The Ten are the ones who really determine if a cadet will graduate from the Institute. They put the cadets through a horrific hazing designed to run undesirables out of the college. These undesirables include the Irish-Catholic Will and the college's first black cadet, whom the Commandant of Cadets, Colonel "Bear" Berrineau, has asked Will to mentor. When Will discovers the existence of The Ten and who they are, his and his roommates' lives are endangered.
The Lords of Discipline was adapted in 1983 as an acclaimed feature film starring David Keith as Will McLean. When the novel was published, it started a twenty-year rift between Pat Conroy and his former classmates at the Citadel, who were angered by Conroy's less than flattering depiction of campus life. In 2000, Conroy was awarded an honorary degree by the Citadel and asked to give the commencement address. When he gave the address, he defended his novel, saying that as a proud graduate of the Citadel, he had every right to depict the negative aspects of life as a Citadel cadet in the 1960s.
In 1986, Pat Conroy published what many consider to be his greatest and most popular novel, The Prince of Tides. Once again using his experience as abused child from a dysfunctional family, Conroy tells another gut wrenching, emotional story. Former star football player Tom Wingo goes to New York City to help his sister, Savannah, a published poet who has once again attempted suicide and suffers from severe depression in addition to the schizophrenia that has plagued her since early childhood.
Tom meets with Dr. Susan Lowenstein, Savannah's psychiatrist, who hopes to gain insight to Savannah's childhood from her brother. Tom tells Dr. Lowenstein stories of his and Savannah's childhood growing up in a dysfunctional family. They and their brother Luke were the children of a savagely abusive ex-soldier father and a cold, unloving mother. As Tom tells his tales, Lowenstein suspects that there is something he's hiding, a huge childhood trauma that he is suppressing.
As Lowenstein tries to get him to open up to her, the married Tom finds himself falling in love with her. He finally reveals the secret he's been burdened with since he was a young boy - the brutal sexual attack on Savannah, himself, and their mother by a trio of escaped convicts. They were saved by Luke, who unleashed the family's pet tiger on two of the men, while Tom killed the third. The family buried the bodies and the children's mother made them promise never to tell a soul what happened.
Alas, Luke grew up to become a disturbed Vietnam veteran (an ex-Navy SEAL) who waged guerrilla warfare against the local authorities when his land was seized to build a nuclear power plant. Tom and Savannah had tracked Luke down and talked him into surrendering. Unfortunately, on his way to turn himself in, he was shot and killed. The death of Luke - Savannah's brother and hero - is what pushed her over the edge.
The Prince of Tides would be adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1991, starring Nick Nolte as Tom Wingo, Melida Dillon as Savannah, Kate Nelligan as their mother, and Barbra Streisand (who also directed) as Dr. Lowenstein.
Pat Conroy followed The Prince of Tides with more great books, including novels and memoirs. His latest book, My Reading Life, a non-fiction work that pays tribute to the books and the "book people" who have influenced him, was published in November of 2010. He lives on Fripp Island, South Carolina, with his third wife, novelist Cassandra King.
Quote Of The Day
"My mother, Southern to the bone, once told me all Southern literature can be summed up in these words: 'On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to sister'.” - Pat Conroy
Today's video features Pat Conroy discussing his most recent novel, South of Broad, which was published in 2009. Enjoy!