Pat Conroy Essay - Conroy, Pat

Conroy, Pat


Pat Conroy 1945–

American novelist and nonfiction writer.

Conroy is the author of The Water Is Wide (1972), a factual account of his teaching experience with disadvantaged black children, and of two autobiographical novels, The Great Santini (1976) and The Lords of Discipline (1980). The latter novels are strongly influenced by Conroy's Southern upbringing and his close association with military life. All three of Conroy's works have been made into films.

Conroy wrote The Water Is Wide to expose the injustice of his dismissal from his teaching position on Daufuskie Island, off the coast of South Carolina, where he felt he was making significant improvements in the lives of his students despite opposition to his untraditional methods. Although the book is laden with the cynicism which resulted from his clash with school administrators, Conroy also accepts blame for his self-righteous attitude and for losing his chance to oversee the development of young people. It has been suggested that the book is an indictment of those members of Conroy's generation who rigidly followed their ideals at the expense of achieving their goals. The Water Is Wide was the basis for the 1974 film Conrack.

The Great Santini is the story of a Marine fighter pilot and his family and revolves around his relationship with his eldest son. The father, who called himself "The Great Santini" after his war exploits, makes no distinction between military life and family life, and he dominates his wife and children. As in his first book, Conroy wrote The Great Santini partly to purge himself of negative emotions, in this case those concerning his father. Conroy discovered the love between his father and himself which had been overshadowed by hatred since Conroy's childhood. The tension between these two emotions is at the center of The Great Santini.

The Lords of Discipline takes place during a cadet's senior year at a military college. The setting is based on The Citadel, a prestigious Southern military school which Conroy attended. Conroy again explores the power struggles and viciousness which can make military life brutal, even during times of peace. Critics found The Lords of Discipline realistic and effective in its emotional impact.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88 and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)

Anatole Broyard

He's not much of a stylist and his sense of humor needs work, but Pat Conroy has a nice, wry perspective and a wholehearted commitment to his job. It's a hell of a job and "The Water Is Wide" is a hell of a good story….

Why did Pat Conroy want to go to Yamacraw [Island]? Because he was young and ambitious and he loved teaching. Even more important, he was a do-gooder, enveloped in a "roseate, dawn-like and nauseating glow" at the masochistic prospect of accepting a job in which the odds were all against him. A former redneck and self-proclaimed racist, he brought to Yamacraw the supererogatory fervor of the recently converted.

Mr. Conroy's first job was to prove to his pupils that learning could, and should, be fun. His theory of pedagogy held "that the teacher must always maintain an air of insanity, or of eccentricity out of control, if he is to catch and hold the attention of his students." He believed in "teacher dramatics, gross posturings and frenzied excesses to get a rise out of deadhead, thought-killed students…." Two things he did not realize were that his students would take his antics literally and that they could hardly understand a word he said. Nor could he understand them at first, because they spoke a local version of the Gullah dialect.

Mr. Conroy's modesty will not allow him to claim much for his year at Yamacraw, but he did get his pupils to listen to Beethoven and Brahms by alternating them...

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James J. Buckley, Jr.

Although the circumstances of [the teaching assignment portrayed in The Water Is Wide] were atypical, the lessons [Conroy] taught and the lessons he learned should be known by every novice teacher, for they have universal applicability. Of primary importance is Conroy's evaluation of his entire experience. Unlike those who have chronicled their confrontations with the establishment of urban schools, Conroy expresses the realization that he should have tried to fight the system by working through it, for although this method is less flamboyant and demands more than a modicum of perseverance, it allows the children, in whom a reformer professes to believe, to continue to receive his assistance and thus make demonstrable progress. And, after all, isn't the task of meeting the individual needs of each child under less than ideal circumstances the reason why such reformers should be in the teaching field?

With remarkable perceptiveness, the author describes the process of his maturation and that of his pupils, and thereby shows how a teacher may acquire the wings to fly over educational adversities, when "the water is wide."

James J. Buckley, Jr., "Education in Ferment: New Wine, Aging Skins," in America, Vol. 127, No. 7, September 16, 1972, p. 181.

Jim Haskins

"They gave me a boat, told me 'Good Luck,' and that was all they told me," Conroy recalls [in "The Water Is Wide"]. Apparently, however, he had a tape recorder in hand and photographers in tow. Conroy's brief sojourn into the life of Yamacraw Island seems to have been a planned "experience," one from which he was determined to garner a book.

This is not to negate the experiential value of Conroy's travels into the wilds of the Sea Islands, but it is to suggest that as educational literature "The Water Is Wide" offers nothing. Conroy does not provide any of the badly needed alternative suggestions for alleviating or controlling the stifling ignorance that is an ever-present part of the American education scene. Perhaps this was not his intent; if so, his writing style unfortunately belies it….

When Conroy arrived at the little schoolhouse on Yamacraw, the average reading ability of the 17 students in grades five through eight was first grade level. We never really know if Conroy attempted to teach them to read as opposed to remembering information by rote, or if he tried to apply his call-answer technique to the teaching of information more fundamental to their Sea Islands existence.

Conroy's book is worth reading if only for the acknowledgments, which read like the Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina, social register. It is entertaining and very readable as a sympathetic view of the Sea Islands and as the story of a young white Southerner's awakening. It gives interesting insights and observations about the processes of black Southern rural education from a young white Southerner's point of view; but it would seem that while Conroy understood that the water is wide, he did not "keep the river on his right."

Jim Haskins, "Rural Education Sea Islands Style," in The New York Times Book Review, September 24, 1972, p. 10.

James N. Hutchins

In a novel which displays a keen insight into family life on a military base, author Pat Conroy appears to be writing his autobiography. Indeed, the dedication of [The Great Santini] in effect verifies this. As a result, the book is an unadulterated, realistic view of a military family ruled by an authoritarian father who has more faith in the military institution than he has in his own family….

Pat Conroy not only depicts the general course of family life on a military base but also delves into the conflicts that are seemingly endemic to a "lifer's" family. Paramount is the omnipresent father-son conflict between Bull and Ben and its effects on the rest of the family which, at times, reduce the relationship between the members to a state of psychological warfare.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Great Santini is the manner in which Conroy contrasts the social reality of the "outside" with the relative social isolation of the servicemen. Mr. Conroy suggests that one possible reason for family "fall-outs" is that the constant interaction on the part of the rest of the family with non-military affairs, as opposed to the officer who is internalized into and remains part of the military institution, blocks communication.

The Great Santini is a fine, sensitive novel that deserves to be read by all servicemen with families. Those not affiliated with the armed forces would find it enjoyable reading….

James N. Hutchins, in a review of "The Great Santini," in Best Sellers, Vol. 36, No. 6, September, 1976, p. 180.

The Virginia Quarterly Review

The strength of [The Great Santini] … is its realism. The dialogue, anecdotes, and family atmosphere are pure Marine…. At the heart of the book is the search of the 18-year-old son to find himself while learning to understand and love his rigidly authoritarian Marine father, the "great Santini." A good novel and enjoyable reading, though the descriptive writing is somewhat juvenile. As usual, when one reads a first novel so heavily autobiographical, one wonders if the author has exhausted his experiences and if a second novel will be inferior.

A review of "The Great Santini," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Autumn, 1976), p. 134.


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Robert E. Burkholder

Pat Conroy's first novel, The Great Santini (1976), is a curious blend of lurid reality and fantastic comedy, which deals with approximately one year in the life of Ben Meecham and his family. It is primarily a novel of initiation, but central to the concept of Ben's initiation into manhood and to the meaning of the whole novel is the idea that individual myths must be stripped away from Ben and the other major characters before Ben can approach reality with objectivity and maturity. In The Great Santini individual myths seem to consume the characters, functioning as ways of perceiving the world and as cushions against the reality that myths seem to ignore.

The title of the novel...

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Frank Rose

The Lords of Discipline is Conroy's rendering of life in an institution whose mission is the making of men—or rather, the making of men and the breaking, deliberate and absolute, of those boys who fail to measure up.

What Conroy has achieved is twofold; his book is at once a suspense-ridden duel between conflicting ideals of manhood and a paean to brother love that ends in betrayal and death. Out of the shards of broken friendship a blunted triumph emerges, and it is here, when the duel is won, that the reader finally comprehends the terrible price that any form of manhood can exact. Conroy's personal triumph is in conveying all this in a novel that virtually quivers with excitement and...

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Harry Crews

[With "The Lords of Discipline"], Mr. Conroy has found a great subject and has produced a book so superior to his other efforts that it might have been written by a different person. In fact, I read the first 200 pages thinking that this not only was a very good book but also one so memorable and well-executed that it would become the yardstick against which others of its kind would be measured. Alas, the next 300 pages proved this not so.

"The Lords of Discipline" deals with those beautiful, terrible years when a boy struggles toward manhood, when he must try to decide wherein honor lies, when he is faced with making the decision about what he wants and what he is willing to pay to get it. And he...

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