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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.)
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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...
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him to claim much for his year at Yamacraw, but he did get his pupils to listen to Beethoven and Brahms by alternating them with James Brown. He also opened their minds to an outer world they had never even conceived of. And, most memorable of all, he taught them to trust a white man and to believe that he cared about them.
After his first year, Mr. Conroy "desperately" wanted to return to Yamacraw, but he was fired on the grounds of insubordination, failure to respect the chain of command and lateness when his boat got lost in the fog or buffeted in heavy water. The real reason was never in doubt: He had tried to do too much too soon. If he had been more diplomatic, if he could have conquered his ego, the author says with commendable candor, he might have been allowed to continue.
He refuses to make a villain out of the school superintendent who fired him. Unlike many liberal do-gooders, Mr. Conroy does not see all conservatives, racists, reactionaries or rednecks as one-dimensional monsters. In his eyes, they are as much victims of their history—at least in their thinking—as the black people whose problems they haven't even begun to understand.
Anatole Broyard, "Supererogating Down South," in The New York Times Book Review, July 13, 1972, p. 33.
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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.
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"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.
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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.
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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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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 emphasizes the important role myths play, since "The Great Santini" is the identity Colonel Bull Meecham assumes when he wishes to assert his unquestionable authority as head of his household. The Great Santini, however, is merely one facet of the mythos which controls Bull Meecham's life. Colonel Meecham is a Marine Corps fighter pilot of more than twenty years service at the time of the action of the novel…. He sees the Marine Corps of the early 1960's as a perversion of the traditions he remembers from his early years in the Corps, immediately before and during World War II, but his awareness of change does not keep Bull from adopting his faulty memories as a way of life…. Because Bull is unwilling or unable to change his attitudes at will, he has endangered his relationship with his family; each member of the family recognizes that Bull might react to any family situation, from a backyard game of one-on-one basketball with his son, Ben, to arranging the house on moving day, with the same intensity and violence he would unleash in a dogfight.
That the Old Corps myth serves as both a cover and a crutch for the real Bull Meecham is evident in several revealing scenes. The first intimation that a far more sensitive man than we suspect lies beneath Bull's mask is his reaction to Zell Posey's confession of how he attempted to join the service during World War II. As Posey, who lost his leg as a child in a boating accident, speaks sincerely of his desires, Bull is described as "fidgeting as he always did when someone stripped away an outer layer of himself and revealed something intensely personal," as though he is made uncomfortable at the thought that all men are really two people: the public, mythic self and the real, private man. The nature of the private man who lurks inside the mythic, Old Corps Bull is seen only in glimpses, the most important of which is the revelation of Bull's overpowering fear of death: "Bull himself was obsessed by a carefully concealed fear that he would die in a plane, and he knew that death in flight could assume many shapes."… Clearly, Bull uses the myth of The Great Santini's invulnerability not only to conceal his fear from others but to blunt his realization that death was a real possibility each time he climbed behind the controls of a jet fighter.
Lillian, Bull's wife, also has a protective myth in which to believe when the stress of real situations becomes too great. Born and raised in a Southern Baptist family, Lillian became a convert to Catholicism before marrying Bull. The result of her conversion is a hybrid religion in which she focuses her Baptist zeal on the icons and rituals of Catholicism in much the same way as Bull focuses his energy on the trappings and traditions of the Marine Corps. Perhaps the chief symbol of the true nature of Lillian's variation of Catholicism is her "shrine," composed of a number of Catholic icons—statuettes of the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Michael, a crucifix, and a font of holy water—but placed within it incongruously is a plastic model of an F-8 Crusader. The anachronistic presence of the fighter among Lillian's religious treasures suggests that those treasures, together with her beliefs, serve as the same sort of buffer from fear as Bull's myth of The Great Santini. (pp. 32-3)
Conroy makes clear that one of his novel's most important concerns is Ben's search for something in which to believe. Therefore, Ben "tries on" many beliefs of others and discards most of them because they do not suit him. Ben can, at times, be awed by the power of ritual and tradition related to the Catholic/Marine myth, as when Bull gives him a World-War-II-vintage flight jacket for his birthday…. But Ben is destined never to accept the Catholic/Marine concept of God as "the hellmaker, the firelover, the predatory creator," choosing rather to believe in the baby Jesus of Christmas who "would not send anyone to the flames."… However, Ben ultimately dismisses Catholicism and all formal religion because he cannot reconcile the contradictions of a system which is taught by the alcoholic Father Pinckney and the old shrew, Sister Loretta, with his perception of Catholicism as analogous to sex, in that both are life-giving.
Clearly, much of Ben's search for a private mythology is inextricably caught up in his vision of the ideal father. Just as Ben makes a conscious choice to believe, at least briefly, in God as the infant Jesus rather than God as the wrathful Old Testament Jehovah, he spends much of the novel contrasting all the father figures who happen into his life to Bull, who sees himself as a sort of latter-day Jehovah. From the family's past, we have memories of Major Finch, a better pilot than Bull despite his not having "to drink and brag and kick his kids around."… Vergil Hedgepath, Ben's godfather, also serves to illustrate that a man can command respect without cruelty. Toomer Smalls fulfills the role of surrogate father by teaching Ben all the secrets of Southern boyhood which Bull dismisses as meant only for girls. Finally, Dave Murphy, Coach Spinks, and Mr. Dacus all seem to embody, at one time or another, Ben's vision of the coach as ideal father.
No doubt we are to make a connection between sports and religion or, more properly, to see sports as a religion which not only creates happiness but supplies purpose. For example, basketball is seen more as a moral system than a game…. (pp. 33-4)
Ben's religious commitment, then, through a major part of The Great Santini is to the closed value system of sports, but much of the point of the novel involves Ben's initiation into manhood, during which sports must necessarily be supplanted by a more practical and realistic system of belief. Ben's ultimate realization about the religion of sports is that it is the best system in the world if it remains inviolate. If, however, the real world with all its chaos and misery imposes itself on this artificial "life reduced to a set of rules," then the codified life becomes more chaotic and miserable than the real world, as seen in the horrible lingering death of Coach Dave Murphy in a cancer ward and in Ben's breaking Peanut Abbott's arm during the biggest game of the year. (p. 35)
One of the things we realize about Ben's search for belief through most of the novel is that, despite his claims concerning his differences with Bull, it is completely conditioned by Bull's attitudes: Ben is a Catholic because Bull is, Ben is an athlete because Bull was, and all signs point to the possibility that, if Bull had not died, Ben would have attended a mediocre college, gone to flight school after graduation, and become a Marine pilot just like Bull. While Bull is alive, Ben not only lives in the shadow of the Santini myth but feels a need to compete with the myth. Bull's death changes all Ben's possibilities, as well as his way of viewing the Santini myth. If his search has been shielded by that myth through most of the novel, then we can also see Ben growing away from the protection that following in the shadow of The Great Santini affords. Ben's progression away from dependence upon his father begins long before Bull's death, an event which wrenches Ben from the security of his father's shadow to a more objective perspective.
The first hint we have of Ben's progress beyond Santini is his decision to disobey a direct order to help Toomer Smalls when Ben suspects he is in trouble. Earlier in the novel Ben's strategy for peaceful coexistence was to stay away from Bull and anger him as little as possible, but with friendship and loyalty on the line, Ben risks Bull's wrath, takes his punishment, and explains his action when Bull asks why he has disobeyed an order: "Because you'd have done it. Santini would have done it."… Paradoxically, by acting more like his father, Ben develops the independence of mind which will ultimately free him from Santini. (pp. 35-6)
Clearly, Ben loves his father, but we must not think that Ben has become another version of Bull simply because he, wearing Bull's flight jacket, assumes his father's role for the family's return to Atlanta [after Bull's death]…. His task now is to evaluate his position in what he describes as "a Santiniless world,"… and his objective evaluation of his place in that world is the most convincing evidence for Ben's having reached a new level of maturity and independence…. [To] deny his father's overpowering identity, Ben twice insists: "I am not Santini" …; in the first act of his newly realized freedom, he imagines a different sort of god, composed of the best qualities of all his family and friends. The god, pieced together from experience, has none of Bull's qualities and is the completely benevolent father Ben has searched for throughout the novel. Logically, Ben uses the new god to reinforce his earlier experience of independence—when he loathed his father's drunken brutality, but fought that brutality with love—by using him to translate all the hate he had felt for Santini into love. Such love is the result of Ben's independence and the perspective he has gained as a consequence of his passage into manhood, and his recognition that "the hatred would return" … only reinforces the idea that Ben has reconciled himself to the myth his father projected and, finally, can allow himself his true feelings toward the true Santini.
The story of Ben Meecham's initiation into the world of his fathers, therefore, is essentially a story of the experiences which deflate the protective myths that individuals build around themselves as buffers against day to day chaos and tragedy. In the end, that Ben reconciles himself to his father's death is not so important, because he has learned to use his experience to assess his father in human rather than mythic terms. Ben, with the reader, comes to realize that, tragically, when Bull Meecham goes down in flames, the most hidden, most human parts of him die, while the myth of The Great Santini lives on. (pp. 36-7)
Robert E. Burkholder, "The Uses of Myth in Pat Conroy's 'The Great Santini'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXI, No. 1, 1979, pp. 31-7.
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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 conviction.
The story centers on four senior cadets who have roomed together since their plebe year: Mark Santoro and Dante "Pig" Pignetti, physical specimens of Italian descent from up north; Tradd St. Croix, "the honey prince," effete young aristocrat from the cobwebs of old Charleston; and the narrator, Will McLean, awkward, self-conscious, rebellious, and sharp-tongued, a low-born Irish cracker too sensitive to play Southern military man with much enthusiasm….
The Institute is about to get its first black cadet, and as the year begins the commandant gives Will the unofficial assignment of making sure he gets through his plebe year without being castrated, lynched, or worse…. Soon after the grotesque breaking-in period (known as cadre) gets underway he assumes responsibility for another plebe as well, a fat-faced Carolina boy named Poteete who has the misfortune to be perceived as a crybaby. It is Poteete's spectacular breakdown and almost anticlimactic suicide that set Will on his pursuit of the shadowy brotherhood known as the Ten.
The Ten is a secret mafia whose existence has long been rumored but never proven, a silent and malevolent force dedicated (or so it is said) to maintaining the purity of the Institute—racial purity included. For Will, they become the insubstantial embodiment of all evil, the ultimate perversion of power. But though they provide the impetus that propels the four roommates headlong into disaster, thematically they seem almost superfluous. For The Lords of Discipline is not simply about the abuse of power by a few; it is about the allure power holds for everyone, the weak most of all.
Will's clash with the Ten, though it makes for compelling reading, soon develops the unlikely thrill quotient of a Hardy Boys adventure, but his clash with the idea of discipline is recounted with gravity and passion and style. (p. 11)
Conroy does not neglect the perverse sexuality that the lust for mastery implies: "His lips touched against my ear in a malignant parody of a kiss," Will informs us after he's been anally threatened by a cadre officer's swagger stick during the induction known as Hell Night….
As with the Spartans, however, the ritual violation of boys is not without purpose: Will goes on to cite the birth of "a malignant virility" in the hearts of plebes that night, a virility they would come to use against future boys on this same quadrangle. Conroy's dispute is with this idea of virility. His is a harsh judgment, stunningly rendered. But he does not reject all he has learned, for he is a Southerner and no Southerner can escape his upbringing entirely. A sense of brotherhood is implanted on the quadrangle as well, and it is not coincidental that his narrator's most terrible moments occur at the end, when Will takes on the Ten and the code of brotherhood is betrayed. Love your friends, Conroy warns; they are all that matters.
Will bears an uncommon resemblance to Ben Meecham, the Marine brat and high-school basketball star who bests his father and, in a moment of supreme Oedipal fulfillment, drives off with his mother and siblings in The Great Santini, Conroy's autobiographical first novel. There are times, in fact, when Will's tale sounds less like a work of fiction than like an anguished cry from the heart—except, of course, that it is so tightly bridled, Conroy having learned well the importance of order and mystery and control, those ideas which stand at the center of the military mystique. The problem with Conroy is that he has seen too well, learned too much. "A Southern man is incomplete without a tenure under military rule," Will tells us in the prologue. "I am not an incomplete Southern man. I am simply damaged good, like all the rest of them." (p. 13)
Frank Rose, "The Martial Spirit and the Masculine Mystique," in Book World—The Washington Post, October 19, 1980, pp. 11, 13.
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[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 must, during this dreadfully uncertain time, bear the burden of what his parents want and expect of him, as well as the crushing pressure of his peers. Some fight their way through to their own truth; others bend or break during the ordeal.
Will McLean, the boy at the center of this story, makes the passage to manhood without breaking, but he is left with deep and permanent scars….
In the second section of the book, the story that has been set into motion thus far stops and Will McLean relives his own nightmarish plebe year. This may seem an unlikely way for the novel to proceed, but to my mind it works and is natural and necessary. Here Pat Conroy lays open the barbaric nature of the human heart. Boys set upon other boys like packs of dogs. For the plebes, there is no recourse, no redress. They either bear it or break. Some break, and many who don't become sadists. (p. 12)
The story has more twists than a snake's back. There are reversals inside reversals. Mysteries sprout like mushrooms after a summer rain. The greatest plot reversal comes in the final 10 or so pages. But I was not surprised; I knew who the arch villain was long before he was revealed. Even if I had been surprised, I don't think I would have cared. It's that kind of book.
Simply put, after a very auspicious start, Pat Conroy's creative energies are sidetracked during the course of this book. Ultimately, he is more interested in posing and solving clever puzzles than in developing the character of the human beings inside those puzzles. Consequently, the reader remains unmoved … by the ultimate betrayal that ends the novel. (p. 43)
Harry Crews, "The Passage to Manhood," in The New York Times, December 7, 1980, pp. 12, 43.