Donald Patrick Conroy was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the eldest of seven children. His father, Donald Conroy, was a marine pilot and expected Donald Patrick to become a fighter pilot. When Conroy enrolled in a typing class in high school, his father demanded he take physics instead because pilots did not need to know how to type. Conroy’s mother, Francis Dorothy Conroy, groomed him to become a southern gentleman. She envisioned him as Ashley Wilkes, a character from her favorite novel, Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell. Instead, he would become a popular southern writer of autobiographical novels. He has said that “one of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family,” and he attributes his success to this very gift: “I could not have been born into a better one.”
A pivotal event in Conroy’s career as a writer occurred when his high school teacher Eugene Norris gave him a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel (1929) for his birthday. Norris also accompanied Conroy to Wolfe’s home in Asheville, North Carolina. Norris picked an apple, which Conroy ate, and spoke of the connection between life and art. Thomas Wolfe would become Conroy’s greatest literary influence, and his own life would become the source of all of his writing.
Because of his father’s insistence, Conroy attended the Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, on a basketball scholarship. Though unhappy with the school’s manner of discipline, he stayed there to avoid disappointing his father, who was physically and emotionally abusive. The Boo and The Lords of Discipline are both based on his experience there. After completing a B.A. in English, he returned to Beaufort High School, from which he had graduated four years earlier, to teach English and write fiction in his spare time.
He then moved to Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, to teach disadvantaged black children. Some of these children did not even know the letters of the alphabet, and some thought that the earth was the center of the universe. An adept storyteller, Conroy used oral lessons instead of the provided texts, which he knew would be of little value to his illiterate students. After being fired for deviating from the curriculum, he turned his experience into a book, The Water Is Wide, which was later produced as a film titled Conrack, starring Jon Voight. The book received the Anisfield-Wolf Award for its contribution to race relations. Conroy also received a National Endowment for the Arts award for achievement in education in 1974. When asked what he would do if he were not a writer, he said he would be a teacher.
Much of Conroy’s fiction is based on his own family experiences and seems to create as much turmoil in his life as it narrates. While working on The Great Santini, a novel about his childhood relationship with his father, he attempted suicide. After the novel was published his parents divorced, and his mother handed the judge a copy of The Great Santini as evidence against her abusive husband. Conroy’s own marriage, to Barbara Bolling, with whom he had a daughter, Megan, dissolved as well. The Prince of Tides caused friction between Conroy and his sister, Carol Conroy, who did not appreciate her portrayal as a suicidal poet. The novel also further alienated Conroy’s father from his children. While writing Beach Music, Conroy suffered a deep depression and confronted a drinking problem. He had written a scene in which a character commits suicide, but when his schizophrenic brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping from a building, Conroy omitted the scene from the novel. Another character in Beach Music is based on Susannah, the daughter of Conroy and his second wife, Lenore Gurewitz, whom he divorced in 1995. Conroy admitted that he himself was a distant father, always off writing, and hoped that the novel would help heal a rift...
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