Today in Literary History – October 26, 1945 – birth of Pat Conroy

The writer Pat Conroy (four of whose novels were turned into successful Hollywood movies) was born on October 26, 1945, in Atlanta, Georgia.

His father, Colonel Donald Conroy, was a Marine Corps fighter pilot and the family moved from base to base frequently in Conroy’s youth. He attended 11 schools in 12 years. His father was physically and psychologically abusive to his wife and children and Conroy’s childhood was deeply troubled.

conroy2_3593167eHe based one of his most popular novels The Great Santini on his father. It went on to become a film starring Robert Duvall. Years after his father’s death Conroy wrote a memoir The Death of Santini that showed his father to have been even more sadistic than in the novel.

Conroy graduated from the military college in Charleston, South Carolina, known as The Citadel. That experience led to the novel (also turned into a film) The Lords of Discipline about cadet life and the memoir My Losing Season about his career as a college basketball player for The Citadel team.

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He also drew on his own life for the novel The Water is Wide about his year teaching black children on a Gulf Coast island. The children spoke only the Gullah language and had no concept of life off of the island. Conroy’s unconventional teaching methods got him fired. The novel became the movie Conrack starring John Voight.

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His biggest success was the novel The Prince of Tides about an unemployed teacher who goes to New York to help his poet sister who has attempted suicide. It too was made into a movie, starring Nick Nolte and Barbara Streisand.

Conroy’s use of his own life and those of his family members in his novels caused a great deal of tension. His mother and her relatives were angered by his airing of family secrets and his sister (a poet who had attempted suicide) felt betrayed by him.

I’ve read a lot of Conroy’s books. I especially enjoyed The Water is Wide and The Great Santini. His books are heartfelt and full of genuine sympathy but they also tend to be a bit blustery and melodramatic.

Conroy never pretended to be writing great literature, he always said that after all he was just a Southern good ole boy storyteller. He died on March 4th of last year from pancreatic cancer.

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