Guest Commentary
Thomas Doyle
Class of 2018

This past Friday, the world of American literature lost one of its finest authors. Pat Conroy, who passed away at the age of 70 due to rapidly progressing pancreatic cancer, had made a career out of turning his own personal experiences into literary works of art. His novels, many of which were packed with tales of severe trauma and heartache, were treasured by millions of readers around the globe, and often made their way onto The New York Times bestsellers lists.

Conroy was born into a troubled family. The son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot, Conroy spent the majority of his childhood moving around the United States as his father was reassigned from base to base. The pain and suffering that Conroy and his family endured as a result of his father’s physical and emotional abuse yielded most of the material for one of his most successful novels. With The Great Santini, published in 1976, Conroy was able to turn the bitter love-hate relationship that he had with his father into a literary masterpiece that has brought countless readers along on his emotional journey through adolescence. While his father’s career may have created an agonizing childhood, it did have at least one positive impact on Conroy’s life. It gave him the unforgettable setting for each of his novels; a home in the American South.

When Conroy was in high school, after having moved over a dozen times, his family settled in the city of Beaufort, South Carolina; in a sense, Conroy never left. In novel after novel, Conroy took his readers from wherever they were enjoying his books, and transported them into the South Carolina Lowcountry. Through his brilliant portrait-like descriptions of the landscapes and his beautiful portrayals of the local characters of Beaufort, Conroy made countless readers fall in love with the southern city that had become his adopted home. While his novels brilliantly captured the undeniable beauty of the Lowcountry, Conroy never failed to address the scars that lay hidden beneath the surface. In his novels, Conroy exposed readers to the racial bigotry and division that had tainted the beauty of the place he cherished. His memoir The Water is Wide, published in 1972, showed readers how local governments had allowed inexcusable gaps in the level of funding between black and white populated school districts to develop, and it fully illustrated the disastrous levels of illiteracy that developed as a result. Events in The Great Santini illustrated how the peaceful serenity of a small coastal town can instantly be broken by the tragedy of racial hatred and violence. Many of Conroy’s characters sought to end this racial division, and while some succeeded in bringing change, others were unable to take down the institutionalized racism of the day. By intertwining the undeniable beauty of the land and a the kindness of a majority of its inhabitants with the horrors of racial divide, Conroy’s novels provided readers with some of the most accurate and widely acclaimed portrayals of the American South ever put into writing.

Not only were Conroy’s novels well respected and cherished by critics and readers alike, they also captured the attention of Hollywood. The 1979 film adaptation of The Great Santini provided a career defining role for actor Robert Duvall. Duvall received an academy award nomination for his portrayal of Conroy’s father, the abrasive and feared Lt. Colonel “Bull” Meechum. In total, four of Conroy’s novels made their way onto the big screen, including 1974’s Conrack, which featured CUA alumnus Jon Voight in the lead role, and 1991’s Prince of Tides, which starred legendary actors Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand. The film adaptation of The Lords of Discipline, depicting Conroy’s time as a student at The Citadel, South Carolina’s Military College, also saw moderate success on the big screen.

As readers, we can mourn the loss of a great writer, but at the same time, we must be forever grateful that his works will remain. This week, as you find yourself enjoying the beauty of CUA and Washington in the springtime, set aside some time and pick up a copy of one of Conroy’s novels. You will truly understand how lucky we are to have had a man like Pat Conroy writing in this world.

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