A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont [Asheville] over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.
Look Homeward, Angel
Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)
For his first ten years as a writer Pat Conroy, who died last week in his South Carolina home at age 70, admitted that he was so influenced by Thomas Wolfe that the Wolfe estate could have sued him for plagiarism. The novels of both authors are basically autobiographical. Conroy, however, developed a style that reliably included the humor that Wolfe lacked. His last novel, South of Broad, provides an example while also showing the Wolfe influence.
It was the noonday hour, under a man-eating Charleston sun, the air so full of humidity it made me wish for a set of gills behind my earlobes. I walked into the main dining room of the Charleston Yacht Club for the luncheon my mother had ordered me to attend. The yacht club was plush but threadbare and in need of renovation. For me it carried the silent menace of enemy territory as I walked beneath the contemptuous stares of the club’s founders. Their faces scowled down at me, disfigured by the ineptitude of their portraitists. The artists of Charleston make the movers and shakers of the river-shaped city look like they needed both a good dentist and an effective laxative.
Ever since he was a boy, Conroy’s Georgia-born mother told him he was destined to be a writer, but not just any kind of writer. He was to author Southern novels. When he was a child she began the lengthy duty at bedtime of reading aloud to him her favorite example, Gone With the Wind. She bought countless copies, some to give away and others to replace those that fell apart in her hands after repeated readings. “To Southerners like my mother, Gone With the Wind was not just a book; it was an answer, a clenched fist raised to the North, an anthem of defiance.”
But Conroy’s reactions to the novel and to the South were conflicted. He loved them both, but was pained by their flaws. His sentiments were closer to those of former South Carolinian James Petigru who said upon learning of the state’s secession in 1860, “South Carolina is too small to be a republic and too large to be an insane asylum.”
Consequently, after his graduation from The Citadel Conroy took a job in 1969 teaching grades five through eight on South Carolina’s coastal Daufuskie Island near the mouth of the Savannah River. The residents were almost entirely African-American. Due to the island’s isolation they had developed their own culture, termed Gullah, which corrupted certain English pronunciations. Conroy became Conrac. Aside from the owner of the solitary general store, the only other white residents were two California youths on a temporary academic assignment to study Gullah culture. They refused to speak to Conroy because he was a white Southerner.
Conroy quickly learned that despite four to seven years of schooling his students had almost no education. They did not know the names of the country they lived in or the ocean whose waves washed upon their beach. Since few knew how to swim, nearly every island family was touched by a death-by-drowning. Conroy concluded it would be impossible to teach the students by the book. Instead he taught them what he could, including how to swim and play football, in his own way. Consequently, he was fired.
In response he wrote a book about the experience. Titled The Water is Wide, it was his first book that was not self-published. Like Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, it was written while he was still in his twenties. It was even made into the 1974 movie, Conrac, staring Jon Voight when Conroy was not yet thirty. The entire movie is available on YouTube in the link above.
Except for his cookbook, I have read all of Pat’s books. I draw my final thought for him from the last line of Conrac.
May the river be good to you in the crossing.