Remembering Pat Conroy, the King of Lowcountry Writers

He will be missed.

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Yesterday, the celebrated South Carolina writer Pat Conroy passed away after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. Noted for his ornate style of writing and his willingness to plumb the tragedies of his own life, Conroy fashioned a successful literary career that spawned a genre unto itself, a type of neo-Southern literature with Charleston and the Lowcountry as its setting and muse. As a result, Conroy and Charleston became inseparable, even though the relationship between the two were strained at times. 

A graduate of The Citadel, Conroy wrote in his typical thinly veiled autobiographical yet melodramatic style about his time at the school in The Lords of Discipline, a best-seller that was both applauded and derided here in the Holy City. But Conroy was not dismayed, returning to write about Charleston in his final novel South of Broad and the latter memoir The Death of Santini.

Once again, a Conroy confessional was greeted with bouquets and brickbats, but mostly bouquets, fitting considering Conroy's painstakingly crafted flowery prose. Given these mixed feelings, it's a marvel that Conroy decided to stay in the Lowcountry, mostly in Beaufort, his home, but he frequented Charleston — and wrote about it so much — he was considered a local, routinely winning the Best of Charleston award for Best Local Author in the City Paper.

While writers and critics often focus on Conroy's purple prose — and that is meant as a compliment because he did it so well — and how his own life inspired his best works, most notably The Great Santini, which transformed his father into one of modern literature's most complex and intimidating characters, few talk about Conroy's fearlessness. Simply put, Pat Conroy wasn't afraid to challenge authority and the Charleston status quo, he wasn't afraid to face his demons, he wasn't afraid to reveal his scars to the entire world. 

In his latter years, Conroy became the preeminent prosthelytizer of Lowcountry literature. In fact, few books in the genre didn't feature a blurb from him, and in that way, Conroy became something of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for these beachiest of beach reads. If you wanted prose that smelled of pluff mud and ebbed and flowed with the rhythm of the tides, all you had to do was look for Pat Conroy's endorsement.

But as successful as Conroy was — his works sold millions and his books were regularly adapted into big screen features — it appears that the Beaufort author had difficulty in his life finding happiness. As he wrote on his website back in October, "It has agitated me that I find myself approaching my 70th birthday and have discovered within myself a capacity for joy I never once felt any capacity for having. To write it down strikes a chord of sappiness in me. But in my career, if I discovered something rising out of me I took it as a point of honor to write it down. I’ve found myself studying my past of late, and though there has been a theme of discordance and tragedy in my work and life, I’ve been a supremely lucky man. But a happy one? This is a river without markers or navigational charts for me.”

Although cancer took Conroy's life so quickly, it is good to know that after all of these years, he had finally found that one thing that eluded him his entire life, an inner joy.

Godspeed, Pat Conroy. You will be missed.


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