Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

A Flash of Fire: Pat Conroy, Thomas Wolfe, and Our Three Cents' Worth

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

A Flash of Fire: Pat Conroy, Thomas Wolfe, and Our Three Cents' Worth

Article excerpt

Taps sounded over the barracks. The music of sleep, the music of death....

--Pat Conroy, The Lords of Discipline

In February 2016, while this issue of the Thomas Wolfe Review was in editorial production, Pat Conroy revealed that he had recently been diagnosed with cancer. As shocking as that announcement was to his readers, we were all deeply saddened to hear, less than three weeks later, that he had succumbed to the illness. His death at the age of 70 ended the career of one of the South's most highly acclaimed writers.

Conroy was also a voracious reader and often expressed his love of the work of Thomas Wolfe--especially Look Homeward, Angel. In Conroy's 1995 novel, Beach Music, Jack McCall returns to his childhood home in South Carolina, and in the attic he examines his carefully ordered collection of paperbacks. It was in this room that he had "fallen in love with these books and authors in a way that only lifelong readers know and understand" (308). "Books," he adds, "had the power to alter my view of the world forever." He then recalls his reaction to reading Wolfe for the first time, an experience very much like Conroy's own:

      Taking out Look Homeward, Angel, I read the magnificent first
   page and remembered when I had been a sixteen-year-old boy and
   those same words had set me ablaze with the sheer inhuman beauty of
   the language as a cry for mercy, incantation, and a great river
   roaring through the darkness.

      "Hello, Eugene. Hello, Ben Gant," I said quietly, for I knew
   these characters as well as I knew anyone in the world. Literature
   was where the world made sense for me. (308)

And Conroy rarely missed an opportunity to mention Wolfe in interviews. He told Dale Neal of the Asheville Citizen-Times, "When Wolfe's on and writing well, I don't think there's anyone who can touch him. And for a first novel, 'Look Homeward, Angel' is simply spectacular."

The culmination of Conroy's Wolfean commentary was "A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe," first published in the fall 1999 issue of Southern Cultures. In that remarkable tribute, Conroy writes about Wolfe's first novel: "The book's impact on me was so viscerally powerful that I mark the reading of Look Homeward, Angel as one of the pivotal events of my life.... I never went back to the boy I was before Look Homeward, Angel occupied my sixteen-year-old heart" (7-8). He also discusses Wolfe's influence on his writing. Conroy's effusive, lyrical style can be at least partially credited to (or blamed on, as his critics would argue) his early infatuation with Wolfe's work. After reading Wolfe, writes Conroy, "My course had been set inalterably and my prose was a flood plain for dizzying emanations from the snowy high slopes of a natural-born Wolfean. Elegant concision with language would never be one of my anxieties" (9).

Concerning the critics, Conroy claimed to be less thinskinned than was Wolfe, but he was known to call criticism "the barking of the chihuahuas" (qtd. in Schudel). He always acknowledged his flaws as a writer, and he clearly recognized Wolfe's, but in both cases he viewed critics as a lesser breed. As he says in "A Love Letter," "Critics who do not like Wolfe often despise him, and his very name can induce nausea among some of the best of them. That is all right. They are just critics, and he is Thomas Wolfe" (10). Continuing his dismissal of professional critics, Conroy adds:

   In my wanderings about this country, I have never once visited the
   house where an American critic grew up, but I have visited the
   boyhood home of Thomas Wolfe dozens of times. I have never left a
   flower on the grave of a single critic, but I cannot count the
   number of roses I have left at Wolfe's grave in Asheville. (10)

The closest I ever came to meeting Pat Conroy was when he spoke at the dedication of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Visitor Center in October 1997. …

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