On Pat Conroy: The Power to Withstand, the Power to Understand

By Turner, Daniel Cross | The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

On Pat Conroy: The Power to Withstand, the Power to Understand


Turner, Daniel Cross, The Mississippi Quarterly


When he first heard there would be a scholarly book dedicated to Pat Conroy's work, lifelong friend Bernie Schein quipped, "Understanding Pat Conroy? What's there to understand? I could write all there is to understand about him in two pages" (Pat Conroy, personal communication with the author, May 8, 2015). Funny, but, one fears, there's some kernel of truth to that. Because Conroy put so much of himself into everything he did. His novels, his memoirs, his adaptations, his interviews, his readings, his book-signings, his letters, his phone calls. Everything, already out there on the page, the screen, the stage, the signing table. How could a serious critic make it beyond Schein's sarcastically proposed two-page limit?

Luckily, Catherine Seltzer's got Conroy's number. Seltzer is also immersed in the multi-year project of penning Conroy's official biography. These kinds of publications are likely to see increase and increased attention with the author's recent passing; the establishing of the annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival in Beaufort, South Carolina, as well as the founding there of the Pat Conroy Literary Center under the directorship of Jonathan Haupt; and the recent donation of his papers to create the Pat Conroy Archive housed in Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina Libraries. Seltzer begins by acknowledging that many of Conroy's readers feel they understand him deeply already: an instant empathy seems to arise from his willingness to write and speak openly about the physical and emotional abuse that he had to withstand, and that he devoted much of his adulthood trying to understand. This immediate yet profound emotional connection in part explains why he remained such an astoundingly popular writer across five decades; so many of his readers, too, had withstood abusive households, violently dysfunctional families, and Pat Conroy helped lead them to a collective working through of their traumas, to come to some form of understanding. Seltzer rightly gives proper due to the remarkable emotive chords Conroy's books have struck with his avid readership--his writings model the power to withstand and the power to understand, psychically (per Seltzer, "Literature, in Conroy's vision, is meant not simply to impress its reader but to transform him or her" [9])--yet fulfills her job, in perspicacious and engaging fashion, by bringing us to a deeper intellectual understanding of Conroy's work, particularly as a writer who records a diversifying region that supersedes a disintegrating traditional South, which is "a dangerous facsimile of its admittedly mythic antecedent" (7).

The Understanding Contemporary American Literature series from the University of South Carolina Press is designed to provide a clear, accessible scholarly overview of the work of a post-World War II US writer. Begun on the watch of Matthew J. Bruccoli, renowned textual scholar and literary executor for F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Dickey, there are many stalwart authors represented, and represented well (for instance, Michael Kreyling on Eudora Welty), but the series can be uneven, with some seemingly odd or lesser known choices. Under the shepherdship of current series editor Linda Wagner-Martin, there have been some fine recent titles--to offer but one timely example, Andy Crank's excellent study of the late Sam Shepard. Seltzer's account of Conroy's career output certainly fits the bill for the series. She constructs an impeccably organized, insightful, and user-friendly (i.e., denuded of the latest-order scholarly shibboleths we academics tend to prize highly) panorama of Conroy's prolific writing career as novelist and memoirist. Yet Seltzer's installment in the series, I suspect, holds the power to do more. Unlike so many scholarly texts, even those ostensibly written for a wider audience with a not-so-terribly-esoteric topic, this one--dare I say it--might sell. …

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