On August 11, 2009, Pat signed a copy of South of Broad: “To Walter and Nela Edgar, For love of words and books and South Carolina.” It was through words that I first came to know Pat Conroy in 1976 when I read The Great Santini. While many readers focus on the dysfunction of the Conroy family, I was intrigued by his lyrical descriptions of the South Carolina lowcountry. The setting was not a mere backdrop—it was a critical piece of the story.
As a historian who studied, wrote, and taught about South Carolina, I was captivated. Conroy’s words grabbed me. Here was a contemporary who truly understood the special, almost mystical, world of the lowcountry. And because he was a contemporary, I thought his work might be useful in my teaching. That led me to The Water Is Wide, which had been published four years earlier. Over the following years, each new Conroy book found a place on my bookshelf.
It was not until Pat found his home back in South Carolina, however, that our paths began to cross. And then he married Cassandra. I had just begun Walter Edgar’s Journal on South Carolina Educational Radio when I received a copy of The Sunday Wife. After reading it I booked her for an interview, and she asked could she bring her husband along to listen in. The conversation the three of us had after taping the show lasted quite a while as she and I touted the beauty of L.A. (Lower Alabama)—especially its sugar-white sandy beaches. Pat countered every one of our comments with one about the lowcountry. That was October 10, 2002. After that date I knew that not only did Pat adore Sandra, but he also was truly in love with South Carolina.
The best way I know how to talk about Pat’s love of the Carolina lowcountry is to let the man speak for himself. “My wound is geography,” he wrote in the opening sentence to Prince of Tides. “It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” Prince of Tides was Pat’s fifth book, but it was fourth in what I would call Conroy’s Lowcountry Chronicles. So let’s start with The Water Is Wide and listen to the rhythm of his words as he captures the spirit and soul of the lowcountry.
Yamacraw is an island off the South Carolina mainland not far from Savannah, Georgia. The island is fringed with the green, undulating marshes of the southern coast; shrimp boats ply the waters around her and fishermen cast their lines along her bountiful shores. Deer cut through her forests in small silent herds. The great southern oaks stand broodingly on her banks. The island and the waters around her teem with life. There is something eternal and indestructible about the tide-eroded shores and the dark, threatening silences of the swamps in the heart of the island.
In the second chronicle, The Great Santini, his focus is on Beaufort—the town he claimed as home and that came to claim him as its adopted son. The setting is early in the novel as Santini drives his family into Beaufort and to their new home.
They had entered a neighborhood of splendid quiet, hushed gardens, and columned houses. The houses were not as spectacular as those that lined River Street, but many of them were older and more tastefully understated. The river had curved around to the boundary of this neighborhood. Four large houses sat at the farthest extremity of this point of land, each of them overlooking the water. Each house was almost hidden by huge oak trees that hovered over them.
The third volume of the Lowcountry Chronicles is The Lords of Discipline. From the prologue:
My approach to Charleston is always silent and distracted, but I come under full sail, with hissing silk and memories a-wing above me in the shapes of the birds I love best: old brown pelicans, great blue herons, cowbirds, falcons lost at sea, ospreys lean from dives, and eagles over schools of mullet. I am a lowcountry boy. My entrance to this marsh-haunted city is always filled with troubled meditations.
I’ve already mentioned the opening lines from Prince of Tides, but I think they bear repeating in context:
My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call. I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing Carolina heat. . . . I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold on my back and shoulders. As a boy, I was happy above the channels, navigating a small boat between the sandbars with their quiet nation of oysters exposed on the brown flats at the low watermark.
Beach Music is the fifth of the chronicles. The story often takes us far from the lowcountry, but the lowcountry is not forgotten. Returning to South Carolina, Jack McCall is driving to “Mepkin Abbey, a small city of prayer hidden deep in a semitropical forest thirty miles from Charleston, South Carolina. Its isolation was intentional.” As McCall nears the monastery he spies a small red fox pup and its mother. “Wildness, I thought, that’s what I’ve missed in Italy, that intimate connection with the inhuman and untamable.”
Shortly thereafter he leaves Waterford for the Isle of Orion.
The next morning I drove out in sweet sunshine, taking the two-lane road through the marshes and forests and over the tidal creeks that gave way to the Atlantic Ocean ahead. A black man was throwing his shrimp net from a bridge at low tide. It webbed out, spinning like a ballerina’s skirt, a flawless circle of hemp, hitting the water and sinking rapidly to the bottom. I imagined its weights sinking to the silty floor, trapping every mullet, shrimp, or crab passing through that circle’s arc, and wondered where my own cast net was, if I still had the patience to fill a beer cooler with shrimp when they were running strong and fast in the spring.
South of Broad, the sixth and final volume of Pat’s Lowcountry Chronicles, ends in Charleston, a Charleston that would be battered by Hurricane Hugo.
I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen. The high tides of the city flood my consciousness each day, subject to the whims and harmonies of full moons rising out of the Atlantic. I grow calm when I . . . hear the bells of St. Michael’s calling cadence in the cicada-filled trees along Meeting Street. Deep in my bones, I knew early that I was one of those incorrigible creatures known as Charlestonians.
And after Hugo, Leo King reminisces about the Charleston of his youth, of his days as a paperboy:
I ride past concealed gardens flush with morning glories, ligustrum, white oleanders, and lavender azaleas galore. The morning birds sing a concerto for me in my swift flight beneath them. The forgotten music of a city awakening comes back to me. . . . It is Charleston. I hear the bells of St. Michael’s ring out on the four corners of the law. It is Charleston, and it is mine. I am lucky enough a man that I can sing hymns of praise to it for the rest of my life.
There you have it—in six wonderful volumes—Pat Conroy’s public confession of his love for the Carolina lowcountry. Now, Pat never grouped these six books together. Nor has any literary critic. That’s my doing, and I am a historian. Historians are as familiar with annals and chronicles as others are with novels. While each one is independent, they are indelibly linked. That’s my historical analysis.
I’d like to close by doing something that literary critics do all the time—regardless of whether they come from the Robert Penn Warren school of traditional critics or from today’s deconstructionists. Literary critics like to put words into the mouths of authors, as in “he/she really meant to say this or that.”
I am going to close with a slight paraphrase from Pat’s sixth lowcountry chronicle, South of Broad, which we might imagine in Pat’s voice: “It is the Carolina lowcountry, and it is mine. I am lucky enough a man that I can sing hymns of praise to it for the rest of my life.” And Pat did, bless him. And we are the lucky ones because he did so.
Portions of this essay were first delivered at a public memorial service on May 14, 2016, at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, Beaufort, South Carolina. The complete essay appears in Our Princes of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt and published by the University of Georgia Press. Copies of Our Prince of Scribes will be available at M. Judson Booksellers & Storytellers later this month.