My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen. …Though Charleston feels a seersuckered, tuxedoed view of itself, it approves of restraint far more than vainglory.
So writes Pat Conroy, son of the South and the 2003 recipient of the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest honor, in his latest love letter to Charleston, South Carolina, South of Broad (2009).
Throughout his literary career (nine books and four feature-film adaptations so far), Conroy has been anything but restrained. The Water Is Wide (1972) exposed the small minds of adults in a backward, backwater education system; The Great Santini (1976) exposed his own abusive father and trying path to manhood; and The Lords of Discipline (1980) exposed, well, the brutal and arbitrary caste system of his alma mater, the quasi-military college the Citadel.
But Conroy also has been anything but vainglorious. His work has cost him two marriages and various family ties, yet now, at 64, in his first novel in 14 years, he’s looking homeward again — without anger. “The heart and soul of my Charleston is an unlikely place, the Citadel,” says Conroy. “I discovered and explored Charleston by going there.”
To be sure, Charleston figures in to all of Conroy’s early work, but it was 1986’s The Prince of Tides that put the author and Charleston firmly on the literary map and brought low country, barrier islands, marshlands, rivers, harbors, and water — lots of water — into the literary lexicon.
With South of Broad, Conroy turns inland to focus his love and to lament on the historical city built on a peninsula three miles long and half a mile wide, positioned exactly at sea level. This is Pat Conroy’s Charleston.