Lowcountry remembers Pat Conroy
The following is Pat Conroy’s forward to the book of essays, “State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love,” Volume 1, edited by Aïda Rogers and published by The University of South Carolina Press in 2013.
South Carolina is a state of constant surprise and ceaseless story. When I arrived in state in 1961, I learned to fully expect the unconventional, the unusual, and always the great surprising thing. There was an albino porpoise swimming in the Harbor River the first time I drove out to visit the glorious beach on Hunting Island. When I filled up with a tank of gas in Columbia, I became eligible for a free car wash and given a handful of chicken necks to feed to a live Bengal tiger who attracted many customers, especially the children of South Carolina. An eighteen-foot alligator washed up dead on Fripp Island, and I once saw hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs mating during a full moon out on Land’s End in the Broad River.
In the spring our rivers fill up with migrating fish moving into fresh-water rivers and creeks to lay their eggs according to the primal urges of heredity. The shad surrender egg sacs that gourmet restaurants prize as one of the great delicacies of the sea, and huge cobia provide steaks for the grills of lowcountry people. Men and women throw their cast-nets with gestures of infinite beauty, and they can fill their freezers with shrimp for a half season on a good night. The osprey dive for mullet in golf-course lagoons and chase bald eagles away from their nests.
Nature is everywhere in South Carolina and there is no escape from it or any reason to do so. There are herds of whitetail deer roaming the forests and swamps throughout the state and 600-pound feral hogs are endangering farmland around the Edisto. There are sharks that can kill you swimming in Charleston Harbor and water moccasins that can kill you in the blackwater creeks along the Ashepoo. The oysters of the May River are as delicious as the Belons sold in Paris restaurants, and the rainbow trout pulled up by fly fishermen on the Chattooga are as pretty as tarot cards.
Then there are the people of South Carolina. As a novelist, I felt as lucky to have come to South Carolina as a fifteen-year-old boy as any writer that ever lived. I couldn’t be happier or more grateful if I’d been born on the family estate of Leo Tolstoy, Yasnaya Polyana. This green, river-shaped state abounds with stories that are full of raw humor and startling intimacy. There are tellers of tall tales who can dominate a room with their mastery of the form. When I met Alex Sanders, the former appellate chief judge and president of the College of Charleston, he delivered a cornucopia of magical, perfectly wrought stories that I’ve purloined for my own novels in the last forty years. At Beaufort High School, I met the madcap, over-caffeinated Bernie Schein, who would keep me in stitches for the rest of my life.
Ernest Hollings elbowed me out of the way in a whirlpool at the Citadel and said, “Get out of my way, cadet. Your Governor needs to soak his leg.” He entertained me with bizarre, but vivid stories of politics in my new state. Strom Thurmond sat beside my brother Jim on the statehouse steps when Jim was in college. At first the Senator was quiet, then looked at Jim and said, “Son, eating asparagus always makes your urine stink.”
The subject of food is a serious one the length and breadth of this state. Our barbeque sauce is mustard-based and our peanuts are boiled and served in wet paper bags. An oyster roast in sight of a lowcountry river is an act of priest-like enjoyment and cause for a pagan-like joy. At a Charleston hospital during my Citadel years, I met a leper who told me he contracted leprosy when he killed and ate an armadillo. I’ve no idea if he was telling the truth or not, but I didn’t wish to shake his hand and armadillo meat shall never pass my lips – but that’s the kind of thing that turns up when you’re moseying around South Carolina and you don’t mind talking to strangers.
The habits of the natives are catchable and permanent. The Clemson-Carolina game is a Eucharistic, God-haunted event that is treated as a moveable feast in the South Carolina calendar year. I’ve been to several of these primitive, Cro-Magnon events where animals were slaughtered by the thousands and the smell of meat sizzling on charcoal grills outside of huge amphitheaters causes orgasmic excitement all over the state. By accident, I stumbled into this realm of controversy. When I wrote The Prince of Tides, I knew I wanted to include a Clemson-Carolina game in which my protagonist, Tom Wingo, would run back a punt and a kickoff to win the game for Clemson. I thought Tommy Wingo, the son of a shrimper, would be likelier to attend Clemson on a football scholarship than to attend the tonier University of South Carolina. Such language could get one killed in this state.
My taciturn and grouchy brothers all checked in with me after my father betrayed me by letting on that I’d granted Clemson a victory in my newest book. Mike, Jim, Tim, and Tom had all attended USC and were fierce in their uncommon devotion to their alma mater and their utter contempt for Clemson. They threatened never to buy the book, read the book, recommend the book, or have it brought into their homes, because they had such a traitor for a brother.
In an act of complete literary cowardice, I went back to the offending chapter and every time I said “Clemson,” I wrote down “South Carolina,” and then reversed the process until my brothers’ school won the annual contest gone awry. I had pacified my brothers, but never appeased them. Our family had changed forever when we moved to Beaufort so many years ago. It’s an easy state to love and a hard one to leave.
But, on occasion, South Carolina can rise up and steal your soul with a moment so magical it seems like an exorcism. It has happened to me dozens of times since I’ve taken up residence here.
The sight of the sun setting in all its gold-rimmed majesty over a great salt marsh in Beaufort County is as restorative as a shot of sour-mash bourbon. The shaded streets south of Broad in Charleston can bring even Europeans to their knees. The gardens of Middleton Plantation in the springtime make you ache with pleasure. Pawleys Island is the most delightful, wondrous place in South Carolina and I envy any child who gets to grow up there.
Several years ago Albert Oliphant, a 1971 graduate of the Citadel, invited me to go up to Bamberg, where his family owned a plantation with hundreds of acres bordering the Edisto River. Each year he put on a weekend outing for twenty cadets and his son at the plantation. The cadets hunted deer all day, and we sat around an outside fire at night. My curiosity concerned Albert’s great-grandfather, the very famous South Carolina novelist William Gilmore Simms, who must have been the most prolific writer in the history of our state. I had read his novel about the Yemassee Indians for a history class I took at the Citadel. He also chronicled the role of South Carolina during the American Revolution and his career was long, but disappointing to him. When Albert asked me to walk with him to a small, unprepossessing building fifty yards from the big house, we could hear the cadets firing at deer from the deer stands located at intervals around the plantation. Albert held the door for me and I walked into a single room, modestly furnished with a desk and chair.
“Pat, this is the writing room where my ancestor William Gilmore Simms did most of his work,” Albert said, then he added, “The last writer to be in this room that we know of occurred in 1839 when Edgar Allan Poe visited my great-grandfather when he stayed at this plantation.”
There it is again – what you get over and over if you surrender yourself to South Carolina – that great surprising thing. This grand book is simply one more example of it. State of the Heart reminds us of what is best about South Carolina and her many gifted writers, the monumental power of this place to shape our memories into stories and then our stories into art.