Published in Issue #5 | Summer 2016
by F. Rutledge Hammes
It might rightly be said that a man is remembered by the fingerprints he leaves on the landscape of the world, and in that (and perhaps only in that), a man becomes legend. So too has much-loved author Pat Conroy recently passed into legend, but not so much because his life was the stuff of it, more that the example he set reads like a cartographer’s legend for any man who finds himself in search of True North… or rather, True South.
Maybe his grandson said it best, in suggesting that a man dies not one but two deaths: once when he yields up the body, and the second time when people no longer find cause to say aloud his name. His grandson was speaking, of course, to the indelible mark his grandfather left on the canon of not just Southern liter - ature, but the whole of American literature as well. Ask anyone in the know, and they will surely mention the rightful claim Conroy holds on the long and storied bloodline of Lowcountry authors like William Gilmore Simms, DuBose Heyward, Flannery O’Connor and the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for both poetry and fiction, James Dickey.
As for me, however, the legacy Pat Conroy left to the world will forever and always be tied up in the reason he asked me to write down my name. It was a few years back, and I, being the ever-ambitious and categorically young writer that I was at the time, jumped at his invitation to join him at a book-sign - ing in Charleston. I felt, at first, naked and aghast just being there. His larger-than-life reputation had preceded him, and I remember how impressive it was that he took the time to talk to everyone who approached the table as well as how honestly he seemed to care about all of his readers. The line, as I remember it, wrapped an entire city block, and yet he attended mindfully every single in - scription he signed. He paused only once, early that morning, and slid me a slip of paper, and I like to think he said something in the way of, “Rutledge, sign this for me, won’t you? It’ll be good practice for when you find yourself in my seat, the hot seat, or,” he thought, “for when the prosecutor’s got you by the balls and it’s high time you fess up and sign the confession.” I, of course, did as he asked, and before parting ways a few hours later, he asked me to see it. His scowl was a momentary scowl then he sort of chuckled to himself, before teaching me one thing I’ll never forget. Looking at the slip of paper I had just handed him and shaking his head, he told me why this signature just wouldn’t do. He said, “When your readers come out and brave the elements to see you, you owe it to them to leave them with something they can remember you by. Your readers are the only reason you are here, the reason you write. Never forget that, Rutledge, okay?” And that alone told me all I ever needed to know about the man he was, about the broth - erhood he felt for the people of the Lowcountry.
Only later would I learn that this was a lesson that he had learned, as a young writer himself, from the state’s first poet laureate, Ar - chibald Rutledge, who just so happened to be a relative of mine. And discovering this made what he taught me that day all the more memorable. To me, it was as if he had conjured the voice of my ancestors and, bridging the long and expansive continuum of time and space, had somehow gifted me with their words.
Surely, this was not the first time he had done this for someone, though it sure felt like it to me. That was the thing about Pat Conroy: he had a way of making you feel special, no matter who you were. And that alone made him a rarity in this world so full of celebrity platitudes, where maintaining a cold, aloof distance from the adoring public was far too common. I’d imagine what I was privy to, that day, was the near supernatural ability he’d always had for speaking the language of our common inheritance, the communal wisdom of the land and the uncanny humor that came in civilizing the tears. It is, after all, why the people of the Lowcountry came to love him so. He was more a medium in this way, his books: a séance for resurrecting ghosts, the ethereal inbetweenness of what, like Spanish moss, still hangs from our skies, washes up on our shores and branches out from our oaky arbors. He himself had become the truth of our land, spoken in tongues. His words: the past called up suddenly in the prescient now, like a kind of Second Coming coming again to remind us always of what we need the most, all the lessons history has yet to teach us, though we would’ve known instinctually, were it not for how readily certain things get caught up in the throat of the marsh, like the esophageal happenstance of a river impeded, once again, in its march outto sea. Because, in the end, he, like a brother, did more than spoke to us; he spoke for us, and he signed his name to every word so that we all could read it.
He spoke volumes too with the life he led, and that is how he has come to define, at least for me, the quintessential Lowcountry man. He was strong, for one, strong enough to survive the brutality of his own father and the transient childhood as a military brat. He saw his way through the Citadel, a military college, and graduated, only to then go and work his hands callous, trawling the seas under the glaring eye of a Carolina sun. When he drank, he drank hard, and when he smoked, he smoked as if he were exorcizing demons. He was drawn to the river, same as he was drawn to stories, the stories in books same as the stories in men, until he had fashioned a storied life all his own. He was a man, a man who could measure up to most any man. He was a man’s man and a man who always looked out for others, like it was his sacred duty, which is why he began his career in education, teaching poor black children on Daufuskie Island, and later took a second job just to afford his students the chance to see our nation’s capitol with their own two eyes. And when it was all said and done, the life he led was larger than life, seeing as he himself was large and yet always aware of his own smallness. That made him a king. That made him a servant. That made him the Prince of Tides.
And men like that only die once, or so his grandson would argue. Men like that, his grandson would say, suffer only the death of their bodies, but so long as someone somewhere is still speaking his name, men like that never die. And I, for one, say he’s right. I say, if Pat Conroy’s legacy should teach us anything, it’s to live our lives, like he did, so that we only die once, or as his favorite James Dickey poem “For the Last Wolverine” puts it: “Lord, let me die but not die out."