Stop-Time, 1967 (autobiography)
Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On: Observations Then and Now, 2002
Body and Soul, 1993
The Eleventh Draft: Craft and the Writing Life from Iowa, 1999
The Iowa Award: The Best Stories, 1991-2000, 2001
Though Frank Conroy is most admired for his first book, Stop-Time, a virtually flawless autobiography, he has also written notable fiction. In addition, he has influenced the course of literature as a public servant, as a teacher, and as director of the most prestigious writing program in the United States.
Frank Conroy was born in New York City and grew up in backwoods Florida and in Manhattan. His childhood was miserable. His abusive father spent much of his life in mental institutions and died young. The terror which he inspired in his son is dramatized in the story “Midair,” in which a young boy is suspended from a fifth-floor window by his insane father, who has escaped from the institution where he is confined. Conroy’s mother was distant, his stepfather feckless. The family moved frequently. In Stop-Time, the author describes his weekends at a state hospital, where his mother and stepfather were working, and his days in the Florida woods, where he moved in with dogs, only to be driven off when they became feral.
Conroy was saved from the fate of his sister, who eventually had a nervous breakdown, by his two abiding passions, books and jazz. His intellectual interests enabled him to score highly on college entrance examinations. As a result, he was accepted into Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
As John Haegert points out, one of the recurrent themes in Conroy’s works, as well as in his life, is that of new beginnings. It is ironic that, even if he derived nothing else from his unhappy childhood, Conroy had at least learned how to survive by starting fresh. On a trip to England when he was eighteen, Conroy first became truly conscious of the primary importance of art–a new beginning. So, too, was Haverford; after graduation, when he married Patty Monroe Ferguson and moved to New York City, Conroy again ventured fearlessly into a new life.
In Manhattan, Patty introduced her new husband into the select society of which she was a part. Years before his first book appeared, Conroy became a familiar figure in literary and journalistic circles. He was awarded grants, one from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1960 and another from the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities in 1968, the year after the publication of Stop-Time. Conroy’s future seemed assured.
However, although Stop-Time was highly praised by critics, it sold only seven thousand copies. As the decade ended, Conroy looked at his life and did not like what he saw. He still had not produced a novel, and he had neither job nor money. Although he was devoted to his two sons, his marriage to their mother ended in divorce in 1970. Conroy was unhappy, and he was drinking too much.
In 1971, Conroy surprised the New York literary establishment by moving to Nantucket, Massachusetts. It was said in Manhattan that he had become a recluse or gone mad. In fact, the move simply marked the new beginning he needed. Conroy eventually married Margaret Davidson Lee. He also built a house, played piano in a jazz quintet, and discovered a passion for teaching. Meanwhile, his articles and short stories were regularly appearing in national magazines.
The decade of the 1980’s was marked by personal happiness–highlighted by the birth of a son–as well as professional success. From 1981 to 1987, Conroy served as director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. In 1985, Midair appeared, a collection of stories written over the previous decade and a half. Although critics did not rank it as highly as Stop-Time, it was well reviewed.
When he was appointed director of the prestigious University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Conroy reached the pinnacle of his academic career. However, he was still determined to write a novel. The result was Body and Soul. It is a historical novel, depicting the 1940’s and 1950’s as a period of the Holocaust, McCarthyism, urban renewal, and interracial liaisons; the book is also deeply personal. In its story of a talented individual, deprived in childhood of his parents’ love, who penetrates Manhattan society but finds real meaning only in his success as a concert pianist, one can see a variation on Conroy’s autobiography. In this book, there is none of the bitterness of Stop-Time; the tone of Body and Soul is so upbeat as to cause some to term it romantic. However, the author insists that his model was the realistic nineteenth century novelist Charles Dickens, whose ghost, he said, looked over his shoulder as he wrote.
Unfortunately, many readers were disappointed in the novel, for which they had waited so long, and which had been introduced with considerable fanfare. They compared it to Stop-Time and found it wanting. Though Conroy is clearly one of the most influential writers of his period, in part because of his work at the University of Iowa, it seems likely that he will be remembered for his autobiography rather than his fiction, which, though impressive, is not so obviously a work of genius.