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Bloomsday Novels 2009 (American): ‘South of Broad’ by Pat Conroy

One of the novels written about by Philip Harvey for his paper (‘A Hundred Bloomsdays Flower : How Writers Have Remade Joyce’s Feast Day’) on Bloomsday in Melbourne, 16th of June 2023 and read at the annual seminar upstairs at the Imperial Hotel, corner Bourke and Spring Streets in Melbourne, on Sunday the 18th of June. Email correspondence with Frances Devlin Glass (FDG) informed some of the discussion here. Some of her remarks are included in the paper.


The story of ‘South of Broad’ by Pat Conroy opens on 16th of June 1969 in Charleston, South Carolina. It is the day the narrator, Leopold Bloom King, learns that his brother, Stephen Dedalus King, has inexplicably committed suicide. The reasons for this act are one of the dramatic threads that keep a tight hold on the reader for the next 20 years and 600 plus pages. Here is Leo, Leopold Bloom King’s apologia for his childhood:

 Of all the elements of my childhood that rang a false note, I was the only kid in the American South whose mother had received a doctorate by writing a perfectly unreadable dissertation on the religious symbolism in James Joyce’s equally unreadable ‘Ulysses’, which I considered the worst book ever written by anyone. June 16 was the endless day when Leopold Bloom makes his nervous Nellie way, stopping at bars and consorting with whores and then returning home to his horny wife, Molly, who has a final soliloquy that goes on for what seemed like six thousand pages when my mother force-fed me the book in tenth grade. Joyce-nuts like my mother consider June 16 to be a consecrated mythical day in the Gregorian calendar. She bristled with uncontrollable fury when I threw the book out the window after I had finished it following an agonizing six months of unpleasurable reading.

(Conroy 342-352 ebook)

 Leo is resentful. His exaggerations command rhetorical attention. He is sensitive and messed up. He has no time for his namesake, has a deep resistance to learning, and his learned mother. It comes as no surprise on this evidence that public celebrations of Bloomsday are not evident high profile in Charleston and certainly were not in 1969. Nothing of that sort is described in ‘South of Broad’. Instead, Leo’s mother, Lindsey, carries her belief in ‘Ulysses’ like a one-person crusade in a society that focusses on sport, the star system, and an inerrant faith in the greatness of Charleston’s respectable colonial American past. South of Broad Street is that part of the old city first settled by planters on the peninsula in the 17th century. The city is named for King Charles II and you will be reminded of this from time to time.

 The novel is a family saga in which Bloomsday serves as the origin day of all the tragedies that befall the family. Leo’s mother is an ex-nun. She wrote her Joyce thesis when she was still Sister Norberta in the convent. The 16th of June was the day she entered the convent, also the day each year when her future husband, the admirable Jasper, brought gifts to the community of sisters, pretext for seeing Norberta, his future wife.

 FDG writes: “The choice of names for the boys, Stephen and Leo, is also revealing. Stephen, the eternal youth, vulnerable, susceptible; and Leo who has learnt (from his father, not a Joycean borrowing) how to be available, embrace ethnic difference. Leo has a thwarted love affair, a brief fling, with Molly who is sexually forward, but teaches him sexuality/dance/music. The mother self-consciously raises Leo as a feminist - a ‘womanly man’. Leo’s father is not unlike Bloom in being very accepting of emotional extremes.”

 Lindsey’s, i.e. Sister Norberta’s, thesis is about Catholic symbolism in ‘Ulysses’ and, indeed, the Catholic Church is a target of Pat Conroy’s social analysis, together with other deeply unresolved areas of conflict in Charleston society, which include racism, feminism, gender relations, the AIDS crisis, money and class, Southern snobbery and exclusion, and the thin veneer of celebrity culture. Curiously, almost everyone seems to know what the book Ulysses is, because it’s one of those things right thinking people know about. Few people have read it right through, or know what’s in it.  

 Like characters we have already met, Bloomsday is for Lindsey a private devotion, a hallowed day that cannot be properly shared with those around her. Her dedication is religious, such that she is often found reading her worn-out copy for some new revelation as though it were a book of hours. The planning around the launch of her collected essays on Joyce is delicate, we are led to understand, because such literary exoticism is a specialist preserve of ladies societies; no one else is there to help.

 Like Joyce, Conroy sets out to celebrate a city. Like Joyce with Dublin, Conroy’s love of Charleston is mixed with a more than honest presentation of its negative and self-absorbed aspects.

 FDG comments: “[The book is] a deep immersion in and love song to Charleston, not avoiding its grunginess, especially its racial exclusivity.  Leo is destined to write about it (see Prologue); it’s gifted to him, his patrimony.  The earth of Charleston is Leo’s idea of God. Cf Dublin for Joyce where he says he ‘can sing hymns of praise to it for the rest of my life.’” 

 We see this negative and self-absorbed interest in Charleston played out in the lives of Lindsey’s sons, with a mixture of pleasure and grief, such that one phrase of Conroy’s directs us close to the mood of the whole novel; we find ourselves in “the spectral garden of James Joyce.” (Conroy 2162) It is a spectre originating in Bloomsday itself.

 FDG again: “At the end, one is reminded of the scene in Ithaca in the garden: ‘We have been touched by the fury of storms and the wrath of an angry, implacable God. But that is what it means to be human, born to nakedness and tenderness and nightmare in the eggshell fragility of mortality and flesh. The immensity of the Milky Way settles over the city, and the earthworms rule beneath the teeming gardens in their eyeless world.’  But this may be accidental. I like the earthworms, but it’s not a patch of heaventree.”

 When her husband dies, Lindsey returns to live out her last years in the same convent she had left some decades before.

 FDG observes: “Leo’s father is easily fashioned and manipulated by a persuasive wife. Hints of Molly?  Back to nunnery after his death. She’s a bit destructive; the father is the healer, enabler, source of wisdom but quite self-effacing. There’s a bit more celibacy than one would expect from pulp fiction.”





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