Authors: Conrad Richter

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Sea of Grass, 1936

The Trees, 1940

Tacey Cromwell, 1942

The Free Man, 1943

The Fields, 1946

Always Young and Fair, 1947

The Town, 1950

The Light in the Forest, 1953

The Lady, 1957

The Waters of Kronos, 1960

A Simple Honorable Man, 1962

The Grandfathers, 1964

The Awakening Land, 1966 (includes The Trees, The Fields, and The Town)

A Country of Strangers, 1966

The Aristocrat, 1968

Short Fiction:

Brothers of No Kin, and Other Stories, 1924

Early Americana, and Other Stories, 1936

The Rawhide Knot, and Other Stories, 1978

Nonfiction:

Human Vibrations, 1926

Principles in Bio-Physics, 1927

The Mountain on the Desert, 1955

A Philosophical Journey, 1955

Biography

A specialist in early Americana, Conrad Michael Richter (RIHK-tur) was born on October 13, 1890, in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, a town that his great-grandfather, a major in the War of 1812 and a local storekeeper, helped to name. His father was a minister, as were his grandfather, a great-uncle, and an uncle. Richter, however, remarked that his interest in the American past derived from still earlier ancestors who were soldiers, country squires, traders, and farmers. During his boyhood, as his father moved from ministry to ministry, Richter became familiar with sections of Pennsylvania where old habits of living and speech still survived, and these early impressions are reflected in his books. In those days it was expected that he would study for the ministry, but at fifteen he finished high school and went to work driving a wagon over the mountains of central Pennsylvania.{$I[AN]9810001437}{$I[A]Richter, Conrad}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Richter, Conrad}{$I[tim]1890;Richter, Conrad}

Conrad Richter

(Library of Congress)

A variety of jobs followed–work in a machine shop, in a coal breaker, on a farm, reporting for Johnstown and Pittsburgh papers. At nineteen, he was editor of a country weekly; later, he worked for two years as a private secretary in Cleveland. After a brief mining venture in the Coeur d’Alenes in Idaho, he returned to Pennsylvania to set up a small publishing business of his own. During the next decade, his writing was divided between magazine fiction and several nonfiction books of scientific-philosophical theorizing such as Human Vibrations and Principles in Bio-Physics. Brothers of No Kin, a collection of short stories, was published in 1924. He married Harvena M. Achenbach in 1915. The Richters had one daughter, Harvena, a poet and short-story writer.

In 1928 Conrad Richter sold his business and moved his family to New Mexico. Interested from childhood in stories of pioneer days, he found in the American Southwest a region not long removed from the everyday realities of the frontier experience. Out of the files of old newspapers, diaries, letters, land deeds, account books, and from tales heard at first hand from older settlers in the Southwest, he filled his notebooks with material that eventually became the short stories collected in Early Americana. Chronologically and technically, these stories make a good introduction to the whole body of his fiction because they reveal the working of a specialized point of view. In Richter’s fiction, the rigors and dangers of the frontier do not enlarge upon life for pictorial or dramatic effect; they are its actual substance. If the present intrudes briefly on the past, as it does in several of the stories, it is only because the lives of his characters extend into modern times. In these stories, the reader may trace the development of a narrative method. It is not the simple pastness of the past that is important but the effect gained by a useful frame of reference.

In The Sea of Grass, his first novel, the story of the passing of the great ranges is told long after the events have taken place by an observer who has reflected on the meaning of deeds of betrayal and violence viewed years before. On a domestic level, the account of Colonel Jim Brewton and his cattle empire, of the wife who deserted him for a self-seeking politician, and of their outlaw son parallels a picture of the spacious land ravaged by conflict and greed. The same mold of reminiscence shapes Tacey Cromwell, in which the vividly realized atmosphere of an Arizona mining town in its boom days is the background for the story of a dance-hall fancy woman, her gambler lover and his young half-brother, and the miner’s orphan whom she adopts. Her attempts at respectability fail when the children are taken from her by the town’s prim housewives and her lover deserts her to make a proper marriage. Tacey’s story is moving but never sentimentalized, realistically presented by a boy innocent of the social implications but candidly observant of the results. Always Young and Fair, also told by an observer, presents a small-town heiress who after the death of her lover in the Spanish-American War renounces the world as represented by the Pennsylvania community in which she lives. In his other, more objective, novels, Richter has limited his story to the point of view and the idiom of his period. The Free Man tells of Henry Dellicker, an indentured servant who runs away from his Philadelphia master and as Henry Free makes a new life for himself among freedom-loving Pennsylvania German settlers. The Light in the Forest deals with a white boy reclaimed from his Indian captors. His efforts to return to the forest life and his friendship with a young Indian uncover deeper meanings, the Emersonian idea that for everything given in human society something fundamental is taken away. The Lady marks a return to Richter’s earlier method; this story of events surrounding an unsolved disappearance in the New Mexico Territory is told by a youthful observer and participant.

Richter’s major work is the trilogy made up of The Trees, The Fields, and The Town, novels tracing the history of a pioneer family in the Ohio Valley from the wilderness years of the eighteenth century to the Civil War period. The trilogy follows the life of Sayward Luckett from girlhood in the woods to matriarchal old age in the town of Americus, Ohio. The story begins with a picture of the hardship and waste that frontier life imposed on those who subdued the land and ends with its characters involved in the political, social, and moral problems of modern society. These books are wholly in the American grain; on a deeper level than that of action and character, they touch upon matters complex and still obscure in the national consciousness: the restlessness, the violence, the communal guilt and shame, the inner loneliness, the secret fears. That Richter sees in his writing undertones of symbolism and myth is indicated by The Mountain on the Desert, a book written to extend the themes of his novels and to define his vitalistic philosophy. This deeper texture makes the past a necessary condition of his work, not to create a painted backdrop for appropriate action, as in most historical novels, but to effect a dimension that gives spatial depth to his perspective of meaning. Despite the fact that he won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1951 for The Town and the National Book Award for fiction in 1960 for The Waters of Kronos, Richter did not achieve widespread recognition during his long career. He preferred living in rural Pennsylvania and in the isolated mountains of New Mexico, and he did not call attention to his work. Yet Richter is a historical novelist of the first rank. He re-creates the past, not as a historian would but rather by reproducing the frontier experience through fidelity to details and local expression. Several of his novels have been adapted for motion pictures and television.

BibliographyBarnes, Robert J. Conrad Richter. Austin, Tex.: Steck-Vaughn, 1968. A short and limited approach to Richter the writer. Opens with a brief biography and then follows with a survey of his fiction which used the Southwest as a setting–nine short stories out of seventy and three of his thirteen novels.Edwards, Clifford D. Conrad Richter’s Ohio Trilogy. Paris: Mouton, 1970. A good in-depth examination of Richter’s Ohio Trilogy–The Trees, The Fields, and The Town–with a detailed analysis of the writer’s philosophical and psychological themes.Gaston, Edwin W., Jr. Conrad Richter. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. An excellent introduction to Richter, the man and the writer, and his work. Gaston scrutinizes Richter’s life and philosophy as they resonate in all of his writings. Includes comprehensive notes, references, a bibliography, and an index.Johnson, David R. Conrad Richter: A Writer’s Life. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. A biography of the novelist, aided by Johnson’s access to Richter’s private papers.LaHood, Marvin J. Conrad Richter’s America. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton, 1975. LaHood writes an appreciative, if not critical, summary of Richter’s literary work. He avoids a chronological approach, devoting separate chapters to discussions of thematic subject matter.
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