Highlights of a Life
Conrad Richter was born October 13, 1890 in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, to John Absalom, a Lutheran minister, and Charlotte Esther (Henry) Richter. While he was growing up his family moved frequently from one tiny Pennsylvania coal mining town to another. Because of the family’s tight finances, Richter ended his formal schooling when he graduated from high school at the age of fifteen.
For the next four years Richter took a series of jobs: driving teams, working on farms, cutting timber, selling subscription magazines door-to-door, serving as a bank teller, and clerking. At age nineteen he became editor of a weekly newspaper in Pennsylvania called the Patton Courier. There he discovered an affinity for journalism, so he left Patton for reporting jobs in Johnstown and then in Pittsburgh. Edwin W. Gaston, Jr., wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Of his early jobs, reporting and editing most affected [Richter’s] writing. As it had for Hemingway, journalism taught Richter concision of expression.”
At age twenty, Richter secured a job as private secretary to a wealthy Cleveland family, whom he would serve for fourteen years. This work provided him travel, and time to write on his own. One of his first short stories, “Brothers of No Kin,” was published in Forum magazine and then reprinted several times.
The secretary job also provided Conrad Richter with enough free time to meet, and in 1915 to marry, Harvena M. Achenbach. The couple would have a daughter, whom they also named Harvena. In 1924, Richter began his writing career in earnest, despite fears that he would never be able to support his wife and daughter on a writer’s salary. That year he published a collection of short fiction, Brothers of No Kin and Other Stories.
A Voice of His Own
As the son of a minister, Richter was interested in philosophy. He had an unscientific view of human energy which he explained in two works, Human Vibration (published in 1925) and Principles in Bio-Physics (published in 1927). Edwin W. Gaston, Jr., in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, wrote that these books and 1955’s The Mountain on the Desert, “hold that man functions in response to bodily cellular vibrations which are regulated by the availability of physical and psychical energy… If the energy is plentiful, man is in harmony with life… On the other hand, if energy is low, man is out of sorts with life… To satisfy his energy hunger, man must engage in intense activity. Activity causes the strong cells in one’s body to overflow, revitalizing the weak cells.”
Richter found a venue to explore this philosophy in 1928, when his wife’s ill health led the family from Pennsylvania to Albuquerque, New Mexico. The rugged American Southwest provided a new and hospitable home for the burgeoning writer. He immersed himself in the folklore and history of the area, reading old newspapers and scrapbooks, and interviewing the oldest residents. In The Old Northwest, Dawn Wilson writes:
Richter was so intrigued by the land and its settlers that he set out to portray in his fiction the courage and strength of the people, and the causes of the early settlers’ enormous strength—causes which his own philosophy, by coincidence, so aptly explained. At last Richter had found the ideal topic for his fiction… in themselves both instances and examples of Richter’s energy theories.
Richter’s 1936 publication Early Americana and Other Stories is a collection of Southwestern tales which began to appear in magazines early in 1934. The Sea of Grass, published in 1937, brought Richter national recognition. The novel chronicles the nineteenth-century conflict between the free-ranging Western ranchers and the “nesters” who settled, fenced, and farmed.
The Return to Ohio
The Southwest wasn’t the only place where white pioneers battled nature, nor was it the only setting for Richter’s novels. From Albuquerque he wrote to Mrs. Bernice Williams Foley, director of the Ohioana Association in 1967:
One day our neighbor across the Forest Service road brought me… his copies of Howe’s Historical Collection of Ohio to read… His name was W.T. Boyd and he hailed originally from a farm near Ironton… The two volumes were heavy, well used, more than nineteen hundred pages in all. I opened them with misgivings but found them packed with some of the most fascinating, authentic, and often firsthand accounts of pioneer life that I had ever read. For weeks I took notes but could not begin to set down a tenth of what interested me… Already the design of the Ohio trilogy had begun to take shape in my mind…
The Trees, book one of the Ohio Trilogy, was published in 1937. The novel begins the story of Sayward Luckett Wheeler, a pioneer woman, as she observes and participates in the gradual conquering of the gloomy and dangerous Ohio wilderness with farming communities and then a thriving town. Most of the work comes from folklore; Richter examined daily activities, superstitions, social mores, and special ceremonies and his characters spoke a dialect that disappeared long ago. Said Newsweek magazine April 24, 1950:
Richter believes that the spoken language of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was different from the formal written language of the period. From letters, manuscripts, and the testimony of witnesses in court records, he has re-created that spoken language, which he finds still lingers in parts of the South and Southwest. The language gradually becomes more genteel as the country becomes more settled, and more flowery, though it still retains the flower of its backwoods origins.
In 1947, Conrad Richter received the Ohioana Book Award for The Fields, the second book of his Ohio trilogy. In correspondence with Mrs. Depew Head, then Executive Director of the M.K.Y. Ohioana Library Association, he wrote:
Your letter [about the award] came at a singular time. Putting these studies of early life and times down on paper has not been the reasonably ready task I first supposed. After finishing THE TREES in 1939, I turned aside for a number of years to do two other novels before starting the second volume of the Ohio story. Again after finishing THE FIELDS I felt I had to turn away to do a short novel, now on the stands, and to start another. All this time, however, I have had for the Ohio project so much kind encouragement from readers, from critics, from research sources, and from my published and some foreign publishers that recently in the Southwest for the winter I resolved to lay plans for the other novel aside and tackle the last of the trilogy despite its problems and formidable time span. Since then the news of your very generous interest and medal has come to me, and I shall take it at this time as a good sign bidding me to go on with the work and finish it for what it may be worth.
The encouragement Conrad Richter felt to finish The Town was well-founded. The book, published in 1950, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was reviewed by Richter’s highly esteemed colleague, and another Pulitzer Prize winner, Ohio writer Louis Bromfield:
For some years now we have had among us a top-flight writer working quietly on the story of one family and in a larger sense on the story of this nation’s frontier… His writing is distinguished and poetic, both as to character and image. It is intensely atmospheric and backed, in the case of the historical novels, on sound research… As the names imply, the three books are not only concerned with Sayward and her family but the growth and the astonishingly rapid development of a whole area which has played a key role in the nation’s history… Mr. Richter has reproduced the quality and the speech of these people so well that a thousand years from now, one may read his books and know exactly what these people were like and what it was like to have lived in an era when within three or four generations a frontier wilderness turned into one of the great industrial areas of the earth…. ‘The Town’ stands on its own as an entity and may be read on its own as a full, rich and comprehensive novel based upon the lives of ordinary people, brave and ever heroic in their own small way… This is in one sense, although not the dominant one, an historical novel, but don’t let that frighten you… It is about people and the fundamental things of life. When you read the three books in the trilogy, you live them, and I can think of no greater tribute for a novel.
Many more novels would follow the Ohio trilogy, which was eventually published together under one cover and titled The Awakening Land. Ernest Cady reviewed A Country of Strangers (published in 1966) in the Columbus Dispatch:
This theme—of the white child—captured or stolen—and reared in an alien culture seems to have fascinated [Richter]. He returned to it in “The Light in the Forest” (1953) and again in his latest novel. In both books he tells his strange and touching story from the Indian point of view…There is no drippy sentimentalism in Richter’s telling of what is essentially a sad tale. Neither is there meretricious sex or synthetic sensationalism. He simply tells how he thinks things were for both Indians and whites, in a hard time of violence and danger and change on a raw frontier. And does it so convincingly that the reader senses that this indeed, is how it must have been.”
Two very personal, autobiographical novels—The Waters of Kronos and A Simple, Honorable Man—brought Richter further recognition late in his career. Both books are set in Pennsylvania; in The Waters of Kronos, an aging writer named John Donner mystically visits his birthplace—a town submerged beneath the waters of the dammed-up Kronos River—and in A Simple, Honorable Man, Donner’s father becomes a Lutheran minister and dedicates himself to serving his poorest and most needy parishioners.
Richter spent most of the last twenty years of his life in Pennsylvania, his ancestral home. He died of a heart attack on October 30, 1968, within a few days of his birthday and within a few miles of his birthplace in Pottsville, PA. Dayton Kohler writes in College English, “There are no novels quite like Richter’s in the whole range of historical fiction. Together they probably give us our truest picture of the everyday realities of frontier life.”