Conrad Richter Essay - Critical Essays

Conrad Richter American Literature Analysis

Richter’s literary reputation rests chiefly on his achievement in writing the historical novel. In his fictional recovery of the past, he avoided the weaknesses and limitations inherent in the genre of historical fiction. He shunned the costume romance, with its emphasis on action, exciting narratives of adventure and love, and sensational events. He had no interest in the novel of recognizable events or personages or in the fictionalized biography of important men and women. At the same time, he eschewed the period novel, which is more concerned with background details than with the whole of life.

Richter knew that his strength as a writer lay in his ability to keep in touch with the living muscle and tissue of actual experience, to keep the destiny of common people central to his vision. He believed that the greatest influence on historical events was the broader stuff of reality lived by the majority of men and women who led quiet, obscure lives but who found life endlessly resourceful and inexhaustible. To recapture the spirit and flavor of an age as revealed in the everyday relations of people, Richter steeped himself in the documents of social history—diaries, journals, letters, newspapers, and oral histories.

The desire to give fictional form to the experience of American westering derived in large part from Richter’s homespun theories of human behavior and destiny. Although his speculative theories, which he named “psycho-energies,” are too complex and esoteric to consider in detail, it is important to see their relationship to his major themes. According to Michael, the rug-weaving philosopher in Richter’s The Mountain on the Desert, the distinguishing feature of life is limited energy, and the basic primal motive is energy hunger. Creative growth, which requires the body and mind to expend energy, is the purpose of being. This growth is always accompanied by pain or discomfort; to remove all occasions of disharmony or suffering results in the stifling of creative growth. Moreover, human attempts to avoid hardship and suffering are inevitably thwarted by a mystical force that Richter calls fate or destiny. Natural adversity will ensure creative growth, and people can cooperate with this cosmic plan by practicing self-discipline and embracing a lifestyle that values hardihood.

Richter’s fiction invariably reflects his belief that the universe uses hardship and discipline to ensure human progress. The implications he draws from this life pattern account for most recurring themes in his fiction: adversity and hardship as a means of growth, the development of higher intelligence wrought by experience, the intuition of a cosmic destiny ordering human affairs, the stoic conception of amor fati (love of the order of God), and the superiority of the primitive and natural over the civilized and artificial.

All of Richter’s narratives are implicitly concerned with the relationship of the past to the present. His knowledge of the American past provided him with a well-defined historical image of a change in the human condition attended by cultural loss. This accounts for the persistent lyrical and elegiac tone of his fiction; there is undeniable nostalgia, but Richter stops short of sentimentality by revealing the human weaknesses and failings as well as the courage and strength that emerge under the pressure of harsh reality. In The Sea of Grass, for example, he tells the story of a people and land ravaged by years of conflict and change as the cattleman resists the homesteader in the battle for the ranges of Texas and New Mexico.

The focus of the story, however, is not on sensational events (violence is normally muted and offstage) but on certain distinguishing traits in the major characters brought out by the conflict—Colonel Brewton’s practical intelligence, hardiness, and self-discipline, in contrast to the shrewd opportunist Chamberlin, who relies on political influence and the collective will to impose an agricultural economy on a fragile range environment suited only to stock raising.

The Ohio trilogy similarly offers an interpretation and judgment of the cultural loss that accompanied the change from a harsh frontier to a settled civilization. Richter’s sense of the continuity of past and...

(The entire section is 1761 words.)