Conrad (Michael) Richter 1890–1968
American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Richter is regarded as one of the best novelists to have written about the American frontier. Relying heavily on oral history, early newspaper accounts, letters, and diaries, Richter recreated the life and myth of the pioneers with authenticity of detail and dialect. Richter's realistic, straightforward narratives are based on his underlying philosophy that hardship strengthens character and his belief that an individual has a oneness with nature.
Richter's greatest recognition came with the publication of his Ohio trilogy: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), later reissued in one volume as The Awakening Land (1966). In these works, he chronicles the life of a pioneer family against the background of the changing land. The early struggle with the forest wilderness of the Ohio Valley gives way to the homesteaders' tilling of the soil and later to the establishment of a town at the beginning of the industrial age in America. The heroine of this saga, Sayward Luckett Wheeler, is one of Richter's most memorable characters; she is strong, practical, and determined to survive. Richter received the 1951 Pulitzer Prize in letters for The Town, but it was generally acknowledged that the award was presented for the entire trilogy.
In addition to his work dealing with the Ohio frontier, Richter also wrote fiction set in the Southwest. The Sea of Grass (1937), first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and later made into a film, is considered the best of this work. The novel expands upon many of the short stories which had been collected in his Early Americana (1936). A story of the demise of the great ranges, The Sea of Grass depicts the conflict between the ranchers and the homesteaders in New Mexico during the late nineteenth century. Again, the virtues of self-reliance are promoted along with Richter's idea of "hardship into gain." Other novels inspired by Richter's long residence in the Southwest include Tacey Cromwell (1942) and The Lady (1957). Both these novels portray heroines determined to cope with the demands of frontier life in male-dominated societies. In accord with many of the scholars who have studied Richter's historical fiction, Edwin W. Gaston, Jr. claims that "Richter memorialized the southwestern sea of grass and the eastern sea of trees. And while other writers dealt with complex human achievement, Richter artistically promoted the worth of simple goodness."
The major accomplishments of Richter's later life are two highly praised autobiographical novels: The Waters of Kronos (1960), a National Book Award winner, and A Simple Honorable Man (1962). The first is a mystical account of a man who returns from the West to his birthplace, a Pennsylvania town that has been covered by the waters of a man-made lake. Richter allows his aging protagonist to travel back in time to his youth. The young man reaches an understanding of his relationship with his father and an acceptance of his won mortality. The companion volume, A Simple Honorable Man, depicts the life of the father, a minister who spent his life in the service of others. Critics called the novel an inspiring tribute to Richter's own father.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; Something about the Author, Vol. 3; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9.)
"Early Americana" for [a] title names exactly the author's particular gift. All based on old tales collected from pioneers and from the children of pioneers, these stories present the poetry of early conquests. They are folklore fictionized. If they are, one and all, romantic stories, they are also true stories of quiet stern men and brave frontier women. Nor are the characters overdrawn or made to enact scenes of gun-play and violence. Violence is in the background, a kind of threat perhaps over the land, but the author is concerned chiefly with drawing character….
The tales based on the authentic life stories of some of these characters and familiar to any one who has lived in the Far West—are all told in vivid, dramatic pictures that remain in the reader's mind…. Conrad Richter chooses often a single trait or a typical action to emphasize and by that we know his character. He paints a single scene completely and we do not forget it as the story unfolds. He chooses sometimes as the mind through which the story is told, a young girl or a child unusually sensitive to the new atmosphere of the trail or the Western town. Few of his stories, in fact, use as narrator a man accustomed to and hardened by the wilderness. This very choice of a sensitive mind as the protagonist, allows Mr. Richter to present the strange poetry of his scene or his action, to give more dramatically the sturdy bravery and stoicism of the typical Western characters observed by the narrator….
Conrad Richter's short stories have authenticity, they are told in a subdued tone, usually in the tone of reminiscence, and they are finely drawn studies of character. Therefore this book will charm readers—even those readers who have known the West first hand and who will not, therefore, attend most Western "movies." Richter is a good short story writer. His prose is exact and yet poetic. Very few cliches are to be found in his descriptions and often these descriptions of country or of a person are excellent…. Indeed, now that his tales are collected, Mr. Richter will probably take his place among our better known writers of the true American short story.
Eda Lou Walton, "Pioneer Tales from the West," in New York Herald Tribune Books, August 2, 1936, p. 6.
It may take all kinds of people to make a world, but in Conrad Richter's mind one kind stands out above all others in the winning of the American Southwest. He has centered his group of romantic stories ["Early Americana and Other Stories"] around pioneer men as granite-faced as the canyon walls, as tight-lipped as the desert itself, and beside them … he has placed the same familiar breed of pioneer woman—the stoical, stiff-spined, resolute mate….
This author sets his stories in the small, outlying clusters of settlements still menaced in the last century by raiding Indians. The houses lie "like a handful of children's blocks thrown and forgotten on the immensity of the prairie," but in them are the unsung heroes of Mr. Richter's re-created West. Harte's Poker Flat and Roaring Camp and the sinks of sin which Wister's Virginian knew are outside their experience. Their eyes are big with far horizons and the starker experience of nature and the trail.
Stories with such simple, direct titles as "New Home," "Smoke Over the Prairie," "Frontier Woman," "Early Marriage" indicate at once that the author is fascinated by the times that are gone. Like Harte, he is first concerned with trying to give a realistic sense of scene. When he has made us feel how the Comanche moon looked on the roadless prairie, how the hoofs of loping horses beat on the bunch grass like a muffled drum, how the seasons come and go under the raw, hard sunlight, then he is ready, in as few words as possible, to unfold his dramatic story.
On the whole, it is quite apparent that in pattern it is too often the same story. Boy meets girl in the end with monotonous frequency. But not before Mr. Richter has demonstrated his ability to cast a glamour over everything from wagon train to buffalo jerky….
All of Mr. Richter's stories give a colorful representation of the region. The suspense in the situations may rise out of nothing more complex than physical conflict versus a chance at the marriage altar, but the force and purpose of the writing remain—that desire to represent an impression of unity in-the life that is just behind us. In this Conrad Richter succeeds admirably….
Stanley Young, "'Early Americana' and Other Recent Works of Fiction: 'Early Americana and Other Stories'," in The New York Times Book Review, August 2, 1936, p. 7.
[The setting for "The Sea of Grass"] is Old New Mexico, land of the great cattle kings and of their vast ranges then slowly being invaded by the homesteaders…. The resemblances between this novel and Willa Cather's "Lost Lady" are … so striking that one is forever remembering the earlier book as one reads the new. Although this is not the masterpiece it is a good reproduction, something more, perhaps, than a reproduction.
Conrad Richter's chief skill in story writing lies in his use of his scene. New Mexico of the early days lives in these pages. But Conrad Richter is definitely a romantic writer, never a realist. And because he is a romantic writer he casts a kind of golden glow over a scene which other authors have given us in harsh, cruel or tragic colors. Nor is he completely wrong in using this early American scene as a romanticist must. New Mexico is, indeed, a land of myth, a land of curious poetic superstitions….
One wonders, indeed, about one thing only: in so consistently romantic a treatment of the Southwest as Mr. Richter's, are not the truly historical bases for the changes in this frontier country being denied? The homesteaders did finally take the land…. The old frontier had to go. Mr. Richter himself sees that, but for him "those were the grand old days." And today the early conquerors … are old men with many a yarn to tell. Mr. Richter collects their yarns.
There is just...
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Readers whose habit it is to turn to the last page after a glance at the first will get a misleading impression of Mr. Richter. They will see, with dismay, these words: "That's how life was, death and birth, grub and harvest, rain and clearing, winter and summer. You had to take one with the other, for that's the way it ran." Though there is a slight element in The Trees of the kind of sententious platitudinising this passage suggests, there is much more to it than that. There is research, sincerity, imagination and beauty of writing. It is escape literature of a high-class sort …: that is, it sets the mind free and refreshes it with images and figures from an innocent, half legendary world; a world as far removed from us as if it were another planet, but real all the same, and comforting as rain in a parched land. The story is about pioneer settlers in the immense virgin forests of America after the War of Independence…. Mr. Richter makes skilful use of his evidently profound historical studies, and the picture of pioneer life he builds up is extraordinarily concentrated, detailed and vivid…. There is no exaltation of the peasant. The characters are people, not symbols or mawkish abstractions, as in so many "novels of the soil." Nor are they dumb animals, although their life is almost purely occupied with animal needs and functions. Nor are they used as Eugene O'Neill uses primitive characters—imposing an intellectual pattern on them to work out some neurosis of his own.
But the forest itself is the principal agent in this book. It takes on an overpowering life. Every activity is surrounded by and saturated in its influence, and this feeling of a gigantic elemental force is achieved without any cheap mystical effects. The story is told in a reproduction of the actual speech of early settlers, and though it rings sentimentally now and then, it is on the whole fresh, vigorous, and salted with vivid natural imagery. (p. 694)
Rosamond Lehmann, in a review of "The Trees," in The Spectator, Vol. 164, No. 5838, May 17, 1940, pp. 693-94.
In his two earlier novels, "The Sea of Grass" and "The Trees," Conrad Richter has made a solid contribution to the long shelf of Americana; in "Tacey Cromwell" he goes back into the Arizona Territory a half century ago, to find a protagonist in the hennaed sporting-house madam who gives the book its name. Like others of this celebrated sisterhood, Tacey yearns for a husband and social esteem. (p. 6)
Certainly there is material here for a novel of the magnetic West. Mr. Richter has packed his story into a little over 200 pages. He tells it with soundness as well as economy; and yet, for all his careful choice of character and local color, there is something unfulfilled about it, something oddly...
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Each new book by Conrad Richter is a treat. In a time of loose writing, he works with meticulous craftsmanship and an uncanny knowledge of period. In that way, in "The Trees," he performed a miracle of reconstruction; and half in prose, half in poetry, told one of the best stories of early America that exists.
Now, in "The Free Man," he tells another tale of the Colonial period, a good story, but not a great one. He labors to make a point, and makes more of the point than the situation justifies. Richter comes of Pennsylvania Dutch people; worried, and justly so, about the feeling against German-Americans that came and is coming out of this war, he tells a tale of the early German settlers in...
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One of the greatest of … modern humanists is Conrad Richter, whose stories of American backgrounds have been appearing for the past ten years. (pp. 413-14)
[An] early, spontaneous, whole-hearted interest in native backgrounds and deeds of derring-do was a part of the heritage of many American boys who came to man's estate and, alas, outgrew such boyish nonsense. But not Conrad Richter. He had known his forbears as people and not as chromos on the wall; he recognized the ties between the present and the past, and as time went on, what had been a healthy boyish interest in cowboys and Indians became a mature humanism which impelled him to study the phenomenon of an American life that was rapidly...
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I doubt that any one writing today in this country is closer in understanding and treatment of its pioneer life than Conrad Richter. He has not only given the frontier his scholarly attention and sympathetic interpretation, but he has done what is even more important; he has recreated the frontier and the early development of the nation in terms of atmosphere, character and even speech. He has that gift—the first and most important in a novelist—of creating for the reader a world as real as the one in which he lives, a world which the reader enters on reading the first page and in which he remains until the last.
"The Fields" is actually a sequel to an earlier novel, one of the best on early...
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[The Fields, a sequel to The Trees,] is an equally amazing recreation of the life and speech and thought of the American frontier wilderness 140 years ago. In a series of separate episodes, each a complete unit in itself, Mr. Richter has shown through the life of one family the transformation of a hunting society into a farming one. Without needless display of his vast antiquarian background and with none of the cheap melodrama that degrades most historical fiction, he has told a wise and deeply moving story about a weak and very human man and about a woman who is almost great in her simple strength of character. Seldom in fiction has the atmosphere of another age been so completely realized. Part of the...
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Conrad Richter has reclaimed two segments of the American past widely separated in geography and time. Early Americana is a collection of stories about buffalo hunters, cowpunchers, and homesteaders in the region of the Staked Plains, the Llano Estacado of Southwest border history. The Sea of Grass holds within its brief framework the sweep and drama of the cow country at the end of the last century, when cattlemen fought to hold their free range against the nester's fence and plow. Tacey Cromwell has for its background the Arizona mining town of Bisbee in its roaring boom days, a contrast between the lusty, swarming life of Brewery Gulch and the prim respectability of Quality Hill. The...
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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…. Conrad Richter has been steadily piling up a record for solid and distinguished achievement. 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. Moreover he has the supreme gift of novelists in creating a world of utter reality in which the reader is able to lose himself completely after the first page or two.
"The Town" is a third novel devoted to the fortunes of Sayward Wheeler who as a small girl walked with her...
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The only novelist with whom Conrad Richter can well be compared is Willa Cather…. But Richter belongs to a later generation, which both sees the pioneers from a longer perspective and (paradoxically) enters into their lives with a greater emotional immediacy. Between the generations of Willa Cather and of Conrad Richter a myth has begun to form, and this myth has worked to deepen and (in some ways) to distort the tales of the contemporary writer. (pp. 77-8)
Richter has usually been called a simple realist, and all his tales have genuinely been characterized by a careful artistry, a classical condensation, and an emotional restraint. The Sea of Grass was a perfect short novel, with hardly a...
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[This essay originally appeared as a series of reviews in The New York Times between 1942 and 1950.]
During the eleven years 1940 through 1950 Conrad Richter wrote six novels. Of these three were slight and disappointing. The other three comprise Mr. Richter's trilogy about the pioneer settlement of Ohio from the first penetration of the forests by seminomadic hunters in the 1780s until the Civil War. The Trees, The Fields and The Town are certain to rank among the fine novels of our time. Taken together as a vast epic of the American frontier seen in terms of one family they are a majestic achievement. (pp. 137-38)
Conrad Richter's novels all seem to be...
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The impact of the two World Wars on novelists of the last several decades has perhaps minimized the role of folklore either as central or as contributory in recent American fiction. But there is one … novelist who has employed folklore so frequently and so richly that it is surprising that no critic has previously pointed it out. I speak of Conrad Richter, the author of a trilogy of novels about the settlement of the old Northwest Territory….
Richter's fiction is not limited to this trilogy…. [In] his The Sea of Grass he achieved a memorable tale of the southwest ranching area which for sensitivity of style and subtle feeling for background rivals Willa Cather's more famous Death...
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[Although Richter's] historical trilogy is his most distinguished work to date, he is limited neither by one region nor by one fictional type. The three novels about middle western settlement are specific, documentary, and detailed, although their canvas is rather small. But his fiction about the Southwest is atmospheric, dramatic, and episodic. His four books of stories about his adopted environment are as authentic and vivid as his studies of Pennsylvania and Ohio life, yet they are different in tone and even in technique. (pp. 189-90)
New Mexico, with minor extensions into Texas and Arizona, forms the locale of Richter's southwestern fiction, and the time is generally the nineteenth century....
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"The Waters of Kronos" is an enchanted book….
I have found it, too, a deeply moving book, and I believe that many readers similarly will find it speaks to them directly and affectingly with a peculiarly personal appeal.
Conrad Richter remains too little recognized for what he of a certainty is—one of the finest creative talents in American fiction….
He has stood alone in his creative use of historical materials, in the working—in his own phrase—of "those slender veins of golden metal that still remain" of the American past.
In "The Waters of Kronos" he turns the same practiced skills to a purpose achieved with more difficulty—the...
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Although the books of Conrad Richter tend to dwell on the past, there is a deceptive timeliness about much of this author's fiction, a tone of what might be called fashionable nostalgia. Each generation craves something different from the past, qualities the generation both lacks and misses. In his best work … Mr. Richter has afforded his readers the vicarious sense of heroism they long for without employing the pat heroics they have been schooled to suspect. His secret has been a style perfectly suited to his semi-legendary material: at once mannered and sensuous, lush yet restrained, so that inherently pompous or sentimental effects are just saved from becoming so by his instinct for severely relevant detail....
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The actual plot of "A Simple Honorable Man" is so simple that it suggests a short story or vignette rather than a novel. It is the life of Harry Donner, a Pennsylvania storekeeper who—shortly before the turn of the century—feels a call to the ministry. He packs himself and his family off to college and seminary, is at last ordained, serves a succession of Lutheran churches in one mining community after another, never achieves fame, dies poor.
If the book echoes and glows in the reader's memory, it is for reasons other than bare plot. For one thing, Conrad Richter has the gift of creating real characters, whom he portrays with sympathetic understanding rather than clinical detachment. The simple,...
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When the noted historian Frederick Jackson Turner stated in an address in 1893 that the settlement of the West explained American development, he focused attention on an aspect of American culture which has received constant study and analysis ever since…. And perhaps the most whole-hearted exponent of [Turner's] viewpoint among contemporary American men of letters is Conrad Richter. His fiction is all but entirely a nostalgic hymn of praise for the vigor of the American pioneer. (p. 311)
Much has happened to the American dream since [President Andrew] Jackson died in 1845. Even in his lifetime those forces which would cause much of the disillusionment with that dream recorded in fiction by writers...
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If you live with dreadful awareness of man's perplexity in the twentieth century …, then you will have a very disconcerting time trying to penetrate the simplistic world of Conrad Richter's hillbilly pastoral [The Grandfathers]….
[What] are we to make of an American short novel, so out-stripped by any meaning that we can look for in American life today, that it confronts us … with people called Granpap, Granmam, Ant Dib, Uncle Heb, Uncle Nun, Fox, Babe, Chick, Felty, Sip, Morg, Effie, and Chariter, the Daisy Mae heroine of all this slightly amusing rural shebang? Or what are we to make of such cliché chapter-opening sentences as, "Sunday morning came to Kettle Valley mild and clear...
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The Free Man, Always Young and Fair, The Light in the Forest, and The Grandfathers seem to represent for the author a respite from the creative rigors of … [his] more ambitious works. Yet they are by no means—nor were they intended to be—light exercises to keep authorial techniques sharpened for bigger things. For this reason, then, the impression that the four represent interludes results more nearly from artistic lapses than from Richter's intention….
[Of all] Richter's novels, The Free Man received possibly the sharpest critical rebuke. (p. 117)
A major reason for the novel's shortcoming is its purpose to inspire the present with lessons of the past,...
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[Richter's work] is all of a piece, for his one theme has been the American past. His aim, he has said, has been "not to write historical novels but to give an authentic sensation of life in early America." This he has been remarkably successful in doing, both because he has been a careful student of the relevant documents and because he has a deep sympathy with the life of earlier times. Although his books have often been popular, he has never written down to the masses. He has gone his own way, and he has no reason to regret it.
Since he has written so often about frontier life, Richter has had occasion to show why many settlers feared and hated the Indians. But in 1953, with The Light in the...
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["A Country of Strangers"] is a companion piece to "The Light in the Forest."… [The] earlier novel told of the return of a captive youth named True Son from the Delaware nation, of his numb misery in the home of his white parents, of his escape back to the only world he knew. Now, the author follows the same plot-pattern on the distaff side. Once again, he shows us how easily the ways of natural man, and the ways of civilization, can become mortal enemies. Once again, he makes us wonder if the gulf dividing the red man from the white is too wide to cross….
In less knowing hands, some of these episodes might come close to melodrama, yet Mr. Richter never falters as he tells his story of colonial...
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While he was working on [his] philosophical essays, [Conrad Richter] was also writing short stories which illustrated his theories. Collected in a volume called Brothers of No Kin (1924), these stories are merely plot-ridden explanations of his ideas. At this point in his career Richter was more interested in dramatizing his esoteric philosophical notions than in re-creating meaningful life situations.
The major message of Richter's philosophy is that hard times have their own rewards; they provide the energy people need to grow. Two stories from Brothers of No Kin will illustrate the type of plot manipulations Richter was willing to use to convey his message. In "Forest Mould."...
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[Always Young and Fair is] Richter's finest attempt at writing a psychological novel…. [Here] the characters in the tragedy dominate their environment, not so much as Sayward does by triumphing over it, as by being so intensely involved with each other that only the background is left for the historical setting.
Lucy Markle, the lovely young daughter of Asa Markle, a wealthy mine owner, is courted by two cousins, Tom and Will Grail, as the story begins. Tom is the less fortunate economically of the two, and when the cousins leave to fight in the Spanish-American war Lucy chooses Private Tom rather than Captain Will as her betrothed. Tom is killed in the Philippines. Lucy immediately goes...
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Followers of Conrad Richter and his writings about the American frontier should revel in the eight short stories in this collection—all dealing, as the titular story suggests, with "The Rawhide Knot" of marriage and the battle of the sexes with each other, the land, and society out West. And a changing, shifting West it is—in time, space, and idea—for Richter and for the reader.
After reading these stories, some of which first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post of the 1930s and '40s and served as practice runs for longer prize-winning fiction like his Ohio trilogy, "The Awakening Land," Richter's West somehow seems at once more real and more fantastic, less ideal (and idyllic) and more...
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In a foreword to his posthumously published "The Rawhide Knot and Other Stories," Richter's daughter Harvena tells of her father's latter-day fascination with the New Mexico he moved to in middle age. Applying the same standards to stories of the early Southwest that he had used in his novels about the Eastern forests, Richter wrote five tales about the days of Bent's Fort and the Santa Fe and Chisholm Trails. They are published in "The Rawhide Knot" along with three stories of earlier frontiers in Appalachia and Ohio….
Survivability was the test, and courage was the characteristic most prized in Conrad Richter's world. As Richter's daughter notes, violence, cruelty and harshness were necessary to...
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Conrad Richter's three novels of the Southwest provide us with provocative portraits of women on the frontier and at the same time suggest a feminine perspective on western achievement. Each novel focuses on a central female character whose story is told by a male narrator recalling the experiences of his boyhood and youth. The boy is in each instance a family relation of the man who is married to or closely associated with the leading female character. The boy thus provides a sympathetic but essentially external view of the woman: characterization is limited to what the boy knew, nuances of motivation remain mysteries, and the women emerge as essentially idealized portraits shaped by a man's nostalgia for a lost...
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