Richter, Conrad (Michael)
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.)
Eda Lou Walton
"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...
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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,...
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Eda Lou Walton
[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...
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WILLIAM Du BOIS
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 lifeless. Though the plot is honestly conceived, though it avoids most of the cruder allurements of melodrama, it emerges as a made-to-order pattern, no more moving than a pile of stereopticon slides in an old-fashioned parlor.
Perhaps Mr. Richter would have been wiser not to write in the first person, through the mind of Nugget Oldacker; certainly a boy of 9 is hardly the best reporter for the White Palace House and its painted ladies of the evening….
The story moves swiftly; there are first-class vignettes of an Arizona mining town, pit-bosses brawling in the saloons, a hard-muscled drilling contest on the Fourth, a ghastly fire that all but destroys Bisbee…. But even here one cannot help feeling that the...
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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 Pennsylvania, and their aching desire for freedom. The point is a good one; there is lots of German blood in America, and most of it is here because it fled from a variation of what exists in Germany now. Germans love freedom; they've loved it for a long time: they've died for it, and a great many of them have died under the American flag ever since there was an American flag.
That's the theme of the story Richter tells….
Where Mr. Richter worries the point is in his accent upon what the Pennsylvania Germans did in the Revolution. They didn't fight the war alone by any means—and actually they formed only a few regiments. When they fought, they fought well, as Germans usually do; and when they faced the...
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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 vanishing.
The sources of Richter's inspiration are not hard to catalog…. But the most important source of all was the people who had lived through days that have now passed into history, and from them Richter garnered the little details and authenticities of early life as it was actually lived. No writer on American social history is more thoroughly at home with his material nor has anyone been more careful to preserve the spirit of times past. (p. 414)
[Richter's first widely-circulated story, "Brothers of No Kin"] had a remarkable reception and seemed to open the way to a brilliant writing career. E. J. O'Brien chose it as the best story of the year; it was reprinted a number of times, and magazine...
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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 American life, called "The Trees."… The tale centered largely about the growth and development of a girl-child called Sayward.
"The Fields" continues the life of Sayward after her strange marriage to the "educated" New Englander Portius, through the raising of their family of eight children. But it is much more than that; it is also the tale of the slow battle and eventual victory over the Trees….
The characters, all save perhaps the complicated husband Portius, are simple enough people, living against a background of primitive beauty. The story is told with a feeling of poetry and the picturesque turn of language which characterized the speech of the frontier…. The speech has not the confusing effect...
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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 magical spell of Mr. Richter's book is cast directly by its prose, which makes loving and yet unpretentious use of the vocabulary and typical turns of phrase of its characters. A rare and haunting book is this, which on no account should be overlooked.
Orville Prescott, in a review of "The Fields," in The Yale Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, June, 1946, p. 765.
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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 Trees and The Fields trace the growth of a pioneer settlement in the territory west of the Alleghenies and north of the Ohio River. In an age of period-piece fiction stuffed with names and dates, these novels have a simple human warmth and vigor because they are written in terms of their own characters and atmosphere, without reference to historical figures or events of the early eighteen hundreds, and the result is something fresh and effective in regional writing. The Free Man, however, links its plot with Concord and Bunker Hill; its background takes in a group of freedom-loving Pennsylvania Dutch settlers resisting British authority on the farming frontier beyond the Blue Mountains.
On one level these books...
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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 family from Pennsylvania into the vast and beautiful forest wilderness that was the Ohio territory. Her first appearance was in "The Trees"; the second in "The Fields." 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. In the three books we live through the changes. Each book has a locale and a period of its own.
In "The Trees," it is the beautiful and sometimes terrifying forest…. The book is concerned with the family's battle against the overwhelming forest and the hardships of battling through to survival in a lonely cabin. The second book is concerned with the...
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Frederic I. Carpenter
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 word wasted, and The Trees ran but little longer. All these pioneer novels have been packed with homely, realistic detail … of an earlier age. Not only external details but the very language and style of his writing have been authentically and consciously early American. By contrast, his symbols have never been explicit and his myth may perhaps be subconscious. But in his last book this myth has become increasingly dominant, and it distinguishes all his best novels from the more purely realistic pioneer tales of Willa Cather and (more recently) of A. B. Guthrie, Jr. It is this myth of the making of America which I shall emphasize, illustrating it chiefly from his recent trilogy describing the settlement of the imaginary town of...
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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 efforts to convey in words vivid, accurate, emotionally suggestive impressions of important and typical phases in the development of American society. Mr. Richter is a thorough scholar steeped in the lore of the American past. With consummate artistry he writes as if he and his readers both were part of the vanished life of his stories, using the colloquial idioms and special turns of speech of his characters and never departing from their frame of reference. (p. 138)
Considering the length of the trilogy as a whole, its division into separate episodes and its loose and sprawling structure, it is amazing how emotionally powerful it is. There are wonderfully dramatic and moving stories scattered throughout all three...
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John T. Flanagan
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 Comes for the Archbishop. In several of the short stories collected in the volume appropriately entitled Early Americana Richter also used various folklore themes, but such material is more apparent in the three volumes about the early Ohio Valley which so far comprise his chief artistic success, The Trees, The Fields, and The Town. (p. 6)
Many a reader accustomed to the literary conventions of historical fiction will be surprised by the speech of the Lucketts, but it is self-consistent, appropriate, and meticulously recorded….
Descriptions of cabin life resuscitate archaic words until certain passages sound like a linguistic museum. (p. 8)
The Lucketts of course...
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John T. Flanagan
[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. Border raids, Indian uprisings, the arrival of settlers, and the bitter feuds of stockmen and nesters provide the plots; vaqueros, herders, half-breeds, sheriffs, outlaws, Spanish patentees, English and Yankee adventurers, and a sprinkling of lawyers and doctors are the characters; and rivalry and revenge suggest the tension of early territorial days. But Richter generally avoids sensationalism for its own sake….
In 1936 Richter published his first book with a southwestern setting, Early Americana and Other Stories…. The nine stories deal mostly with the frontier period. Historical places … suggest the setting, and the characters in the main are ordinary figures—mountain men, soldiers, ranchers, Indians,...
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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 mining of the world of his own youth. The reader is immersed with him in a town at the turn of the present century, "peopled with the multitudinous, imaginary forms" of his past. I know of nothing comparable to it among American novels. In the whole range of American writing of which I have any knowledge, perhaps the nearest approach in quality and theme is Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town."
In Mr. Richter's novel it is given to John Donner to re-enter the world of his youth. Out of his deep "yearning for many things vanished," he is able to return, keeping his later knowledge of the worth and sweetness of all those things which in their time he had counted but little….
Shining with this heightened...
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George R. Clay
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.
In "The Waters of Kronos" … Mr. Richter has once again attempted to infuse a highly nostalgic theme with dignity. John Donner, at the end of a long and successful life in the West, returns to Unionville, the Eastern mining town where he was born. He knows that his home valley has been inundated to make a hydro-electric station, but feels that if he can just be near what once was Unionville before he dies, he will find the answers to two haunting questions: whether he is his father's son; and whose face it was that, night after night, terrified him in the dreams of his boyhood….
Donner stumbles on proof that he is, indeed, of his father's flesh and blood. And just before his actual death, when dream and...
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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, stubborn, willful, often half literate people who move through the book ring true to anyone who knew any part of the American back-country before mass communications began homogenizing it with the urban norm. Most of all, the author has succeeded in depicting a minister who is both lovable and believable, a rare feat in fiction, where Protestant parsons tend either to be impossibly holy, fatuous, or monsters of covert wickedness. (p. 4)
The sense of journeying back into a recent but forever-abandoned national past is accentuated by the way the book is written. It plays no sophisticated tricks with time; there is no breath of Freud. The characters, so to speak, are loved into convincing reality by the author. Most of all,...
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MARVIN J. LaHOOD
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 from Hamlin Garland to John Steinbeck were already in motion. Conrad Richter focuses his attention not on the corruption of the dream but on the dream itself. He belongs to that group of writers who are impressed with the strength and perseverance of the pioneer, and feel that this strength was a direct result of having dealt with the rigors of the frontier.
These writers see the West not as a symbol of man's dreams of a perfect existence but as a challenge which, if accepted, strengthens the character of man. For them the dream of the West is not one of a return to Eden, nor of a spiritual brotherhood of man. It is, rather, a vision of a land where men, if they are strong enough, can live in freedom and with a sense of...
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THOMAS P. McDONNELL
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 after early fog." One means, does there have to be a Kettle Valley, even without the cinematic felicities of Ma and Pa?
To carp at such bland devices would seem, no doubt, to indicate a case of chronic distemper in the overwrought urban reader Let it be said at once, then, that The Grandfathers is a pleasantly bucolic tale whose reading-time may just about equal, say, three or four sessions with "The Beverly Hillbillies." Chariter, the sixteen-year-old "fatherless" daughter of Dockey Murdoch—practically every young 'un in Kettle Valley ends up fatherless—herself becomes the prime object of the spring mating season….
Fill it all in—Granpap accused of arson, a property impasse between neighbors,...
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Edwin W. Gaston, Jr.
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, for Richter was writing in the midst of World War II. "Perhaps in an understanding of the Pennsylvania Dutch, their loyalty to democracy and their love of peace," wrote Richter in the preface to the novel, "may be found the secret of a peaceful Europe in the years to come." Such purposive tendencies, of course, were not new. American literary figures as early as Philip Freneau, of the Revolutionary War era, had similarly weakened their art in behalf of a cause. And, when Richter turned to the same Revolutionary War for examples to inspire his own age, he likewise faltered.
It must be conceded, however, that The Free Man was timely in recalling the occasionally neglected fact that American free-dom sprang from...
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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 Forest, he deliberately took the point of view of the Indians, and found an ingenious way of doing so; for this is the story of John Butler, who was stolen from his white parents as a small child and eleven years later was restored to them. John, whose Indian name is True Son, bitterly resists his repatriation, but he is influenced by his exposure to white civilization, and in the end is alienated both from the people to whom he belongs by birth and those to whom he belongs by adoption and choice. In the latter part of the book the account of True Son's flight from the whites with his cousin has a nice Huck Finn quality, but what one chiefly remembers is True Son's indictment of Anglo-Saxon culture….
Richter has now...
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WILLIAM Du BOIS
["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 America through Stone Girl's eyes. Here, the white man is the enemy, the interloper who has already stolen the Indian's land and is beginning to destroy his reason for being. Stone Girl faces adversity without flinching.
"A Country of Strangers," for all its bitter vignettes, is not a depressing book. The courage of Mr. Richter's heroine, embracing the best in both races, is poignant and memorable. His short book is historical fiction at its best.
William Du Bois, "Who Was the Enemy?" in The New York Times Book Review, July 10, 1966, p. 43.
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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." Valentine Pierce, Jr., the son of a wealthy executive, cannot understand the need for labor of any kind…. [Later, after taking a job in a lumber camp,] Val finds that the arduous physical work relieves his apprehension, strengthens his body, and develops his skills so that eventually he comes to feel a satisfying sense of competence…. At the end of the story Val is a capable man, rightly proud of his accomplishments—accomplishments forged by adversity.
In "Tempered Copper," the main character is also a rebellious youth who expects others to do his work for him. Again, using devious methods, the father in the story arranges for his son to be employed as a heavy laborer in a lumber camp. The reader is not surprised to learn...
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Marvin J. Lahood
[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 into mourning and continues her devotion to her dead lover despite the pleas of her parents and the returned Will Grail. Finally she agrees to marry Will at a quiet ceremony. Instead of following her wishes her parents arrange a large wedding. When the day arrives and Lucy sees the crowd, she stubbornly locks herself in her room and refuses to join Will at the altar. Will remains faithful to her but she goes back to her devotion to Tom and the pictures of him she has placed all over the house. Finally Will goes to fight in World War I. He returns five years later a tired man desirous now only of peace and quiet. Then the Pine Mills American Legion dedicates its new post to Tom Grail. At the ceremony the main speaker's comparison of the...
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Robert F. Gish
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 alluring than, for example, the cities and "urban sprawl" now manifesting the results, the communal destiny of frontier settlement and "progress."…
Richter's imagined, vicarious West took him and his original Post readers back in time, as one of his stories has it, to "The Simple Life." He realized the irony, of course, in such nostalgia for the hard times of the good old days and incorporated it in the tone and narrative structure of his fictions (which deceptively read like history); however, for present-day readers Richter's ironic escapes into the past seem partial, serving mostly to compound the author's feeling of "If my characters, these Pioneer ancestors, could only see things now!"
All of which is...
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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 the conquest of new lands. Marriage and death come paired in the Southwestern stories called "Early Americana" and "The Flood," and in the Pennsylvania tale of "The Dower Chest." Marriages were seldom romantic: Women and men took their mates as circumstances and availability dictated.
Pervading Richter's stories is a sense of the transient. His Frank Gant had no compunctions about defending his Southwestern range against Spaniard or Apache. Right or wrong, his squat adobe house on the San Blas plain belonged to him because he had willed it so. He dealt with territorial governors, brass-buttoned Army officers, Mexican dons and hungry Apache and Navajo chiefs like a patriarchal potentate. When the railroad came, with his...
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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 youth. Though such an approach may be frustrating for a reader interested in psychological probing of character, Richter's mode is eminently suited to portrayal of an essentially symbolic perception of Southwestern life.
The first of these novels, Sea of Grass (1937), is actually a double story: a tale of family relationships and a tale of the transition from open range country to an agrarian economy in New Mexico. But Richter has interwoven these two stories through the symbolic associations of the leading characters: Jim Brewton personifies the old pioneer spirit, the aggressive, conquering male who thrives in the open though harsh realities of the sea of grass; his wife Lutie is associated with the taming of that...
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