Conrad Richter was born on October 13, 1890, in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, the first of three sons of John Absalom and Charlotte Henry Richter. His ancestors were tradesmen, soldiers, blacksmiths, farmers, and ministers. As a boy accompanying his clergyman father on pastoral calls among the farm settlements and coal-mining regions of Pennsylvania, Richter carefully observed the manners and behavior of the people, developing a keen ear for their idiomatic language. He took note of their strength of character and sturdy fortitude in the face of hardships, values derived from their pioneer forebears.
Richter’s family expected him to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a clergyman. Accepting the assumptions of science with as much faith as his grandfather and father had accepted the assumptions of Christianity, however, he found himself doubting Christian beliefs. At the age of thirteen he declined a scholarship that would have taken him through preparatory school, college, and seminary on condition that he become a Lutheran minister.
Graduated from high school at the age of fifteen, Richter continued to educate himself, reading widely and working at various jobs as a teamster, mechanic, farm laborer, coal breaker, timberman, and bank clerk. Inspired by a series of articles about newspaper writers, he decided to become a journalist, reporting for and editing small-town newspapers and eventually working for The Pittsburgh Dispatch. Moving to Ohio in 1910, he wrote for the Johnstown Leader. In 1913 he began to write short stories, and a year later Forum published his “Brothers of No Kin,” a widely acclaimed work of fiction that Edward J. O’Brien selected for The Best Short Stories of 1915.
Disappointed by the low payment he received for his first serious fiction, Richter decided to concentrate his main energies on journalism and business, devoting his spare time to writing the kind of stories that brought a fair price. He married Harvena Achenbach of Pine Grove in 1915 and started a small publishing company and a juvenile periodical, Junior Magazine Book. Turning his hand to juvenile fiction, he wrote children’s stories for his own periodical and other magazines. His daughter, Harvena, was born on March 13, 1917, and five years later Richter moved his family to a farm in Clark’s Valley, Pennsylvania, where he continued his publishing work and the writing of fiction. In 1924, he had collected enough of his previously published stories to make up a volume titled Brothers of No Kin, and Other Stories.
While establishing himself as a journalist, publisher, and writer of fiction, Richter sought a scientific and factual explanation of the eternal enigmas. His desire to seek answers to questions about human nature and destiny led to his interest in widely discussed notions of evolution, psychology, and related aspects of physical and biological science. In 1925 he published a book-length essay, Human Vibration: The Mechanics of Life and Mind; this was followed by Principles in Bio-Physics (1927). Both books are serious, if amateurish, attempts to understand first causes, human vitality, the relationship of mind and body, and creative evolution. Their limited reception convinced Richter that he would do better to dramatize his ideas through fiction.
Because of his wife’s failing health, Richter sold his business and moved his family to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1928. His philosophical ideas and growing discontent with the modern drift toward an industrial, urban civilization kindled his interest in the frontier, and Richter decided in 1933 to become a writer of serious fiction, devoting himself to painstaking research in diaries, journals, and old newspaper accounts of frontier life in the Southwest. The short stories that...
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grew out of this research were collected inEarly Americana, and Other Stories (1936), marking the beginning of a distinguished career as a writer of fiction using American backgrounds. His first novel, The Sea of Grass (1936), was well received and was later made into a first-rate film.
In the decade from 1940 to 1950, Richter published six novels, including the Ohio trilogy—The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950)—and became widely recognized as an important historical novelist. The Society of Libraries of New York University awarded him the gold medal for literature for The Sea of Grass and The Trees. In 1944 he received an honorary doctoral degree from Susquehanna University, and three years later the Ohioana Library Medal Award for Literature. Although the historical trilogy was clearly at the center of Richter’s attention during these years, he published another novel about the early Southwest, Tacey Cromwell (1942), and two less successful novels, The Free Man (1943) and Always Young and Fair (1947). At the end of the decade, he moved his family back to Pine Grove, the town of his birth. The following year (1951), he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Town.
In the last fifteen years of his life Richter continued to publish impressive novels of American backgrounds and to gain recognition for his achievement. He explored complex racial relationships in The Light in the Forest (1953) and A Country of Strangers (1966), companion novels about the forcible repatriation of white people from Indian captivity. His third book-length essay, The Mountain on the Desert (1955), revealed his continuing interest in the psychological and mystical ideas that had always informed his fiction. After publishing his last southwestern novel, The Lady (1957), Richter received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of New Mexico (1958).
In 1960, he won the National Book Award for The Waters of Kronos, the first novel of a projected autobiographical trilogy, which was followed by A Simple Honorable Man (1962). Although Richter did not complete this trilogy, he published three more novels, The Grandfathers (1964), Over the Blue Mountain (1967), and The Aristocrat (1968). The Ohio trilogy was republished as The Awakening Land (1966) and later dramatized on television. Richter died of heart disease in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, on October 30, 1968. The Rawhide Knot, and Other Stories, a collection of his short stories, was published posthumously in 1978.