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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.)
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"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...
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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.
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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, 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.
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[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 one criticism to be made of Conrad Richter, once we have acknowledged that he writes very well, that he recreates atmosphere excellently, that he is economic, impressive and dramatic in his effects: as a collector of early Americana he inclines too strongly toward the romantic only. There was more in the Old New Mexico than he gives us. A richer canvas, a bolder stroke, a certain ruthless candor would make Richter a writer of first order. He sees vividly, feels accurately, but in one range only—the poetic. He is in the grip of a continuous nostalgia (and that is the mood of this whole novel) for a dead past. And the reader of "The Sea of Grass" will be caught in this nostalgia for the old beauty of the grazing country ridden by powerful, proud men. He will sympathize, too, as Lutie and her son Brock did with the "nesters," the agricultural settlers. But he will feel all this only through identifying himself with one very small group of characters in their prouder and nobler moments. "The Sea of Grass" has not indicated that Mr. Richter's vision is greater. It has, however, indicated that he is studying his craft, through models, very carefully.
Eda Lou Walton, "Old Land of the Cattle Kings," in New York Herald Tribune Books, February 7, 1937, p. 2.
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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.
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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 cleverly worked-out bits come from research rather than a remembered past.
Perhaps Mr. Richter is more at home in the wilderness than among the humans who tamed it; perhaps a deeper penetration into his subject, and more elbow-room, would have produced the novel he was trying to write. But "Tacey Cromwell" is an opulent canvas in a sketch-book. For all Mr. Richter's facility, he has crowded far too much into far too few pages. His story rings true in its major premise, but it does not stir the heart. (p. 7)
William Du Bois, "Mining Town West," in The New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1942, pp. 6-7.
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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 Hessians, as they did on many occasions, they drove home their hatred of Prussianism with the point of the bayonet. In this story, it should have been left at that; they were part of a revolution that took in every minority in America, but only part of it.
This isn't the best story Conrad Richter has done, yet it has the charm and the careful technique he gives to everything he writes. It is so much better than the usual padded historical romance that it deserves to be read. I only wish that Richter had told the story with no other thought than the telling; it would have made its own point.
Howard Fast, "'Pennsylvania Dutch' Heroes," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, August 22, 1943, p. 2.
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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 editors became aware of the existence of its author. Success, however, carried disillusionment with it, for the twenty-five dollar payment which Mr. Richter received only after screwing up enough courage to ask for it, was paltry…. This helps to explain the standardized mediocrity of the early Richter stories, with the exception of "Brothers of No Kin." Several of them were collected and issued as Brothers of No Kin and Other Stories (1924), and all that can be said for them is that they are "well-made" stories, tailored for the trade. Some have elements of nativism and local color, some have a glimmer of characterization, but for the most part they give the impression of assembly-line mass production which at best gave the author practice in the art of writing. The titular story belongs in a different category. It is a bare narrative of a man who in taking the sins of a friend upon his own head gives up the Kingdom of Heaven…. In this simple story of faith and self-sacrifice, the outline of Richter's later humanism is readily discernible. (p. 415)
There was nothing new or startling about the Richter stories which began to appear in the magazines early in 1934. On the surface they were Western stories of a high order, authentic, carefully conceived, and skillfully narrated. Closer scrutiny reveals how vastly different they are from the type of Western to which Americans have become accustomed. These are stories of pioneer fortitude aimed at a depression-ridden world; and the contemporary soul, battered and bewildered by life, though them is brought into closer contact with people of another age who also lived, loved, struggled, and died but whose lives form a pattern out of which emerges completeness and serenity….
In the collection of short stories published as Early Americana (1936), Richter succeeded in relating the life of the nineteenth century Southwestern frontier to the life of the present. By depicting the people of that day during the course of the daily round of human contacts with the land, the weather, tools and equipment, enemies and friends, all against a colorful regional background, he achieved a realism that is not governed only by the outward aspects of drudgery, drabness, and despair. There were such qualities as courage and silent heroism; there was a record of solid and stubborn achievement, and Richter's insight into the spiritual side of a life that could be both drab and terrifying is a tribute to his painstaking research and his knowledge of human nature. (p. 417)
Richter is acutely aware of what this life meant to the women; some of his finest characterizations are brought about by little flashes of insight into the souls of these women. Not all of them are frontier heroines, but stoicism, perseverance, and a grim acceptance of conditions over which they have little control are marked characteristics. Pioneer fortitude can be sickeningly overdone; extreme realism is often a false indictment of a way of life. Such pitfalls are avoided by Richter, for his interest lies neither in the legendary heroine nor in the victim of frontier neuroses. His chief concern is with ordinary women to whom the life was neither heroic nor lacklustre; it was a life that had to be lived, and, when material values failed, spiritual forces could be drawn upon for sustenance. (p. 418)
For a writer of carefully constructed, almost condensed stories the planning of a novel [such as The Sea of Grass (1937)] must have presented some formidable problems. There were patterns to follow, but the long, padded epic so typical of American historical fiction did not appeal to him. Faced with highly theatrical material which verged on the melodramatic, he was brief and restrained almost to the point of taciturnity in his treatment of it. The result is a completely successful short novel which meets even the most exacting literary standards.
Mr. Richter's method is objective. Against a vast background of grassland and desert faithfully, even artistically painted, the dramatic essentials unfold. A quarter of a century of change is packed into a few pages without sacrificing either perspective or proportion…. [The Sea of Grass is the story] of change which destroys and builds at the same time, of the past which succumbs to the present and of the personal tragedy which attends the tide of progress. The vastness of the theme to some extent overshadows the characters, and in less skillful hands they would be little better than stock performers in a melodrama. The stage property effects of hero, villain, and fair lady may be seen; but since life itself is not free from melodrama, certain theatricalisms could not be avoided entirely. Had they been, the truth would have suffered. The irresistible force of agrarianism meeting the immovability of established tradition and use did not result in a clear-cut victory for either, and in reconstructing one such struggle Richter had added another chapter to our social history.
By 1940, when The Trees was published, Richter had reached his full stature as a proponent of the American heritage. In this novel he turns to the frontier of an earlier day, to the development of the old Northwest, and in this account of the pioneering experiences of a hardy, illiterate Pennsylvania family he epitomizes the whole story of Western settlement. There is none of the glamor of historical pageantry; there are no heroics, no carefully staged dramatic situations, no great names and no great deeds. This is a story of the common man told in the homely idiom of that man; a story in which the daily and the yearly round of primitive existence is faithfully described and one which recaptures the moods and thoughts of an age that was governed almost entirely by necessity. The natural simplicity of the story is in itself a work of art. Richter's familiarity with pioneer life, the result of many years of careful study, is nowhere permitted to appear obtrusive. What he achieves is a pioneer's eye view of frontier existence and of a group of people who "never preen themselves before posterity." You would have to seek far in American fiction to find a truer picture of how our pioneer ancestors really lived, and it is safe to say that The Trees is one of the finest novels on this aspect of American life ever written.
The Trees is not an historical romance, nor is it an historical novel. It is a realistic narrative of the experience of the Luckett family, who migrated across the Ohio into new territory; of the trace through the endless forest, the building of a cabin, the coming of other settlers, and finally the ultimate disintegration of the family unit. Each member of the family is well and carefully characterized…. The death of the mother and the growing restlessness of the father throw the burden of family responsibility on [the eldest daughter] Sayward, and as a consequence "Saird" becomes the central character in the book. No romantic heroine, she is the personification of all those qualities so essential in the frontier woman. (pp. 418-20)
[Many of the book's] episodes leave a lasting impression, and all are woven together with the bits of homely lore that were a part of the lives of pioneer people. Sayward's marriage to the Bay Stater, Portius Wheeler, ends the novel and marks the passing of the frontier. Settlement had come to the land and to the people of the land.
In Tacey Cromwell (1942) the scene is once again the Southwest, this time a mining community in Arizona Territory toward the end of the last century. As in his other novels, Richter has been meticulous in gathering his material and has steeped himself in honky-tonk and mining-town lore of the nineties…. Tacey Cromwell is the carefully patterned story of a prostitute and a gambler who attempt to cross the great divide into the land of respectability.
Richter is an observer of human frailty but never a judge. He lets facts speak for themselves and makes no effort to tamper with the realities…. [It] is the character of Tacey, hard, competent, strong, and understanding, that dominates the story. Laid against a regional background of a "society" emerging from the license of a frontier mining community, this short novel depicts an important phase in the growth of American culture.
Mr. Richter's recent novel, The Free Man (1943), has been something of a disappointment. For the first time the short novel form proves inadequate to the theme, and failings so carefully avoided in earlier novels are noticeable. Here the author's power of expression has proved unequal to the greatness of his conception. There is a consciousness of historical things which partially blacks out the human element. It is not that Mr. Richter is not sure of his material—it is more that he has not assimilated it as carefully as in his previous works or that he has attempted to compress too much into too little space. Certainly the theme of this novel was as close to his heart as anything he has ever written—perhaps it was so close that it interfered with complete objectivity. Whatever the cause, one feels that a much greater novel should have resulted and that had circumstances been right such would have been the case. The Free Man is not a creative failure. It has moments of brilliance and flashes of insight into character. But the plain truth is that the novel is not up to its author's exacting standards when, considering the subject matter, it should have been one of the best books he has ever written. (pp. 420-22)
Mr. Richter's chief contribution to Americana is a restrained realism which depends greatly on brevity and understatement for its effect. This, combined with an understanding of people, a feeling for historical things which transcends mere knowledge, and the ability to think and write in terms of his characters and their environment places him among the chosen few who have made the past of America come alive. (p. 422)
Bruce Sutherland, "Conrad Richter's Americana," in New Mexico Quarterly, Vol. XV, No. 4, Winter, 1945, pp. 413-22.
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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 which dialect speech sometimes has in a novel; instead it has the strength of eighteenth-century expressions and turns of speech, possessed both of vigor and of vividness.
Sayward, the heroine, is the portrait of a simple, eternal woman dominating in an instinctive way a husband who is far more educated and subtle than herself. The children are real children, each with his own personality….
"The Fields" is the kind of book which Americans of these times should read. In it they will be able to find a real sense of values, a fundamental strength. It is a down-to-earth book which is at the same time almost mystical in its appreciation of nature and of those forces from which we have derived so much of our strength in the past. Technically the book is simply but curiously constructed of a chain of incidents, each one of which illumines the characters and background and creates a satisfying unity. Nor has "The Fields" any of the disadvantages that sometimes afflict a sequel.
Louis Bromfield, "A Fine Novel of Pioneers in Ohio," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, March 31, 1946, p. 3.
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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 belong to the eager nationalism of the depression thirties, when writers as divergent as Van Wyck Brooks and Kenneth Roberts tried to find in the certainties of a recovered past an answer to the problems of the present. (p. 221)
But to many writers the past was glorious simply because it was the past rather than a pattern of continuity with the present. This was antiquarianism, uncritical and often sentimental, the past recalled because its finished story was remote from the disorders of our time. (pp. 221-22)
In his handling of the past Conrad Richter is an artist in prose. His short, compact novels demonstrate the fact that story-telling need not be subordinated to documentation of history, for reality of the imagination can be made more compelling than the appearance of fact. To him a story is always a record of human experience, regardless of time or setting….
Sometimes a writer's choice of title discloses the whole nature and scope of his work. In the case of Conrad Richter, Early Americana describes his interest in frontier life and his deep regional feeling. Out of the yellowing files of old newspapers, letters, land deeds, and out of tales heard at first hand from men and women who were pioneers in the early Southwest, he has enlivened and reshaped a group of stories in the primitive tradition of much Western fiction…. At the same time his stories have the flavor and drama of the West with the melodrama and sentiment drained away, and their authenticity warrants closer inspection.
The qualities which set these stories apart from the two-gun epics of the pulp magazines and Hollywood horse operas are precisely those which distinguish Conrad Richter as a writer: restraint, selectiveness, a use of surface details scattered with apparent casualness, and a close narrative structure which gives these details meaning, a texture of style. Early Americana yields a pure pleasure. This effect comes partly from the legendary nature of the stories themselves. We feel that this is the past and that these things have happened…. Partly, too, this effect is the result of a style that is always clear, supple, colloquial, with an occasional tribe figure of frontier speech in its phrasing.
Richter's handling of idiom, character, and the acts of living reveal the working of a point of view. His stories are projected into a middle distance where his people act freely, away from the passions and prejudices of the present. In this middle distance the rigors and dangers of the frontier do not enlarge upon life for pictorial or dramatic effect; they are its actual substance. If the present intrudes briefly upon the past, as it does in several of the stories, it is only because the lives of these people stretch into our own time. Here we perceive the shaping of a narrative method. Some of these stories are told in reminiscence by a character who stands solidly upon the scene but somewhere on the circumference of action. The advantages of this method are twofold. The story of reminiscence takes in both past and present, and it is a form particularly suited to the literature of a late frontier like the Southwest. (pp. 222-23)
The few realistic and intelligent novels about the West have been ignored by criticism, which now takes the conventions and clichés of the Western story for granted. Writers of real talent … have passed almost without notice.
Something of the same indifference surrounded The Sea of Grass when it appeared…. Yet it was plain to anyone who read that the power of the novel lay in its theme … and that the novel as reminiscence was for Richter the best way to tell the story….
The Sea of Grass is first of all a book about people. (p. 223)
These people are superior to their background. We are not reading a local colorist. The surface decoration of most Western fiction—night herding, the roundup, cowboy sprees—is lacking here….
Richter's narrator is a realist. He makes no comment where none is needed.
Tacey Cromwell has the same reminiscent pattern…. In the hands of another writer it might have been a sentimental or moral lesson of the price a bad woman must pay. Richter gives it an air of realism and restraint because it is told by a boy innocent of the social implications of the story but shrewdly observant of the results.
In The Trees Conrad Richter drew for the first time upon his own resources of family legend handed down from the early Pennsylvania-Ohio frontier. To read this novel is to enter completely the world of the past, to limit all thinking and feeling to a point of view that gives no hint of time beyond the lives of its people. This is the particular triumph of Richter's art. In one sense his novel is all detail about pioneer living, but every detail is lifelike. If Richter has his own ideas about the frontier experience, the pioneer waste, the lessons of hunger or pain, or the hardships of scratch farming in a forest clearing, we do not know what they are. Richter does not step forward to tell us what his novel is about, as another writer might do. It is enough that these things are, that they happen to the people he has assembled. Nor are they assembled so that the story may get under way. They suddenly stand before us, stepping upon the scene as the Luckett family walk out of the forest twilight and go about their business. Things happen by themselves and are understood in themselves. The story unfolds as simply and naturally as the succession of the seasons.
If the novel has a theme, it is the theme of man's seeking. (pp. 224-25)
This is the only novel I know that makes us feel what the first settlers must have felt when they faced the wilderness of trees on the American frontier, the gloom of deep woods where the sun never shone, the terror of straying from dim trails on the forest floor. These trees are not objects of natural beauty; they are a barrier that threatens man's survival. It is easy to understand the frontiersman cutting and burning to clear his fields and to destroy the woods where wild animals and raiding Indians lurked. (p. 225)
The Fields carries forward the story of The Trees. Here is the second stage of the conquest of the frontier. The game has almost disappeared; Indians are no longer a menace. Now is the time to farm the land and build a meeting-house and a school. Slowly a frontier settlement takes shape…. Outwardly very little happens in this novel, but big scenes are not needed to show the hard work and slow growth that built a frontier community.
Painstaking research underlies these books, but they illustrate the fact that the more a novelist knows about a region or a period the less his atmosphere depends on local color for its effect. Conrad Richter has a great fund of information of the precise sort that a historical novelist must have…. This knowledge, however, is never more than the underpinning of his story. There is no surface decoration here—merely the facts of pioneer existence springing from a background of simple necessity. The remarkable fact is that he has accomplished so much with so little reference to actual history…. 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.
The Free Man is a fable of the common man's will to freedom. It is the moving and often tragic story of early patriotism in the Pennsylvania Dutch settlements…. The novelette has the knowledge of place and time and the quiet narrative charm found in all Richter's books; the story is dramatic and real, the characterization full and authentic; but the final effect does not quite carry conviction. (pp. 225-26)
Conrad Richter's novels give the impression of definite achievement within a limited field. Alfred Kazin, however, has recently pointed out the importance of the minor writer in an age of crisis like our own…. Richter works within a recognizable and authentic folk tradition. He is an example of Kazin's minor novelist, the traditional story-teller. In The Trees and The Fields people and story are sufficient to support the structure and meaning of these novels, without need for a larger framework of topical reference. The simple and sometimes lyric effects of Richter's work are the results of a discipline that shows itself in several ways.
Form is always appropriate to the themes and substance of his books. Perhaps it is significant that he began as a writer of short stories, for he seems to have little talent for the loose-gaited novel as it has usually been written in America. His method at best is episodic rather than chronological. Externally The Sea of Grass consists of only three episodes which span a generation in time. Several of the chapters in The Trees and The Fields exist as short stories complete in themselves. These books derive from the earlier novella, a determinable form of single effect…. Richter has mastered the unity of effect which the short novel demands.
In the process he has tuned a simple, colloquial style rich in elemental feeling and precise in narrative effect. It is the pioneer speech assimilated from old letters and records and regional imagery, just remote enough from our own speech to be convincing but never archaic. (pp. 226-27)
Conrad Richter's novels are regionalism as art. Although criticism cannot grow too solemn over them they deserve attention because they have added much to our understanding of the regional scene. (p. 227)
Dayton Kohler, "Conrad Richter: Early Americana," in College English, Vol, 8, No. 5, February, 1947, pp. 221-27.
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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 complete subduing of the terrifying forest and its conversion into one of the richest agricultural areas on earth. The third concerns the birth and rise of the town, on the very site of that first rude cabin which Sayward, as a small girl, saw raised in the wilderness out of the forest itself….
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.
For those who know Mr. Richter's books, the characters who did not die are still there, recognizable but changed as time and experience change people, softening or embittering them. Yet "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 even heroic in their own small ways. They talk and act like real people and while here and there, one encounters a crazy one or a criminal, these exist not as specimens for a psychiatrist crowding the whole of the scene to the exclusion of all else, but as your neighbors and mine in any ordinary American community. Not one of these characters is dull, for the author has that power of good novelists which finds interest in everything, so that he is able to make even the bore an illuminating study of boredom….
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. That is what the top level of all fiction has always been and must always be.
Louis Bromfield, "Another Volume in Mr. Richter's Fine Frontier Saga," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, April 23, 1950, p. 5.
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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 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 "Americus," Ohio. (p. 78)
Certainly The Sea of Grass is the best of these western tales and may be the best of all his novels. Essentially it is a swift-moving story told simply but in the words of a highly educated young man who observes its events. These spoken words retain the rich idiom and imagery of the pioneer West…. The inward feeling of the former days is reproduced, as well as the outward events. And the title itself becomes symbolic of all the westward pioneers whose prairie schooners sailed the sea of grass as the old clipper ships sailed the actual ocean. The metaphor is repeated throughout the book…. But the narrative remains simple and direct and the symbol incidental.
Three years later, in The Trees, Richter changed the locale from his adopted Southwest to his native Middle West, changed the time from the early nineteenth century to the late seventeenth and, most important, changed the mood and the symbols from the open sea of grass to the shut-in world of the "woodsies," living beneath the shadow of the primeval "trees."… But as [the] pioneer family plunges down beneath this sea of treetops, it enters a strange "dark country" submerged under "that ocean of leaves." From the sunlit surface of the southwestern sea of grass, Richter's Ohio pioneers enter a strange, dark, green, subsurface—sometimes subconscious and sometimes almost subhuman—world of primeval, uncivilized wilderness. This strange sea change gives his trilogy of the Ohio pioneers a quality unique in American literature.
Of course, The Trees can be read with enjoyment merely on the level of surface realism. (p. 79)
But the surface events are not so memorable as their impact on the minds of these pioneers—and of the reader….
[The] dark world beneath the shadow of the trees, with the darkness it produces in the minds of the characters, is the true theme of the novel. Moreover, it determines the plotting also….
This novel, told on the level of concrete reality, thus becomes also a kind of symbolic tale of the American racial unconscious, in which the mythical pioneer reverts to savagery, both in action and in thought, in order to deal with the savagery of the wilderness. It describes the death of a part of the old civilization in this wilderness, the painful survival of another part, and the rebirth of a new, frontier civilization with the clearing-away of the trees and the settlement of the new land. On the level of myth and symbol the novel suggests the dark night of the soul which accompanied the racial experience of Americans, almost unique in the history of civilization, and the gradual "illumination" which followed.
The Fields and The Town continue both the realistic story and the imaginative myth. On the level of realism these novels describe the gradual growth of the family of Portius Wheeler, frontier lawyer, and of Sayward Luckett Wheeler, his wife, with their nine children, until at last the father and mother die and the youngest child reaches maturity. And they describe the gradual growth of the community in which they live from a scattered group of frontier homesteads to an incorporated town, which itself is finally incorporated into an industrial America by the arrival of the new railroad and telegraph. All the external events are narrated in realistic detail…. (p. 80)
The plot of these novels is realistic but complex and suggests something more than a surface realism. Briefly, Portius and Sayward Wheeler have eight children, but after the eighth the ill wife withdraws from marital relations and the husband turns to the new young school-mistress, who has a girl child named Rosa. But Sayward hastily accepts her husband back, and a last child, "Chancey" Wheeler, is born. Meanwhile the schoolteacher is married off to Portius Wheeler's disreputable old crony, Jake Tench, and Rosa grows up as one of their slovenly household. The last half of The Town describes poignantly the fore-fated romance of the rebellious young Chancey Wheeler with his half-sister Rosa—a romance which ends inevitably with her suicide after Chancey, who has been told the truth, breaks off the relationship. Meanwhile the other eight Wheeler children grow up, the town grows up, and the nation of which it is a part grows up toward maturity. Against this background of history the individual characters are born, live, prosper, suffer, and die.
Ultimately, of course, the characters make the novel, and this trilogy contains characters as interesting as any others in American fiction. (pp. 80-1)
Conrad Richter not only has created a wealth of pioneer characters, and by their relationships suggested something of the patterns of early American life, but sometimes also has put into their mouths memorable affirmations of the values of that life…. Sometimes embodied only in character and event, sometimes suggested in symbol, rarely explicit, this "something deeper and more mysterious" [which one of the characters wonders about] always gives depth and significance to Conrad Richter's pioneer novels. Sailing the sea of grass in their prairie schooners or plunging beneath the surface of a sea of leaves into the dark wilderness of early Ohio, his pioneers live not only as actual adventurers but also as explorers of the primeval past and the racial unconscious. While they cut down the trees and plow the fields and build the new town, they also remember something of the mythical wisdom of the race—and suggest its continuing value for our times also. (p. 83)
Frederic I. Carpenter, "Conrad Richter's Pioneers: Reality and Myth," in College English, Vol. 12, No. 2, November, 1950, pp. 77-83.
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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 volumes, and wonderfully perceptive full-length portraits of subtly developed characters. There is a rare quality in these glowing pages—the most finished yet unobtrusive artistry, and a profound understanding of the pioneer character as it was manifested in and affected by a way of life now vanished from the earth. These three novels are rich with the special atmosphere of the constantly changing past; and also with a special, intangible atmosphere appropriate to the characters' emotions in various circumstances. Without affectations or stylistic flourishes, Conrad Richter charged his trilogy with intense emotion, an austere but pure and genuinely poetic feeling.
As the climax of The Town approaches it becomes apparent that this is not just a superb chronicle of a forest hamlet from the first tree cut down by Sayward's father to the bustling energy of a Civil War city, nor just Sayward's story and that of her husband and children, although it is both of these things. It is also a carefully worked-out and dramatically developed contrast between the diametrically opposed characters of Sayward and her youngest son, Chancey. (pp. 138-39)
Like Sayward in her old age, and like Sayward's feckless, forest-vagrant father, Conrad Richter seems to yearn nostalgically for the life of the wilderness, when the world was still as God made it, unspoiled by towns and factories and railroad tracks; and for the simple virtues of the pioneers—courage, loyalty, friendliness and hardihood. This rosy impression of the forest life of the frontier may be one-sided and a little sentimental; but it is an integral part of Mr. Richter's work. He has not overlooked the suffering and privation, the failures and disasters of the pioneers. But the inner core of his trilogy had to be admiring if it was to express, as I believe it does, Mr. Richter's nostalgia for the lost world of the Ohio pioneers.
So the Ohio trilogy is, in its spiritual essence, a muted and mournful lament over time and change, realistic in detail but lyrical in mood. Sayward and Mr. Richter neither deny nor defy the never-ending tide of change; but they don't like it and they are firmly convinced that it would be a good thing for the world if more people met the depressing changes of modern life with the self-reliant grit of the pioneers. (p. 140)
Orville Prescott, "The Art of Historical Fiction: Richter, Guthrie," in his In My Opinion: An Inquiry into the Contemporary Novel, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1952, pp. 133-45.∗
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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 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 use the standard illiteracies, substituting "er" for the terminal "ow" in words like window, follow, and borrow, turning "yellow" into "yaller" and "sermon" into "sarment," making "afeard" out of "afraid" and "cam" out of "calm."…
Homely idioms recur in the Luckett conversation…. A woman who speaks out of turn is ironically presented: "Idy Tull had to go and say sweet as sap that has stood too long and started to work."
Chapter epigraphs in The Town illustrate the same interest in folk speech….
The emergencies of family life far from the amenities and resources of civilization often produce odd bits of traditional lore or superstition. Particularly when immediate medical care is required do such survivals emerge from the reservoir of the past. (p. 9)
Superstitions transmitted from one generation to another sometimes affect the actions of the characters. Worth once shot an albino deer but refused to bring home the meat because he considered it tainted….
Staves of old ballads and fragments of folk songs remotely derived from the border minstrelsy of another land are heard occasionally. Song makes monotonous chores less dreary or reflects the mood of the character…. (p. 11)
Characters who can neither sing nor recite often rely on the proverb or maxim to explain conduct at critical times or to express their own thoughts more aptly. (p. 12)
In her physical and social maturity Sayward grows farther away from the primitivism of her people. Her speech changes slightly and is less colloquial and illiterate. She has little need to rely on the cures, customs, and even domestic practices derived from tradition; outwardly she conforms more and more to the amenities of a developing civilization. Proverbial wisdom comes less frequently from her lips, the superstitions of the frontier have vanished, and much of the life of the folk has been supplanted by the conventions of the town. (pp. 12-13)
Sayward's own children, nine in number, are reared in a somewhat different environment and come to their maturity in the town of Americus rather than in the backwoods hamlet of Moonshine Church. In other words, the circumstances of life for the first generation in the forests of Ohio are quite different from the social compulsions experienced by the second. It is not only that the physical dangers of Indian attacks, of wild beasts, and of imminent starvation have disappeared, but that Sayward's children are reared in a period when personal security, a certain amount of schooling, and social respectability are established commonplaces. Sayward herself may revert occasionally to the customs or speech of her youth, but her husband Portius, except for an early period as a fugitive "woodsy," has always regarded primitive life with Back Bay contempt, and the Wheeler children quickly forget their period of cabin existence.
As a consequence, Conrad Richter employs substantially less folklore in The Town than in the two preceding novels. Occasionally he utilizes the homely language, especially in describing Sayward's moods or deeds, that marks the first novels…. Similarly, the colloquialisms of Sayward's children are the everyday abbreviations and slang of town speech rather than the older idioms of the frontier folk. Proverbs and maxims appear less frequently in the conversation. Doctors with professional training have made unnecessary the old reliance on popular cures and nostrums. Catches of old songs, vulgar riddles, country superstitions, folklore references are less a part of diurnal existence. (pp. 13-14)
But if the final novel of Conrad Richter's trilogy seems little indebted to folklore, there can be no question of the special vitality which folklore gives to The Trees and The Fields. The Luckett family and, at least in their youth, the Wheeler children live much of their lives in accordance with past conventions and traditions. Their hunting activities, the preparation of their food, their remedies in case of illness, the ceremonies of birth and marriage and death, their simple religion, their response to the supernatural, their social mores, all owe much to the dictates of the folk. Conrad Richter's fiction is the richer and the more convincing because he has seen fit to incorporate such material in his dialogue, action, and characterization. And if the portrait of Sayward Luckett Wheeler is the finest portrait ever drawn in fiction of the American frontier woman, it might be contended that her excellence rests squarely on Richter's depiction of her as a woman strongly if often unconsciously influenced by racial and folk tradition. Her cultural legacy makes her what she is and demonstrates the tremendous importance of folk survivals in the frontier period. (p. 14)
John T. Flanagan, "Folklore in the Novels of Conrad Richter," in Midwest Folklore, Vol. II, No. 1, Spring, 1952, pp. 5-14.
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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. 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, homesteaders. Although violence enters into many of the tales, the reader is spared much of the actual brutality. Killings and mutilations are reported rather than photographed, and the rumored Apache outrages suggest a destiny which is always imminent but seldom an actuality. To insure life in such a world of savagery certain basic qualities were essential. Richter's men are quiet, tight-lipped, hawk-eyed, self-reliant, determined, proud. His women often lament the providence that brought them to the southwestern plains and criticize the men who led them there, but they remain despite their loneliness, isolation, and danger. Men and women alike possess the courage which alone can guarantee survival.
Reduced to basic events, Richter's plots are simple episodes. (p. 190)
The stories are short, succinct, uncluttered. Never interested in documentation for its own sake, Richter selects authentic details but uses them sparingly. Scenes are suggested rather than underscored. Atmosphere is more important than a specific canvas. Yet emotions are kept taut, and strong impressions of passion and danger are conveyed. Proceeding somewhat like an impressionistic painter, Richter employs bright and challenging colors but concentrates more on mood and tone than on unblurred outline.
In 1937 appeared his familiar novelette of New Mexico ranch country, The Sea of Grass…. In Conrad Richter's version of a familiar pioneer theme, the hero exults in his fight against nature and a crude environment, but the heroine is resentful, dissatisfied, and finally a fugitive. Yet neither husband nor wife perishes in the struggle, and with the occupational feud in the region settled by nature, the story ends quietly.
In his third volume about the Southwest, Tacey Cromwell, which appeared in 1942, Richter eschewed the grasslands for the more sophisticated and more seamy life of the small mining town…. Richter was less successful here than in The Sea of Grass in fusing atmosphere and characters. The scenes are too often the finely outlined but metallic plates of an album, accurate, colorful, but remote. If Gaye is an acceptable but conventional gambler who sincerely wishes to find a less parasitic profession, Tacey is harder to accept, the scarlet woman with the heart of gold whose reform is perhaps genuine but is not made convincing. Her life does not have the passionate justification of sin that makes Hawthorne's Hester Prynne memorable; she is cold and marmoreal. (pp. 191-92)
The Lady [is] a novelette in form which evinces all the charm and impact of a subtle artistry. Again the setting is the New Mexico of the past, the period of the open range which is fought over by ranchers and sheepmen. And again racial strands are mixed in the figures of the story. Aristocratic inheritance and opportunist cupidity symbolize the rival parties, and in the end the heritage evaporates and the avarice is cooled by death. (p. 192)
The reader of Richter's three southwestern romances cannot fail to observe a technique which suggests Willa Cather, despite a difference in scene and milieu. Avoiding an omniscient point of view and avoiding also a point of view limited to the protagonist, he has three times chosen as his narrator a young male relative of the chief family, who is occasionally in attendance, who reflects the crucial events, and who retains a warm and close interest in the action. (p. 193)
In setting as in characterization Richter … relies heavily on suggestion and atmosphere. No scene is ever fully developed, and there are many hiatuses in plot continuity. Yet, particularly in The Sea of Grass and The Lady, the reader is eminently conscious of a viable milieu and social order.
Like Willa Cather again, Richter is selective. Neither writer has any sympathy for the naturalistic technique, which requires complete documentation, a deliberately slow unfolding of the story, and too often a conscious choice of seamy and vicious elements. Life in the Richter romances is actually far from pretty…. Adultery and bribery are common practices. But the romances do not focus primarily on these things, and they are seldom exaggerated. Repetition and attenuation are not key devices here. Sensational events are suggested or reported, and they exist primarily for their effect on motivation and characterization. Even details of setting are sparse but crucial. The cool patios, the dusty plazas, the adobe buildings, the whitened sand-deep roads, the sun-baked mesas establish the scene irrevocably without need of elaboration. (p. 195)
Despite the fact that Richter has devoted four books of fiction to New Mexico and contiguous territory, he has never depicted the contemporary scene in a novel…. Because of this historical orientation he has been forced to derive the substance of his tales from literary sources, and when he has allowed his imagination free play he has peopled the trails and ranches of another time. One can be grateful to Conrad Richter for his accomplishment, an accomplishment which establishes him as one of the most successful and durable storytellers of our day…. (pp. 195-96)
John T. Flanagan, "Conrad Richter: Romancer of the Southwest," in Southwest Review, Vol. XLIII, No. 3, Summer, 1958, pp. 189-96.
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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 awareness, the re-creation of the past is marvelously evocative….
But for John Donner this is a journey of discovery into greater depths than to talk on a summer evening of a time lost and gone…. He is driven, "back here at the source," to seek answers to questions which had become increasingly insistent to him with his years. (pp. 1, 11)
The novel closes with John Donner's sure conviction that he will meet his mother "tomorrow," and that with their meeting will come fuller knowledge and understanding. The reader can only hope that the story of John Donner's search will be carried forward into this tomorrow in a further volume. (p. 11)
Coleman Rosenberger, "Mr. Richter's Magic Touch," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, April 17, 1960, pp. 1, 11.
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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.
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 reality must fuse, he looks in a mirror and realizes that the face in his childhood nightmares was not his father's, as he had suspected, but his own: the spectre of his future self, "marked with the inescapable dissolution and decay of his youth." Convinced that the "son-father-hate legend" is falsehood, he feels that he has exorcized the very root of fear and is free to die in peace. (p. 4)
Mr. Richter's device for mingling Time is successful; it is unfortunate that the revelation for which his portentous prose and insistent symbolism have prepared us seems disappointing. To challenge Freud's theories about the Oedipus complex may be a worthy objective, but it doesn't belong to the realm of fictionalized revelation. Mr. Richter's style and method are still perfectly matched, but neither one suits his message. In attempting to dramatize what he took to be a universal truth, he has made the mistake of employing fantasy to expound a private argument. (p. 5)
George R. Clay, "Mirror of the Future," in The New York Times Book Review, May 1, 1960, pp. 4-5.
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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, Harry Donner, with his dark moments and occasional nights of secret groaning, is a convincing picture of a simple but not silly soul, one who finds human beings inherently worth the compassion and self-giving that come natural to him.
From a purely formal viewpoint, there are things about the novel that trouble and confuse the reader at moments. The movement of the narrative is jerky, and one coal town and church seem to fade into the next without clean transitions. But the total impact of "A Simple Honorable Man" is of a particular beauty. If the words were not somehow hard to utter nowadays, one would say it is the beauty of goodness. (p. 26)
Chad Walsh, "A Stubborn Seer of Latent Goodness," in The New York Times Book Review, May 6, 1962, pp. 4, 26.
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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 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 accomplishment for having subdued the forces encountered in this great continent. Theirs is the literature neither of protest nor of disillusion. For them the dream was not an illusion because it was a sober dream. There were casualties, to be sure, but they accepted them as part of the price man has to pay for any adventure. And for the men and women who had the strength to survive, the rewards were substantial. (pp. 311-12)
Richter has had from his youth an attraction for the vigor of American pioneers…. He mourned the passing of the frontier because he felt that with its passing this quality of vigor would pass too…. Conrad Richter's greatest contribution to American letters is his tireless effort to put into fiction the setting and the people of an important moment in our nation's history. In the best of his novels and stories that moment lives again. (p. 312)
His first stories gave evidence that he would never write "crowded" works and that he was a good story teller, at least insofar as he wasted few words in presenting any situation. What is not clearly evident in these early stories, but what is an important aspect of all of his thinking, is his nostalgia for his ancestors and his own youth, and with this, a nostalgia for America's past…. Through story and research he uncovered in the American past a breed of giants that satisfied his deep desire for an image of man as hard working and persevering, as a force which triumphed over adversity. (pp. 312-13)
In the work of Conrad Richter, choosing the more difficult way always leads to success….
Conrad Richter has never written a novel which does not have as one of its themes the American pioneer's struggle and resultant strength. But the place where this theme is his central and abiding concern is his trilogy. (p. 313)
On one level the trilogy is a realistic account of the settlement of the Ohio valley. Everything from household utensils to manners of speech has been conscientiously recorded by Richter. On another level the story is one more chapter in man's endless struggle with the forces of nature. (pp. 313-14)
In The Fields … Richter continues some of the techniques he used in The Trees to insure the faithfulness of his portrait of the early settlers. The language he writes in is the language his research revealed as spoken by these pioneers. Other elements of their lives which he includes to advantage are the prevalent folk tales, folk myths, and superstitions. As the action progresses from the primitive world of The Trees to the more complex world of The Town the language becomes more sophisticated and the superstitions begin to disappear. These details thus further help him in his effort to portray the many changes that occurred in the Ohio valley over the period covered in the trilogy.
In The Fields agrarian concerns are predominant. New settlers move in and the nucleus of a small community is formed. While the fierce individualism of the hunter is no longer in evidence, the people who stay and settle retain enough of their will for self-government to make the rude democracy which operates in such a community extremely vital…. In the course of time the dark woods are replaced by the first faint lights of spirit and intellect. (pp. 314-15)
In [The Town] the portrait of the great pioneer heroine Sayward is completed, but here she shares the protagonist's role with her youngest son Chancey; he is the spokesman for "modern" social thinking, she for the pioneer's views. This contrast between two ways of life, one soft and the other hard, forms the core of the novel, and it gives Richter a chance to state clearly his views on both ways—he leaves no room for doubt as to where he stands. As the trilogy nears its end one thing becomes very clear: the pioneer's way was a hard way. Faced with the problem of survival in a hostile environment, he either met the challenge or perished. Most of our vaunted American practicality (and some of our materialism and anti-intellectualism too) was developed in this life or death contest.
Richter's trilogy is a paean of praise for the American pioneer spirit. In The Town the gospel of hard work is preached relentlessly…. The folks who didn't want to do anything on the American frontier perished. Chancey, standing at his mother's deathbed at the end of The Town, is just beginning to realize the sense of his mother's way of life. There is a dignity that hard work gives to a human being, no matter what the task at hand. (p. 315)
Conrad Richter's West is not the romantic, idealized West of some authors, nor is it the harsh, drought-ridden West of others. It had something of value to be won from it, and the key was hard work. (p. 316)
Marvin J. LaHood, "Richter's Early America," in University Review, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Summer, 1964, pp. 311-16.
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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 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, Chariter's episode in the household of Squire Goddem, and you pretty well have the picture of Conrad Richter's vision of life in a Western Maryland mountain community. One has the slightest intimation, in reading all this, of a sometime struggle between the life-arranging insistence of the elders and the self-determination of the young. Certainly, this must be the only theme that the "grandfathers" of the novel can possibly serve…. [Conrad Richter has produced] a body of imaginative Americana which must sooner or later attract some critical attention. The early nannies who made clucking sounds of excess admiration for The Sea of Crass, for example, did not much help his cause by calling it a classic the day it was out. Following this, he was struck with one success after another …, before the age of [J. D.] Salinger and [John] Updike set all too solidly in. All to the good; but one is hard put to recall the vivid recreation—or even the name—of a single memorable character in this body of work. Neither has it, apparently, in any memorable or archetypal instance, recreated what must have been the traumatic experience of the American Adam reborn in the dark womb of the American continent.
In any case, with the writing of The Grandfathers, we are told that Richter has attempted something quite different from his other books; and one supposes that this simply means that the latest one has a slightly larger dose of country humor than the others. This granted, however, it is incredible that Richter could have attempted even this minor episode with so little awareness of what, in his own time, has already been done in the genre of American pastoral: by Jesse Stuart in Taps for Private Tussie, John Steinbeck in Cannery Row, William Faulkner in The Reivers, Erskine Caldwell in God's Little Acre, and (seriously) Al Capp in "Li'l Abner." The first of these alone, and in itself a grossly underrated minor classic, is a far more engaging book than Richter's. The awakening of the young boy (Jesse Stuart?) to the wonder and fierce desire for book-learning seems much more genuine to me than Chariter's emergence from bucolic pubescence to tribal matrimony. And so on. (p. 67)
Thomas P. McDonnell, in a review of "The Grand-fathers," in The Critic, Vol. 22, No. 6, June-July, 1964, pp. 67-8.
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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, 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 European roots. (p. 118)
[One] of the novel's basic weaknesses [is] the improbable union of the lowly Henry Free and the aristocratic Amity Bayley. (p. 119)
And this flaw of plot underscores a more crucial failing of characterization. The Free Man is a vignette; as such it should provide a much clearer picture certainly of the protagonist, Henry Free, and also of his antagonist-turned-mate, Amity Bayley. In the effort to impress upon the reader Henry Free's love of freedom and his difficulty in earning it, however, Richter stresses brutality at the expense of affection that is necessary to bind the reader to the boy…. Moreover, the failure of Richter to depict Amity Bayley as a rounded personality results in her emerging as something more nearly resembling a china doll than a flesh-and-blood person. And it links her with a character likewise inadequately portrayed, Rudith Watrous of Tacey Cromwell.
Despite their flaws of characterization and their improbable mating, Henry Free and Amity Bayley in marriage do perform the service of illustrating one of the themes of the novel. Through the union of German and English, Richter … presents the theme of America as a melting pot of ethnic groups. It is a concept that the author had dealt with previously in "As It Was in the Beginning" and with which he would deal again in The Light in the Forest and in The Lady. The melting-pot concept is a corollary of the larger theme of historic change, which, in Richter's fiction, grows out of the processes of "westering." And The Free Man—set earlier than any other of the author's works growing out of such processes—thus demonstrates that, virtually from the beginning of European civilization in America, ethnic lines dissolved through marriage. In turn, the themes of historic change and America as a melting pot recall Richter's essayical theory of evolutionary progress.
Henry Free's successful fight for freedom represents a second theme related to "westering": hardship-into-gain. And the hardship—the adversity—harkens back to Richter's theory of human-energy supply and expenditure. In his philosophical essays, the author insists that adversity enables an individual to draw on supplies of energy from his own organism and consequently to satisfy an energy hunger. In The Free Man he implies that man collectively is enabled to satisfy the hunger for freedom by undergoing adversity. The theme of hardship-into-gain here is a link in the chain that extends throughout Richter's fiction.
The scope of Henry Free's life further stands for the theme of man's enduring and prevailing, a concept closely related to the essayical theory of evolutionary progress. But, in the course of "westering," man does not always endure. The Swiss and German settlers who die aboard the ship that brings Henry Free to America, for example, illustrate the failure. Of these, the youths who die reinforce the novel's theme of the tragedy of youthful death. Youthful death, a negative corollary, is a theme likewise employed by Richter in Early Americana, The Sea of Grass, The Lady, The Trees, The Fields, and The Town.
Shoring up these themes, with their overtones of freedom, are at least two obvious symbols in The Free Man. The iron collar Henry Free wears as an indentured servant represents forces that restrict man's freedom. And Queen Street, on which Amity Bayley resides in Reading, stands for aristocracy that would compel others to servitude.
As a historical service, The Free Man reveals important but unfamiliar aspects of American nationhood and the part played by the Pennsylvania Dutch with their "little Declaration of Independence" as early as April and May of 1775 and with their introduction and development of the pioneer rifle. These actual events, as well as the other themes, result in the novel's making a plea for international understanding and brotherhood. (pp. 119-21)
[In the second interlude], Always Young and Fair, Richter turned for the first time since his short stories of 1913–33 to the Pennsylvania of his youth. (p. 121)
In essence it is the story of a representative segment of Teddy Roosevelt's America, of the serene, bucolic life often referred to as the "age of innocence." Its final chapters, however, link the novel with Woodrow Wilson's America. And one of the strong points of the work is its successful re-creation of the spirit of the times and place.
Against this background, Richter again employs a youthful narrator to tell the story…. [And] like all of Richter's fictional predecessors, he is sufficiently detached to present an objective account. A portion of his detachment may be attributed here, as in nearly all of Richter's works employing a narrator, to the fact that Johnny for several years is away at college and thus unable to observe directly the events of a given moment.
As related by Johnny, Lucy Markle's story (like that of [F. Scott Fitzgerald's] Jay Gatsby) involves an attempt to stop the clock. In 1898, Private Tom Grail, aged twenty, dies in the service of Company G of the Pennsylvania National Guard in the Philippines. Supposedly he had been engaged to Lucy Markle, then aged eighteen, who, although thought by most actually to love Tom's cousin Captain Will Grail, was felt to be motivated by pity for Tom in her choice between the two.
Upon Tom's death, Lucy busies herself by caring for the dead youth's rheumatic father and in numerous other ways reflecting homage to Tom's memory. Initially she spurns the marriage offer of Will Grail, and, later, when she has consented, fails to appear for her wedding. The years speed by…. At a Legion hall dedication, Lucy hears a public reference to herself as a "well-preserved, gray-haired lady." Only then does she realize, in terror and with sudden resentment, that she, like all mortal flesh, has grown old and that only the memory of Tom Grail, to which she has devoted her life, has stayed forever fresh and unchanging—"always young and fair." In feverishly casting herself upon Will Grail, then, she thus prepares the way for the macabre denouement: shortly after their marriage, Will becomes an invalid for whom Lucy must care until the end of his days.
In Always Young and Fair, then, Richter has inadvertently veered into tragicomedy in reverse. Classical tragicomedy, of course, is a play with a plot suitable to tragedy but which ends happily like a comedy. Although doubtlessly intended as a serious vignette, Always Young and Fair revolves around personal actions so eccentric as to become ludicrous until the denouement, which takes a turn toward the tragic.
The character of Lucy Markle, with her vanity, her growing eccentricities, and her consuming egotism, is clearly drawn. But other aspects of characterization remain faulty. Primary among these flaws is the relationship of Lucy and Will Grail, each of whom lives unaccountably long within his own rigid reserve. That Will could be patient at first with Lucy's perversity is understandable; that he does not openly rebel earlier in a more vigorous way is not. Lucy and Will, nevertheless, become the only characters in Richter's fiction to end in tragedy because of their own willfulness, and they thus command greater attention than they might otherwise deserve. (pp. 122-23)
As an objective and realistic historical novel dealing with the relationship between the Scotch-Irish settlers of western Pennsylvania and the Tuscarawa (Delaware) Indians during 1764–65, The Light in the Forest has … [drawn praise] for its fidelity to ethnohistory. (p. 125)
Richter sets his story in 1765 in the Tuscarawa village at the forks of the Muskingum in Ohio and in western Pennsylvania. Then, using an omniscient point of view and the idiom of both the Indian and the pioneer settler, he relates the experiences of young John Cameron Butler: his captivity and rearing by Indians who name him True Son, his compulsory return by Colonel Boquet to his white parents, his inability to readjust to the white man's ways, and his unsuccessful attempt to return to his Indian foster parents. (pp. 126-27)
The title for The Light in the Forest Richter derives from a quotation from Wordsworth that prefaces the novel:
Shades of the prison-house begin to close Upon the growing Boy, But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, He sees it in his joy.
And inherent in the quotation is one of the basic themes of the novel: the restrictions that civilization places on the individual. This theme actually is a corollary of the larger concept of historic change that grows out of the processes of "westering" and historic change, in turn, is suggestive of Richter's essayical theory of evolutionary progress. As True Son, John Butler (like his adopted Indian brothers) lives as free as the open air. But returned to his white parents he experiences the constraints of civilization…. (pp. 127-28)
Still other corollaries of historic change, set forth in The Light in the Forest, are the themes of America as an ethnic melting pot (illustrated by the marriage of Little Crane and his white wife); the mixed allegiance of an individual to two opposing ethnic groups (represented mainly by John Butler); and the duality of civilization that is at once both good and evil (shown in the contrast between John's decent white father Harry, on the one hand, and his evil uncle Wilse, on the other). (p. 128)
The contrast between Indian and white, of course, is not simply that between good and evil; True Son at first thinks so but he ultimately and sadly learns better. The moment of truth, in which he discovers the Indian to be as savage as the white had insisted he was, haunts the boy…. Here, then, Richter introduces into his novel the theme of appearance and reality, and thereby touches also on the ambiguity of good and evil.
While objectively treating both white and Indian, the author still reflects something of a bias for the latter. His portrayal of True Son and Cuyloga reveals the author to be sympathetic with the Noble Savage concept of early Romantic literature in America. Further strengthening this impression is the fact that only two of the whites … are depicted as having any genuine understanding of the plight of the Indian-like white boy.
In thus sympathizing with the Indian, Richter brings to the novel the theme of brotherhood. The Light in the Forest thus resembles two earlier novels and a like number of earlier short stories. One of its predecessors, Tacey Cromwell, pleads for tolerance of human frailty, with the theme reinforced by the reaction of so-called "respectable" women to a reformed prostitute. And the two stories, "Good Neighbors" and "The Laughter of Leen," inspired by World Wars II and I, respectively, call for understanding of a nation's wartime enemies in foreign countries. The Free Man, written during World War II, also makes such a plea. The Light in the Forest ostensibly explores still another side of the theme of brotherhood by seeking to promote harmony between two opposing ethnic groups in the same country…. While the short stories belong to Richter's non-"westering" fiction, the three novels grow out of processes of "westering." For this reason, the theme of brotherhood in the longer works actually serves as a corollary of the larger concept of man's enduring and prevailing—an idea related to the essayical theory of evolutionary progress. (pp. 128-30)
In the corpus of Richter's fiction, brotherhood and its larger theme of man's enduring and prevailing signify success—evolutionary progress. But in the course of "westering" man does not always succeed. To illustrate this verity, then, the author admits into The Light in the Forest two negative corollaries: the tragedy of youthful death and the inability of Eastern woman to adjust to frontier life. (p. 130)
On the psychologically subconscious and mystical levels, The Light in the Forest promotes the theme of the mystique of the wilderness by revealing the Indians in close contact with nature and by contrasting their way of free living with the white's constrictions. The mystique of the wilderness is a corollary of Richter's theme of the organic unity of man and nature, which, in turn, recalls the essayical theory that all life is governed by natural laws. (pp. 130-31)
Finally, The Light in the Forest … continues the mystical theme of the search for and reconciliation with the Spiritual Father. John Butler becomes alienated not from one, but two (his white and his Indian) earthly fathers. And since the earthly father serves as a symbol of the Spiritual, he becomes isolated inferentially from the Spiritual. Compounding his problem, John does not understand his mother, whose love could provide a key to the understanding of his earthly (and hence his Spiritual) father….
[The Grandfathers] represents his fourth and final interlude to date…. [It] finds a place in the corpus of Richter's Midwestern fiction by contributing further to the panoramic view of life that the author continues to portray of his native Pennsylvania and environs. Moreover, the work is Richter's first to be devoted almost exclusively to comedy.
Although creating an initial impression that it serves as a depository for unused humorous anecdotes Richter has collected during his half-century of writing, The Grandfathers received favorable reviews. (p. 131)
The main story line, interlaced with tall tales and subsidiary episodes bordering on burlesque, causes The Grandfathers to veer dangerously close to farce. And in lesser hands than Richter's it would. One of the factors that mitigates against the work's degenerating into an installment of television's "Beverly Hillbillies" is its pastoral quality…. Richter, it is true, lacks the complex vision of [Robert Frost or William Faulkner], but he still is able to portray a rustic world that simplifies human conflicts and which thus evokes a response in the reader.
Further redeeming the novel from farce, Richter expertly applies liberal doses of authentic folklore…. In recreating a hell-fire-and-brimstone sermon, the author reveals a deft ear for folk speech…. (pp. 134-35)
Viewed for its contribution toward completing Richter's panoramic view of his native Pennsylvania and environs, The Grandfathers assumes still greater significance…. [Because] it is his first to deal with western Maryland, it tends even more to complement his panoramic view.
Finally, The Grandfathers proves meritorious in its fidelity to themes that Richter has promoted throughout his fiction. For all of its humor, the novel contains characteristic authorial seriousness. One example is an omnisciently poignant passage in which the reader learns that Ant Dib's twins will never grow up. Less "than a week before starting school, they would take spine fever, the boy first, the girl soon after, and both die within twenty four hours of each other." This revelation, coupled with the early death of Dick Goddem, is in Richter's thematic tradition of the tragedy of youthful death. (pp. 135-36)
On the psychological-mystical level, The Grandfathers, harkening back to Richter's essayical theories, repeats the themes of the search for the Father and for individual identity, and of altruism. All three are embodied in the thoughts and actions of Chariter, the psychic center of the novel….
These virtues notwithstanding, The Grandfathers is not without faults. Central among its shortcomings, the characters are derivative. (p. 136)
Another weakness occasionally appears in strained efforts for humor….
Structurally The Grandfathers is also derivative, but the practice in this instance is not objectionable. In Always Young and Fair, for example, Richter had employed a story-within-a-story to foreshadow the fate of his heroine. In The Grandfathers, he utilizes a similar device…. Like virtually all of Richter's novels, The Grandfathers is episodic.
Although creating the impression of being interludes—respites from the creative rigors of more ambitious works—The Free Man, Always Young and Fair, The Light in the Forest, and The Grandfathers still manage to perform useful fictional functions for Conrad Richter. The two of a purely historical nature (The Free Man and The Light in the Forest) enable the author to explore topics anterior to the subjects of his Ohio trilogy and thus to fill gaps helpful to greater appreciation of the larger novels. Written during the years of two wars, they also provide outlets for messages of patriotism, reassurance, and hope for a peaceful world characterized by brotherhood and human understanding. Always Young and Fair provides perhaps necessary preparation for the other two autobiographical novels to follow, The Waters of Kronos and A Simple Honorable Man; for it marked Richter's first return since his earliest short stories to the use of native materials. The Grandfathers is notable as Richter's first full excursion into comedy and also as his initial treatment of a segment of life in western Maryland. (p. 137)
Some of [Richter's works] reveal the author to have attuned himself to the problems of contemporary life and to current literary fashions. But others (including his best efforts) show him to have avoided both; however, in turning from the present to the past for fictional materials, he has consistently focused on human qualities that he considers fundamental to man's successful adaptation to modern complexity. And, if he has defied classification either as a Naturalistic-Realistic or as a psychological writer, he has embraced characteristics of all.
Richter is one of America's most autobiographical writers. Whether he is writing of his own time or of the past, he draws largely on personal experience—either that of himself or of his family and other persons he has known. But for his historical fiction he has added to materials obtained from these oral sources those gleaned from old documents, letters, newspapers. The use of the familiar, of course, is not inherently meritorious. To the contrary, it can result (as occasionally it does for Richter) in a tendency toward sentimentality. Too, it can lead (as it does not for Richter) toward didacticism. The real significance of Richter's dependence on the familiar is that it has turned him toward an introspection that prompts his works to veer more often than generally recognized toward the mystical and mythical.
Again, the indulgence in mysticism and myth, especially for the mere sake of esotericism, fails to distinguish a writer. What does merit acclaim is the successful attempt to utilize mysticism and myth to find new forms for the novel and new concepts of man and history. But to suggest that Richter has thus succeeded would be to misrepresent his accomplishment. For the mysticism and myth with which he works are not new but conventional: the alienation from the earthly and Spiritual fathers and the subsequent search for reconciliation, and the assumption of guilt; and the myths of the making of the American racial unconscious; and time and individual identity. Hence, they do not contribute either to novelistic or to philosophical innovation. Neither, however, do the mythical and mystical elements in Richter's fiction reflect a purely esoteric purpose. They are organic parts of a whole. And the suspension thus created may be praised for the simple reason that it represents a successful attempt to elevate fiction above the level of mere popularization. In other words, Richter's mysticism and myth, while failing to reach bold new heights, at least place his fiction above that which never undertakes the task. (pp. 153-54)
Technically, Richter's artistry is perhaps first evident in concision of presentation. Most of his long fiction (which still averages less than two hundred pages) derives from the novella. In such a determinably short form of single effect, space and time are crucial. The author must forego the leisurely and chronological presentation of events to concentrate on central situations in the lives of the characters. To satisfy this requirement, Richter often has employed the middle-distance point of view, with a narrator sufficiently related to the principal characters to be aware of significant events, but detached enough to be objective. The result, in every instance except Tacey Cromwell, is the proper motivation of character and the adequate portrayal of event.
The deft portrayal of several characters likewise attests to Richter's artistry. Sayward Luckett Wheeler, of the Ohio historical trilogy, stands as the author's finest characterization, although Harry Donner, of The Waters of Kronos and of A Simple Honorable Man, remains in close contention. Both are portrayed as strong characters, but realistically with human failings. They epitomize elemental virtue without overly doing so. If their portrayals fail in any manner, it is because of their lack of complexity. Yet this deficiency is somewhat calculated: Sayward is essentially simple in order to form a complementary contrast with the complexity of her husband Portius and her youngest child Chancey; and Harry Donner is basically unquestioning in his religious convictions not only to underscore the troubled thoughts of his eldest son John but to reinforce the ideas of simple goodness. (pp. 154-55)
A simplicity of style, occasionally verging on the lyrical, enables Richter to create evocative settings. Punctuated with authentic and generous examples of folklore, it further permits him to re-create other "actualities" of time and place. Few writers have this quality that Robert Penn Warren calls a "true ear" for indigenous speech. Elizabeth Madox Roberts and George W. Harris before Richter had it; and Eudora Welty, Caroline Gordon, Erskine Caldwell, and William Faulkner—contemporary with Richter—have it. In this technique and among this company, Richter has no peer. And this achievement—combined with his successful presentation of plot, character, and setting—enable his better works to maintain an admirable unity of effect….
Richter's chief contribution, then, is in the field of historical fiction. Such of his works reflect an understanding of early man, a feeling for history (not per se, but the "actualities" of everyday life of the past), and the ability to think and to write in keeping with this understanding and feeling. The limitations of the genre, nevertheless, become those of its practitioner. (p. 156)
Yet his limitations do not deny Conrad Richter a position on the council of America's foremost historical novelists…. And if any have effectively dealt with elemental virtue, Richter has promoted with artistic restraint the worth of simple goodness. (p. 157)
Edwin W. Gaston, Jr., in his Conrad Richter, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1965, 176 p.
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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 written a companion volume to The Light in the Forest—A Country of Strangers…. This is the story of a girl, Mary Stanton or Stone Girl, who goes through a parallel experience. Married to an Indian, she flees with her infant son when she learns that she is to be returned to her white parents. Her flight finally takes her to Detroit, where she encounters another white girl who wishes she had been left with her Indian captors….
As in all his books I have read, Richter uses a style that is simple and yet scrupulously careful. Often one declarative sentence follows another as he describes a scene or presents a character…. Even when his sentence structure is more complex, as of course it mostly is, Richter's writing is direct and unpretentious.
Richter is by no means unaware that these two stories have a particular relevance to our own time. (p. 27)
Richter, as demonstrated by the lists of authorities to be found in several of his novels, has learned much about the old frontier, the land west of the Alleghenies. He has a feeling for the kind of life that was led there, its faults as well as its virtues but especially its virtues. His nostalgia, however, does not lead him into sentimentality, and he is incapable of the sensationalism that spoils so much of the fiction written about the pioneers. Although I am no authority on early American history, I suspect that his fiction comes as close to historical truth as fiction can.
It is a remarkable career that he has had, always and persistently out of fashion…. The great changes of the past fifty years must have touched him, but they have left no mark on his fiction. Yet he has always had a respectable body of readers, and honors have been paid him. His is not a name that comes immediately to mind when one is thinking of the important novelists of recent decades, but no careful history of American fiction in the twentieth century could ignore his work. He has been fortunate enough to have a sympathetic and loyal publisher … and he has a loyal following too. What his career hopefully suggests is that a man of talent and integrity may, with a little luck, thumb his nose at fashion and write the kind of books he wants to write. (p. 28)
Granville Hicks, "Caught Between Two Ways of Life," in Saturday Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 20, May 14, 1966, pp. 27-8.
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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 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 that the hardship of the camp has an immediate and salutary effect on the boy…. Once more, Richter succeeds in conveying the hardship-into-gain message of his philosophy, but in depending on transparently contrived situations and obviously manipulated characters he fails to write an artistically effective story.
When Richter moved to New Mexico, he was not expecting to make his living from writing. (pp. 376-77)
He certainly did not expect to be so completely inspired by the Southwest—its people, their values, the land—that he could do nothing but dedicate himself to writing about his experience….
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. He began writing tales of the frontier, authentic stories of danger and adventure on the early plains, which were in themselves both instances and examples of Richter's energy theories.
In the Foreword to Early Americana (1936), Richter explained that he sought to recreate in fiction the impact life in the early West had on its settlers. (p. 378)
[With the stories] in Early Americana, we notice a remarkable change in the quality of Richter's fiction. (p. 379)
Expressions of Richter's admiration for the past are found in all of his stories, but perhaps the title story in Early Americana includes the strongest utterance…. Richter wants his readers to understand, feel, and sense what it was like in earlier times. It is this attachment to the Southwest that gives his fiction a sensory quality and an immediacy missing in his earlier work. (p. 380)
Richter seems to be indicating that the rugged frontier life is meant only for those who can endure its rigors and become stronger individuals as a result of the constant perils they must face. Although Richter is once again demonstrating his theory that difficulties and problems strengthen character, he is no longer creating artificial circumstances to do so. Because frontier life was based on trials and adversities—the fiber of Richter's philosophy—he was able to focus on style and character portrayal in these stories.
Having learned how to control his material in short stories, Richter was ready to write novels. In all, he wrote three novels based on life in the early Southwest [The Sea of Grass, Tacey Cromwell, and The Lady]….
Richter's main goal in his Southwestern novels was to recapture the essence of life in the past. All three Southwestern novels thus emphasize the idea that men and women of the past were of greater stature than the people of the present. Their lives were filled with a stronger sense of values—values which have been lost with the passing of years. Richter felt that the lifestyle of the pioneers and frontiersmen allowed them to experience a fuller dimension of existence. Thematically, he depicts the conflict between the old and the new in these novels, the lyrical quality of which is a result of the captivating power of the Southwestern landscape over his imagination. (p. 381)
As he was writing these tales of the Southwest, Richter was continually reminded of the past he knew even better in the East…. Early life in the East now seemed filled with stories begging to be told. The experience of living in the West was catalytic. Once set in motion, Richter's mind was filled with more material than he could possibly use in his lifetime. The "rich bonanza" he had found in the West enabled him to find in his former locale the richness he had overlooked before. (p. 383)
[While both The Trees and The Fields, the first two novels of the trilogy, end optimistically,] The Town (1950), the final novel of the trilogy, begins on a foreboding note. Richter implies that although much has been accomplished, the toil and labor of improving life will never cease. The Town concludes the story of the small town of Americus, a story which microcosmically presents that which Richter feels has happened to the whole of America. Civilization has advanced materially, but the sturdy race of pioneers has faded, and their message has been misinterpreted and misunderstood. The desire for ease has supplanted the doctrine of hardship. The new breed neither understand nor want to understand the lessons taught by their ancestors.
Richter uses symbolism to convey a large part of the philosophical meaning of his trilogy. The characters are pitted against their environment in their struggle to carve civilization from the wilderness. Their chief antagonists in that struggle—the trees—emerge in retrospect as disguised friends, for the trees provided the obstacles which were necessary to keep the pioneers struggling. The thematic development of the novel is managed symbolically through the characters' changing reactions to the trees—which symbolize the rugged, natural environment. Richter's philosophical message, furthermore, is implied by the role played by the trees in the development of civilization and in the creation of a sturdy breed of individuals.
In the beginning of the trilogy, the trees represent the unknown, the wilderness behind which lie forces of unpredictable power. (pp. 384-85)
This "sea of trees" influences different characters in different ways…. The environment offers challenges to the pioneers, challenges which test their strength and stamina.
In The Trees, the characters—unaware of the forces which are molding them—are pictured as primitive types reacting to the natural forces which they must tame in order to live comfortably; in The Fields the characters begin to shed their innocence as they become conscious of their special circumstances…. Obviously the trees function as the motivating force in Sayward's life—a force which she will not allow to overpower her. The third novel of the trilogy, The Town, opens with a grim comparison of Sayward and the trees. Sayward realizes that she is getting older and that times have changed…. The town certainly offers her family many improvements, but Sayward begins to resent the ease-loving younger generation who expect to be treated generously and endowed with benefits they do not deserve. Sayward speaks out in favor of the older folks "who came here when all this ground was nothing save a howling wilderness."… She realizes that progress has not been entirely beneficial by any means: "The old order had changed, she told herself. The world she knew was gone…." And as if unconsciously recognizing her affinity to the trees, Sayward asks to have a tree planted outside her window. She is beginning to understand what made her kinfolk stronger than the younger folks; she is beginning to realize that her supposed enemies, the trees, are actually helpful friends.
As Richter presents it, the fate of the trees parallels the fate of the entire older generation. As the older trees are cleared away, new ones are planted which, beside the old, sturdy trees, appear weak and spindly. The older trees are finally appreciated, but only a few of them remain—certainly not enough to dominate the setting. Similarly, only a few members of the older generation remain; and their influence is also waning. The new growth, the younger generation, seem to be of a different mold; they are weaker and, therefore, scornful of their strong and proud ancestors.
The trees had represented an evil force at the outset of the novels, a force which ran counter to man's "westering" spirit. But that same evil was in the long view preparatory to a state of goodness in the men and women who had learned to conquer it. The trees had strong roots, and it was hard work to clear them away for a settlement; but the labor made the people sturdy…. (pp. 386-87)
In The Awakening Land, Richter not only presented a philosophy, but also provided the reader with a means for understanding a way of life…. The Awakening Land, through the atmosphere, the dialogue, and the characters' actions, gives us a strong vicarious experience, a sense of kinship with an understanding of our ancestors which otherwise we might not have.
To understand how he was able to create this feeling, we must remember that … when he was writing the trilogy, Richter was living in the West; and its atmosphere—the wide spaces, the mountains, the deserts, the forests—excited his imagination. Further, the oldtimers provided him with authentic tales of early life. Thus, Richter felt that he himself was experiencing as much as he could what life in early times was like.
He found he was able to transport himself in time, and by putting himself in the place of his characters, he was able to impart to his stories his own excitement about life. He felt that not many other people would have the opportunity he had to write accurately about early life because, to do so, one had to immerse himself in his work, living alongside and sharing experiences with the original pioneers and their immediate ancestors. As he explained, "the original pioneer stock, itself, was vanishing forever, swallowed up by the totalitarianism of civilization and progress, and no one except he who intimately knew and was spiritually akin to that mind could hope to detect the real from the flood of imitation or genuinely try to reveal its secret and peculiar treasure." In The Awakening Land, Richter achieves his goal of imparting "to the reader a sense of having lived for a while in earlier days." (pp. 387-88)
Dawn Wilson, "The Influence of the West on Conrad Richter's Fiction," in The Old Northwest, Vol. 1, No. 4, December, 1975, pp. 375-89.
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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 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 youthful Tom of the picture that Lucy has loaned to the post for the occasion, to the aging Lucy, awakens her with a tremendous shock that she has not remained young with her lover, but has aged. She begins to despise Tom because she feels that he has caused her to deceive herself. She tries to recapture what she had with Will, but he is no longer interested. She finally gets him to agree to marry her. Coming very late to the ceremony Will gets his revenge on her for her earlier humiliation of him. They go to Maine for their honeymoon but instead of returning to Pine Mills they go to Europe and remain there for five years. When they return their delay is explained, for Lucy has aged considerably and Will is a helpless cripple. Both are bitter. Only Tom has remained young and fair. (pp. 84-5)
When reading Always Young and Fair it helps to realize that Lucy and Will are not new characters in Richter's fiction; only what happens to them is new…. They are the only major characters in Richter's fiction who end in tragedy because of their wilfulness.
Richter is very careful to show how strong-willed Lucy and Will are precisely so that their actions will [seem convincing]. (pp. 85-6)
It is apparent that time is an important factor in Always Young and Fair. Lucy … tries to stop the clock. (p. 86)
This is an unusual novel for Richter who had erected his fictional world on a substructure of nostalgia. Here we see that there can be a destructive kind of nostalgia….
The book, while obviously different from Richter's other work, is in some respects very similar. In its use of a narrator who idolizes the heroine and is related to her, it is very much like the three novels of the Southwest. (p. 87)
[But] Lucy Markle is the only Richter heroine who ends so miserably. (p. 88)
Of all of Richter's works this most nearly fits into the genre of the psychological novel. It also has a curious strain of determinism in it. There is, throughout, the suggestion that Lucy and Will are "fated" to live the life they do. (pp. 88-9)
I call it a "curious" strain of determinism because there is a blending in the novel of the two causes of disaster: wilfulness and fate. This same kind of shadowy premonition of disaster also appears in the Ohio trilogy. There it assumes the character of superstition; here, occurring in a more enlightened age, it can be called fatalism.
This novel, published between The Fields (1946) and The Town (1950), shares with the latter, a sense of tragedy. Unlike The Town it is not didactic, nor are its tragic elements in any way relieved. It is a very short novel, and that may in some way account for its being vaguely dissatisfying. It is not a failure because … the characters' actions are not properly motivated. Rather, it does not attain the stature it might have because, unlike great tragedy, it is depressing; one feels no elation at the end. The two sufferers have learned only to envy and despise Tom, the fortunate third party who has escaped by real death the living death of their unhappiness. Tragedy gives a new nobility to life. Always Young and Fair manages only to make its protagonists envious of an early death. (p. 89)
The Grandfathers (1964) is a charming novel of rural America in the early part of this century. Chariter, the heroine, is a member of the Murdock clan of Western Maryland. The two or three years covered by the story take the Murdocks and some of their friends and neighbors through a series of episodes ranging from comic to tragic. They are drawn with Richter's undying love for people who are down to earth, vibrant, mostly honest, and true to themselves. Their speech and manners are evocative of a time and place in American life that seem attractively simple. (pp. 90-1)
This novel shares with Richter's others a careful attention to the way people spoke in the time and place depicted. The speech is authentic, the stories, customs, habits, and superstitions carefully researched and artfully woven into the fabric of the novel. The Grandfathers is a delightful low comic contribution to our literary record of American rural mores….
The Aristocrat (1968) was Richter's last novel. Set in the Pine Grove of his birth it sketches charmingly the last few years of an aristocratic lady, Miss Alexandria Morley. Miss Morley is patterned after an actual inhabitant of Pine Grove whose integrity, candour, strength, courage, and wit Richter obviously admired. She is, in all of these traits, a memorable addition to his other heroines. (p. 92)
Clearly, the center of the book is Miss Alexandria herself, "frail but indomitable", in her eighties, symbolizing with the Morley mansion a time long past, a time when strong men and women dominated society rather than be dominated by it. She has the pioneer intrepidity that helped make this nation great. An index of what has befallen us is the awareness on everyone's part that this kind of individualism is an anachronism. She suffers no illusions; she knows (as does Richter) that she is the last of her breed. What a dull place Unionville (Pine Grove) will be without her.
Writing about his Pine Grove, Richter is able to evoke the memory of a rural America that is delightfully recalled and whimsically yearned for. The Morley mansion clearly dominates it, but its new apartment house, neglected park, noxious dump, busy collieries, and impressive mountains all live with the life that only first-hand experience can be transmitted into.
Although Miss Morley's last few years are sketchily drawn …, the book is given greater substance by forty pages of her deliverances on such topics as her parents, relations, friends, maids, and modern times. Most are delightful, a few give Richter a chance to have his say too. (pp. 92-3)
Yet she wears her wealth and her influence gracefully. Always a lady, but never afraid, always the aristocrat. (p. 93)
The first two volumes of Conrad Richter's second trilogy are a remarkable achievement. Seldom has a man written more candidly of himself and his relatives than has Richter in The Waters of Kronos (1960) and A Simple Honorable Man (1962). Richter was working on the third book, about his own life as an artist, when he died.
In this second trilogy Richter honestly attempted to portray his struggles with life's most teasing intellectual and spiritual problems: man's existence before and after this life, the tenets of organized religion, the differences in character from person to person, the father-son relationship, and the old problem of fate versus free will. He also exhibited in these two novels a great pride in various ancestors from whom he received what he considered a priceless legacy. The Waters of Kronos and A Simple Honorable Man … offer an invaluable insight into the mind and works of one of America's ablest authors.
The writing of The Waters of Kronos was a labor of love. In it the protagonist, John Donner, is very much like Richter himself, and Unionville, the scene of the novel, is Richter's beloved birthplace and long-time home, Pine Grove, Pennsylvania. The novel opens as John Donner, a noted writer, now seventy, comes back to the place of his birth to visit his ancestors' graves. The town itself is now covered by the dammed-up waters of the Kronos River. At dusk John Donner walks to the old Unionville road bordering the cemetery where an old man on a wagon pulled by three horses agrees to take him to Unionville. Incredulous, John Donner goes down the steep hill with his guide and finds the town as it was sixty years earlier. He spends the rest of the novel re-examining the scenes of his childhood and his several relatives as they were at the turn of the century. He meets everyone of importance in his childhood except his mother; at novel's end he waits for her in the house next door to hers. (pp. 107-08)
The Waters of Kronos has a much greater impact when its autobiographical implications are understood, yet few of its reviewers suggested that it might be essentially factual. Naturally they were puzzled by John Donner's journey back through time; and they are correct in feeling that what he learns doesn't seem to be important enough to justify the suspense generated throughout the novel. When the novel is read in connection with Richter's life and his other works, however, its meaning becomes clear. (p. 108)
Identifying Conrad Richter with John Donner makes it possible to examine the main problems of the novel in connection with Richter the writer, and with his works. Richter, it seems to me, intended this identification to be made. (p. 109)
Why must this successful author get back to the world of his youth? What unsolved problem of his childhood has worried him all his life? (p. 110)
The death of the body can be a terrifying thing. Richter is not as certain of immortality as his preacher-father was, and these doubts are what make death terrible. If Portius Wheeler is correct when he tells his son Chancey that there is no life after death, then death is indeed a formidable foe. But Chancey doesn't believe Portius the agnostic, and I don't think that Richter does either, finally.
What gives him hope and joy at the end of The Waters of Kronos is not just that he no longer identifies his fear with his father, but also that he can now draw strength from a source hitherto unavailable to him. He realizes that he is, despite his old age, "still the real and true son of his powerful, ever-living father, the participant of his parent's blood and patrimony". He realizes now that his father is "ever-living" in his son, with the immortality that breed insures….
His father had known all along that he was immortal, that this earth was not his permanent home but only a place of trial. And with this realization Richter becomes aware of why his father prayed, prayers that as a boy he found painful and embarrassing. His father was fighting, with prayer, the forces of evil and death. (p. 112)
With this realization of the truth about his father and their relationship, Richter was ready to write his father's fictional biography, A Simple Honorable Man…. Although at seventy he was able to re-evaluate his relationship with his father in a more favorable light, there were still unresolved differences between them. In this beautiful tribute to his father, A Simple Honorable Man, the crucial remaining difference is one of faith. (pp. 112-13)
Like The Waters of Kronos this novel is clearly autobiographical, including many of the same persons and places as the first. Instead of using the aged narrator again, Richter tries the omniscient author technique with limited points of view. This works very well because Harry Donner's life seen variously through his own eyes, and those of his wife and their eldest son, gives the reader a balanced view otherwise difficult to obtain.
A Simple Honorable Man includes the most minute and detailed autobiographical reminiscences. Richter's nostalgia for the American past, so obvious in his carefully researched novels, brought him at seventy to an exact rendering of his relatives as he remembered them. It is an undertaking with few equals in American literature. But it is more than just a nostalgic family history, for in the two novels Richter wrestled with his own metaphysical problems. By carefully examining his father's life of faith he gained invaluable insights into his own attitudes towards his minister father and his father's God.
This is clear from a careful analysis of the ending of the novel…. (pp. 113-14)
Is [the] last paragraph of the novel to be taken as ironical, and the father's ministry seen as meaningful and triumphant? Or does Richter intend its almost cynical cast as his father's epitaph? The ambiguity arises from the fusion of two points of view: immediately after his father's death Richter resented the waste of such a talented and altruistic man on such humble parishes as he chose to work in. But after twenty or so years his vision had mellowed to the point where he realized that his father had followed his heart to the situations where he could do the most good, humble as they were.
The novel re-creates with fidelity the American way of life during the first third of this century in the small mining towns of Pennsylvania. Everything rings true: the names, the characters, the Christians who do not love one another, and the altruistic Harry Donner in his simple but beloved humanity. The jet set and rock-and-roll seem like science fiction beside it. Yet tragedy is not absent, nor any of the evils man is heir to. Nevertheless, it is a refreshing glimpse of a time that seems long past. (pp. 114-15)
While Conrad Richter was somewhat willing to discuss the intent and purpose of his fiction, he showed little tendency to divulge the names of those authors who influenced him and his work….
Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Caroline Miller, and Willa Cather are the authors whose work Conrad Richter's is most closely related to. (p. 116)
One of the most important things Richter learned from Elizabeth Madox Roberts' work was the value of writing his Ohio trilogy in the language of the people he portrayed. Miss Roberts had great success with the idiom of the people of the land…. Richter was aware of the similarities in speech between her settlers of Kentucky and his own pioneers of the Ohio valley….
Another aspect of Miss Roberts' work that Richter used to advantage in his trilogy was the inclusion of folk tales and folk superstitions. Besides learning something about the handling of folk speech and folk material from Miss Roberts, Richter was undoubtedly impressed with the feminine strength and positive affirmation of life of [two of her heroines] Ellen Chesser and Diony Hall. (p. 117)
The single work most closely related to the trilogy is Caroline Miller's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Lamb in His Bosom (1933). There is only one major difference between Miss Miller's novel and the trilogy, and that is in the matter of religion. The God of Lamb in His Bosom is very much the God of the psalmist David, an Old Testament God. He is an ever present force in the lives of the characters. He answers their prayers and he punishes their sins, and is in every way immediately concerned with them. (p. 118)
The faith of Richter's characters is something quite different from this. It is no more sophisticated, but it is certainly less fervent.
The number of similarities between the Ohio trilogy and Miss Miller's novel is striking. In Lamb in His Bosom, the dialect, folk tales, and superstitions closely resemble the same elements in Richter's The Trees…. It was through reading Miss Roberts and Miss Miller that Richter realized that the language he was beginning to record in his notebooks was a suitable medium to use in his story about the early settlers of the Ohio valley. (pp. 118-19)
The episodic structure of [Lamb in His Bosom] very closely resembles the structure of the trilogy. The prose is somewhat similar too, lucid and faintly lyrical. Richter's gospel of hard work is here, as is his admiration for the closeness of family ties on the frontier….
Two of the finest aspects of the trilogy, Richter's wonderful portrayal of motherhood and his belief in the cleansing action of the land, are found here too. (p. 119)
Some of the finest aspects of Conrad Richter's work are the result of his life-long admiration for Willa Cather's haunting and memorable novels. Her portrayals of Alexandra Bergson and Antonia Shimerda served as models for Richter's greatest heroine, Sayward Luckett…. (p. 120)
Both writers mourned the passing of the frontier because it seemed to mark the end of the pioneer spirit too. They were both fervent admirers of the men and women of strength and character they found on the frontier. They did differ in that he never wrote a novel whose central concern was the degradation of values in the modern world. Miss Cather tried to come to grips with this new world…. (p. 121)
Besides differing from Richter in her willingness to try to paint the new order (an order she felt shabby when compared with the strength and quality of the pioneer spirit), Miss Cather also differed from him in her abiding interest in the artistic spirit and temperament. She felt that the true success or to the pioneer was the artist. Both face formidable obstacles, and both realize in their final triumph that they have preserved their individuality by their single-minded struggle. There is no Thea Kronborg in Richter's work. The closest he comes to seeing the artist as the true successor of the pioneer is in his own life. He undoubtedly felt that through his dedication to a career of writing he had remained faithful to the spirit of his pioneer forefathers.
Conrad Richter, as well as Miss Cather, found that living close to the land and the seasons helped to give meaningful order to life. They mourned the separation from nature that modern urban culture brought about. This separation from the order of nature is clearly one of the reasons why modern man feels vaguely alien in the world that was once his home. (pp. 121-22)
Another point at which Willa Cather's frontier novels differ from Richter's is in her choice of the immigrant as pioneer. The Lucketts of Richter's trilogy are at some remove from their immigrant forefathers. Both writers used material that they were familiar with, particularly material accumulated by observation and story in their childhood. Miss Cather's neighbors during her Nebraska girlhood were European immigrants…. She was fascinated by them, and they, in turn, regaled her with stories she remembered all her life. Richter, on the other hand, was two and three generations removed from his ancestors who first came to this country. Some of these ancestors he observed as a child, the others his mother and aunt told him about in story. It isn't surprising that the two writers, both of whom began their major work in their late thirties …, and both of whom looked on their own pasts with deep nostalgia, should have chosen for their heroes and heroines the kinds of people they knew in their youth. Their greatest pioneer heroines, Alexandra Bergson, Antonia Shimerda, and Sayward Luckett are not so far apart in nationality, geography, or time, as they are close in determination, perseverence, and indomitable strength.
Connected with this is Miss Cather's interest in the artist. It is in this regard that the European qualities of her chosen people are most important. This artistic feeling is something that Richter's pioneers do not have. In one way the European Mr. Shimerda is quite different from the "woodsy" Worth Luckett. He has brought some of the culture of the Old World to the Nebraska plain where it cannot sustain itself. Only those, like Antonia, who can adapt to the demands of the land can survive. But Worth Luckett is as much a casualty of the pioneer way of life as Mr. Shimerda. His art, hunting, although different from Mr. Shimerda's violin playing, is equally out of harmony with an agrarian society.
Miss Cather's interest in the artist leads her to an indictment of the frontier that Richter does not have to make. In this one thing, the antagonism of the pioneer community to the needs of the artist, Miss Cather finds the frontier deficient. Richter, antithetically, indicts Sayward's son Chancey's way of life (the only life in the Ohio trilogy approaching that of the artist) when he sets it against the life of his pioneer mother in The Town. (pp. 122-23)
[Miss Cather] does not share Richter's whole-hearted acceptance of frontier values. Her return to the frontier as her subject matter left her with two ideals which she could put together but never reconcile. The resulting tension gives her work much of its dynamism and strength. (pp. 123-24)
Richter, too, has tried to present the important aspects of the world he chose to depict, rather than tell all. A shy, retiring man, he was incapable of pouring out his art in the riot of emotion with which his contemporaries could sometimes write. Miss Cather's writing reflects the same kind of temperament.
Along with the spare "furniture" of their novels is a lucid, concise prose. In their avoidance of some of the obvious excesses of naturalism they treat sex with a never quite Puritanical reserve. Miss Cather is better at it than Richter. The love between Emil Bergson and Marie Shabata is a beautiful and memorable one. In Richter's work only the tragic romance of Chancey Wheeler and Rosa Tench in The Town approaches it. (p. 124)
[Miss Cather's] Alexandra, Antonia, and [Richter's] Sayward believe that through their tireless efforts to subdue the land some future generation will have advantages they didn't have. Their authors imply that this newer race will never appreciate the really valuable things in life as these three great pioneer women did. For Willa Cather and Conrad Richter the frontier experience was important precisely because it helped to develop, at least for one brief moment in our history, human beings of great substance, strength, and fortitude. (p. 126)
Among Richter's contemporaries only A. B. Guthrie, Jr. invites comparison. His two fine frontier novels, The Big Sky (1947) and The Way West (1949), are memorable portraits of two phases of the Westward movement. They are related to Richter's work in their portrayal of strong pioneer types. However, they are not concerned with the agrarian themes of O Pioneers!, My Antonia, or the Ohio trilogy, nor are they written in a similar style. Mr. Guthrie's sensibility is not so delicate as either Cather's or Richter's; he is often coarsely realistic, both in the actions he depicts, and in the language he uses. He does, however, share Richter's belief that the frontier was a developer of strong character…. Both authors have also tried to show that there was a time in American history when things were very difficult, and they have portrayed a breed of men and women who, by triumphing over these difficulties, rose to heroic stature. That two of their novels, The Way West and The Town, won the Pulitzer Prize in successive years is evidence that modern Americans have an abiding interest in the reality and myth of the frontier.
Conrad Richter learned many important lessons from three great American frontier novelists: Willa Cather, Caroline Miller, and Elizabeth Madox Roberts…. Of course, his own treatment of the American frontier is distinctly his own, for it was his personal vision of a nation young and vigorous, where men and women of great courage were tested and not found wanting. This authentic and memorable frontier is Conrad Richter's America. (p. 129)
Marvin J. LaHood, in his Conrad Richter's America, Mouton, 1975, 145 p.
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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 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 to say that in the treatment of male-female relationships, especially courtship and marriage; in the treatment of white men and red men …, in the treatment of violence and the "Code of the West," in all the human relations of his stories, Richter's sense of irony might easily build to camp proportions for 70s readers, making situation, statement, and stereotype "funny" in ways not intended. [But] … Richter deserves to be read seriously….
Although Richter lived much after the times he writes about, he did not imagine the myths which surface in his stories. They are indigenous to our national experience, to our literature, to the image of America as wilderness, a savage place in need of taming—reflected most saliently in Richter's stories by the civilizing force of frontier women (robust beyond belief) capturing and tying the free-spirited frontiersman. And not always in a mutually comforting way; thus the chafing connotations of a rawhide knot.
What Leslie Fiedler has classified as the Myth of the Runaway Male, the Myth of Pure Love in the Woods, the Myth of the Good Companions in the Wilderness, and the Myth of the Indian Captivity are all present in "The Rawhide Knot and Other Stories" in almost casebook form. In this sense, by no means a bad sense, Richter's stories are classically formulistic. And although the locale may shift from Pennsylvania to Ohio to New Mexico, from mountain man to cowboy, from massacres to floods to stampedes to shootouts, these American archetypes permeate every page with a crystalline grandeur, making Richter one of the most authentic and pure Western writers around.
Robert F. Gish, in a review of "The Rawhide Knot and Other Stories," in The Christian Science Monitor, October 23, 1978, p. B4.
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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 daughter's heart claimed by a railroad capitalist, he had suddenly to rationalize his sense of being greatly wronged….
But the railroad builders had just as much a right of pre-emption as the sheepherders and the cattlemen. Richter makes no judgment. He simply tells it as it was.
John Chamberlain, "Southwesterns," in The New York Times Book Review, December 24, 1978, p. 9.
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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 pioneer spirit by her instinctive hate for the sea of grass, her ties with Brice Chamberlain (the eastern lawyer who champions the nesters), and her femininity. Though there is no intrinsic tie between the domestic tale and the historical theme (for what happens to the sea of grass would likely have occurred whether Lutie left her husband or not), the symbolic associations in the story are so strong that the domestic and historical themes seem to be interdependent. In this way, I believe Richter suggests a perspective on the historical theme through his handling of the Brewton family fortunes. (pp. 120-21)
[What] is it in Lutie which enables her to emerge as a flawed but still eminently admirable character, in spite of her associations with the despicable Chamberlain? It is, I believe, her essential femininity—a femininity which in men is weakness or even duplicity, but in woman is a source of strength. Lutie is both fragile and delicate, and yet strong enough to overpower even Brewton so that this towering, pagan, godlike creature, a Jove from whose eyes shoot thunderbolts, becomes a merciful God-the-Father who proclaims that Brock is his beloved son in spite of all that has happened. Here, the symbolism of characterization blends with the historical theme, for the pioneering spirit of Brewton wants and needs the civilized, humanizing influence of Lutie…. (pp. 122-23)
Richter's second Southwestern novel, Tacey Cromwell (1942), focuses on the inherent materialism of western life, for the central female character, Tacey, is both matriarchal and materialistic. Tacey is a madam in a sporting house in Socorro, New Mexico, who is living with Gaye Oldaker, half-brother of the narrator, Nugget…. Tacey is shown to be ambitious, eager to achieve success for Gaye and herself in spite of the stigma of her past. But when her past catches up with her, she is condemned by the community and stripped of her loved ones: though presumably in the West a person's identity can be established by merit, regardless of social class, rather than be determined by one's past. Tacey discovers that social class and prejudice overrule merit, and she is defeated. But she continues to direct the lives of her loved ones, primarily through her influence over Gaye, who is weaker than she and always yields to her direction…. It is a rags-to-riches story with a peculiar western twist as this one-time prostitute achieves success in a reputable career as seamstress, proves herself to be an ideal mother, and succeeds finally in joining the mainstream of respectable western society. For Tacey, western development is a material-social ideal not easily achieved and at times belied by prejudice, a double standard social morality, and an inconsistent regard for a person's individual background; but it is an ideal that can be achieved through persistence and good luck.
The materialistic-matriarchal theme of this work is developed by Richter through imagery and incident. Both Tacey and Gaye have established themselves in business…. [Tacey's] uncanny ability to copy the lines of fashion through observation and sewing skill leads to her success as a seamstress when the attractiveness of her product finally breaks down the barriers of prejudice; for when she can offer something the leading citizens want, they promptly forget their prejudices to the extent that they accept her product, if not herself. In her influence on Gaye's career her feminine materialism is most evident, for she urges Gaye to take a job in a real bank in lieu of his position as a faro banker…. Tacey is proven right in her sense of ultimate financial and social gain, for as the town becomes more "civilized," the people forego faro and follow Wall Street as stock market speculation, with bigger stakes than ever crossed the faro table, becomes the gambling pastime…. (pp. 123-25)
In this western tale Tacey becomes the New World Demeter, ironic though she be, as this one-time madam achieves a surrogate family, suffers as a mother, and inspires the material productivity of her loved ones.
Richter's third Southwestern novel, The Lady (1957), provides a more complex view of the masculine-feminine dichotomy in western experience. The lady, Ellen, is the daughter of a Mexican mother and an English father, heiress of a large sheep ranch first established by a Spanish grant. In the central plot of the novel she is involved in a power struggle with her brother-in-law Snell Beasley, a land-hungry shyster American lawyer. Thus she represents a blend of Old World and New in the clash of cultures which took place during the transition from a Spanish past to an Anglo-American dominated present.
In portraying this complex woman, Richter suggests parallels between the dualities of the racial heritage, the masculine-feminine traits Ellen embodies within herself, and the basic masculine vs. feminine conflict between Beasley and Ellen. As was true in the earlier novels, Richter focuses on the strength possible to the feminine character, a strength he seems to identify with the female principle and, in an historical sense, with an advanced stage of civilization…. Her complex character manifests itself in seemingly conflicting roles, for not only is she a lady who must be waited on, but she can manage the large family sheepranch; her beauty and delicacy are offset by her propensity for violence, her skill with a gun, and her expert horsemanship. The imbalance of her masculine-feminine traits provides the germ of the story, for it is her masculine reliance on violence made effectual by her marksmanship which precipitates the long train of events that eventually claim the lives of her husband and son; and it is her feminine expectation that she will be rescued from her difficulties by the men in her life which draws her loved ones into the enveloping destruction. Her salvation eventually comes when, ironically, no men remain to help her and an accident brings about the death of the villainous Beasley. Her sister then inherits Beasley's fortune, and the two sisters are reunited in love and material prosperity. (pp. 126-27)
Thus in Richter's Southwestern novels western development is portrayed in part in its more easily recognizable material forms, identified with the land and material possessions. But Richter's peculiar accomplishment is that he has internalized the achievement of western goals and has attributed both power and fulfillment to the female principle. To Richter, the real land of promise lies within the individual (though inward fulfillment may be matched by outward prosperity), and the real achievers are the women. The old myth of conquest remains, but only in the nostalgia of the narrator, whose recreation of a by-gone era is a silent recognition of the closing of the frontier and the anachronism of the myth. It is Richter's women who endure and prevail, and their femininity is the key to their success. (p. 127)
Barbara Meldrum, "Conrad Richter's Southwestern Ladies," in Women, Women Writers, and the West, edited by L. L. Lee and Merrill Lewis, The Whitston Publishing Company, 1979, pp. 119-29.