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.)