Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Salt Fork

Salt Fork. Fictional New Mexico frontier town that embodies characteristics of historically real places on the Western frontier. Vividly displaying the shifting boundaries of a newly settled prairie land, Salt Fork plays a central role in The Sea of Grass. Borrowing from folklore, the wild frontier of this place helps readers understand the types of people who migrate to the West, the promise and hopes that draw them there, and the realities and dangers they encounter at their journeys’ ends.

Rich men, like Colonel Jim Brewton, seeking more wealth, claim this frontier and its luxurious prairie as their own, building empires of cattle and grasslands. They created the first settlements, developed the first city governments, and became the “law of the land.” These cattle barons, not unlike kings in their prairie kingdoms, viewed new migrants to the area, often referred to as “nesters” or “grangers,” as destructive interlopers who understood neither the value of the grasslands they hoped to plow nor the environment and climate that would foil their success as farmers. It is the ongoing struggle for ownership, the battle between cattle barons and would-be settlers, that introduces the initial conflict between Colonel Jim and the new district attorney, Brice Chamberlain.

As the backdrop for yet another type of frontier relationship, Salt Fork becomes the stark, violent behavioral and environmental canvas onto which is juxtaposed the fragile qualities of eastern socialite, Lutie Cameron, who travels from St. Louis, Missouri, to New Mexico to join her future husband, Jim Brewton, who owns the Cross B Ranch outside Salt Fork. The very qualities of this...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Barnes, Robert J. Conrad Richter. Austin, Tex.: Steck-Vaughn, 1968. Considers only Richter’s fiction that has the Southwest as a setting. Especially valuable for its discussion of Richter’s style and his use of deliberately repeated details in The Sea of Grass.

Estleman, Loren D. The Wister Trace: Classic Novels of the American Frontier. Ottawa, Ill.: Jameson Books, 1987. Analyzes The Sea of Grass as a prose poem about change and loss.

Gaston, Edwin W., Jr. Conrad Richter. Updated ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. The best and most extensive treatment of Richter’s plain life and creative versatility. The section on The Sea of Grass concerns its origins, plot, point of view, contrasting characters, themes (parenting and alienation, historical change, unity of people and nature), and relation to other fiction by Richter.

LaHood, Marvin J. Conrad Richter’s America. The Hague: Mouton, 1975. Highly academic treatise. Section on The Sea of Grass emphasizes the central characters and their different reactions to the land.

Pilkington, William T. “Conrad Richter.” In Fifty Western Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Fred Erisman and Richard W. Etulain. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. Presents a brief biography of Richter, discusses his major themes, and surveys the extensive criticism of Richter. Analyzes The Sea of Grass as a historical and mythical drama of old and new ways, with Lutie as a reconciling influence.

Richter, Harvena. Writing to Survive: The Private Notebooks of Conrad Richter. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988. A fascinating weaving together of passages from Richter’s many notebooks and his devoted daughter’s intelligent commentary thereon. Includes a complete bibliography of Richter’s novels, short stories, short-story collections, nonfictional works, articles, and book reviews.