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 Western territory magnify Lutie’s sensitivity—her overprotected, eastern-bred persona—as she struggles to adapt to her new life in the Southwest. It is finally the harshness of the land and of the men who draw their identities from the land that forces Lutie to leave, to seek the comfort of a more familiar place.
In his mother’s absence, Brock Brewton, the son of Lutie and her lover, Chamberlain, remains in Salt Fork only to become a romantic desperado, challenging any authority who dares to tame him or the untamed territory of his youth. Brock’s destiny, however, is the destiny of all frontiersmen who hold to the violent past of the West, and he dies the victim of his own rebellion, a rebellion appropriately cast in this place of adventure and irreverence.
“East.” References to the “East” are frequent in Sea of Grass, which portrays the East as a world of non-Mormon “gentile” society and culture, of beautiful women, and of all that is domesticated, proper, and law-abiding. However, from the perspective of the people of Salt Fork, the “East” is centered in Missouri, in such cities as St. Louis, Lutie’s original home; Kansas City, which Colonel Jim frequents when he goes east to sell cattle; and Lexington,the location first feared then hated by Hal Brewton, the colonel’s nephew, who is “banished” to school there at Lutie’s suggestion. Lutie Cameron and Brice Chamberlain are characters designed with eastern qualities and temperaments, characteristics less laudable in Salt Fork, whose frontier mentality honors power and the right of eminent domain over moral or legal correctness.
*Denver. Colorado city that boasts amenities of eastern society while reveling in its wild, frontier-town legend. Denver represents a city on the edge, the boundary edge that marks the end of the East and the beginning of the West, the end of safety and diplomacy and the beginning of unrestrained power and violence. It is through Denver, a symbol of her coming of age, that Lutie passes on her way...
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to her new life with Colonel Jim in the Southwest. After her humiliation in Salt Fork and her abandonment by Brice Chamberlain, Lutie returns to Denver, then a symbol of her resignation, but a safer haven. Ironically, Lutie never revisits the East of her youth and eventually returns after a fifteen-year absence, unapologetic and unexplained, to Salt Fork from Denver to resume her life on what remains of the Cross B Ranch. In this last part of the story, Denver metaphorically encompasses both Lutie’s emergence from her self-assigned banishment and her reconciliation with her past.
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.