(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Conrad Richter is a writer apparently haunted by a sense of the past. In his early novels he re-created with quiet and assured art some spacious landscapes of an older America, regions widely separated in geography and time: the American Southwest in THE SEA OF GRASS, TACEY CROMWELL, and THE LADY; the growth of a settlement on the Ohio-Pennsylvania frontier in the trilogy of THE TREES, THE FIELDS, and THE TOWN; the period of the American Revolution in THE FREE MAN; bucolic comedy in THE GRANDFATHERS; life in a small Pennsylvania city in the years following the Spanish-American War in ALWAYS YOUNG AND FAIR; and the romance of the pioneer wilderness in THE LIGHT IN THE FOREST and A COUNTRY OF STRANGERS. These books are fresh and authentic in their presentation of regional and historical themes. In THE WATERS OF KRONOS, he gives a picture of a different kind of past, the story of one man’s pilgrimage back to the lost times and landmarks of his youth. In the process, Richter deals expertly with two matters of great concern in modern fiction, the problem of time and the enigma of man’s identity.

These, after all, make up the modern subject: the search for self and the exploration of consciousness, which is man’s measurement of the nature and duration of time, as memory and history are its deposit. The crisis for personality is the challenge of the age, for in a world as fragmented and confused as the earth is, the private sensibility is no longer self-contained, and man’s search for identity and wholeness takes on the form of a despairing quest. Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus wandering the streets of Dublin, Proust’s narrator confronting his unrecognized figure in the mirror, Eugene Gant’s search for the father, Camus’ Jean-Baptiste Clemence in the Amsterdam bar, Saul Bellow’s Henderson shouting his “I want, I want” toward the African sky—these are the images of alienated, divided man trying to define himself in space and time. In a special way, Richter presents a variation on this universal quest, which in THE WATERS OF KRONOS is a return to a lost and buried past.

The fantasy of time travel is not new; it was as useful to Mark Twain as it was to H. G. Wells. The works of these writers, however, were based on what is called the mathematics of a space-time continuum; Richter’s novel, on its metaphysics. There is no book quite like this anywhere in American literature. In fact, the only two works which suggest any comparison in either quality or kind are Thornton Wilder’s play OUR TOWN, and Robert Frost’s poem “Directive.” As in Wilder’s play, readers watch events unfolding with a knowledge of how much of the life presented will be wasted and sad, how much of the beautiful and good will go unrecognized until it is past all recall; and readers look on helplessly, not with anticipation, but with foreknowledge of what the future holds for the people involved. THE WATERS OF KRONOS suggests “Directive” also in that it conveys with quiet tenderness and sad wisdom a sense of the inevitability of things: the loneliness of being, the awkwardness of...

(The entire section is 1321 words.)