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Conrad Michael Richter

Conrad Michael Richter

Conrad Michael Richter (1890-1968), American novelist and short-story writer, depicted the nation's early frontier life and westward expansion. His works, based on his own adventures and research into American folklore, protest man's destruction of his environment.

Conrad Richter was born on Oct. 13, 1890, in Pine Grove, Pa. As a boy he traveled with his father throughout the farm settlements and was enchanted by the pioneer life-style and idiomatic speech. Graduating from high school, he determined to be a writer and began reporting for a local paper. After first working at random jobs—mechanics, coal breaking, farming—at the age of 19 he became editor of a country weekly. Following experience with the Pittsburgh Dispatch (1910) and the Johnstown Leader (1911) he moved to Ohio. His "Brothers of No Kin" was accepted by a magazine and selected by the Boston Transcript as the best short story of 1913. But discouraged by the low prices paid for fiction, Richter decided "to stick to business" and "write in my spare time only the type of story which would fetch a fair price, which I did."

After marrying Harvena M. Achenbach in 1915, Richter established a publishing firm. He started writing children's stories and then began his own juvenile periodical, Junior Magazine Book. During the next years his writing appeared under some 125 pseudonyms in various magazines. His short stories were collected in Brothers of No Kin and Other Stories (1924).

Richter was concerned with the vanishing frontier as well as the dubious benefits resulting from advancing technology. Desiring to escape encroaching industrial urbanization, he sold his business and moved his family to New Mexico in 1928. A collection of short stories, Early Americana (1936), structured with the minute details of daily living on the frontier, resulted from his painstaking search for diaries, journals, and artifacts of the Old Southwest. In Sea of Grass (1937), his first novel, he dramatized the cattleman-homesteader battle for the ranges of Texas and New Mexico at the turn of the century. It was later made into a motion picture.

A family migrating west from Pennsylvania is portrayed in The Trees (1940), the first of a trilogy. A saga of 18th century pioneer heroics, this was a best seller. The Fields (1946) rather episodically traces the development of Ohio from its 18th-century wilds to the farms of the 19th century. Critic Orville Prescott noted that "seldom in fiction has the atmosphere of another age been so completely realized." The Town (1950) depicts the rise of industrialism in Ohio. The history is vivified in the simple and colloquial speech of the settlers.

Richter's novella Tacey Cromwell (1942), set in an Arizona mining town, effectively uses local color. Always Young and Fair (1947) is a sociopsychological exploration of a turn-of-the-century Pennsylvania town. Continuing the "wilderness" milieu, Richter produced nine novels in the next 17 years. The Light in the Forest (1953) and A Country of Strangers (1966) are critical of "civilized" man, contrasted with the "white child raised by Indians." The Lady (1957) returns to older tales of the Southwest. The Waters of Kronos (1960) portrays an Easterner who returns home after a satisfying stay in the West to find his residence under the waters of a hydroelectric plant. This novel takes a vigorous stand against man's heedless tampering with natural resources and, in effect, eternity.

Although afflicted with a serious heart ailment during his later years, Richter produced such novels as A Simple Honorable Man (1960), The Grandfathers (1964), Individualists under the Shade Trees in a Vanishing America (1964), and Over the Blue Mountain (1967). The Aristocrat was published a month before his death on Oct. 18, 1968. With his protest against man's ecological destruction, his work has assumed increasing significance.

Further Reading

Richter's life and work are explored in Edwin W. Gaston, Jr., Conrad Richter (1965); Robert J. Barnes, Conrad Richter (1968); and the more specialized study by Clifford D. Edwards, Conrad Richter's Ohio Trilogy: Its Ideas and Relationship to Literary Tradition (1970).

Additional Sources

Gaston, Edwin W., Conrad Richter, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

Richter, Harvena, Writing to survive: the private notebooks of Conrad Richter, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988. □

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