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Conrad Richter | Biography

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Childhood Among Settlers

From his birth on October 13, 1890, in rural Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, Conrad Richter joined a long line of pioneers in the northeastern United States. He grew up hearing tales of how his ancestors built the Pine Grove farming community in the 18th century. Like many early settlers, the Richters claimed a diverse European ethnic background with German, French, Scotch-Irish, and English ancestry. His childhood strongly influenced his writing. He came to love the farming landscape and the adventurous, exploratory spirit of his ancestors. His works reveal an affinity for nature and a fascination with the frontier and pioneer life.

Both his father and grandfather were Lutheran ministers. The family planned for Richter to enter the ministry as well. He declined, choosing to join the workforce after high school.

Odd Jobs in Pennsylvania

At age 15 Richter graduated high school and worked a series of ever-changing jobs. He was a lumberjack, a magazine subscription salesman, a driver, a bank teller, and a farmhand. At one point, he tried unsuccessfully to market pretzels—not well known at the time outside of Pennsylvania—nationwide. When he wasn't working, he wrote short stories. At age 19 he found a job he loved—editing the Patton Courier, a Pennsylvania newspaper. He continued working in journalism for several years.

In 1914 he published the short story "Brothers of No Kin." The story earned recognition in an anthology and captured the attention of several editors. However, the publication didn't pay well. This lack of income soon became a problem, as Richter had a family to support—his marriage to Harvena Achenbach (1896–1972) in 1915 produced a daughter two years later. In need of funds, he decided to focus on business ventures.

In 1915 Richter was named president of the Handy Book Company in Pennsylvania. The publishers issued mainly self-help and inspirational tracts. He later became owner and renamed it the Good Books Co. in 1922. Though he continued to write, he concentrated on work that would sell well, including children's stories and formulaic fiction for popular publications.

A turning point in his life came in 1928. Harvena's health was failing. Shuttering his business, Richter moved his family across the country to New Mexico, hoping the southwestern climate would help Harvena heal. The following year he lost most of his investments in the 1929 stock market crash. Faced with diminishing business prospects, he returned to fiction writing.

New Mexico, Ohio, and Pennsylvania History

Richter now had the chance to return to the work he truly loved—telling stories of the United States and its people. He explored the New Mexican desert and listened to his neighbors' tales of farming and survival. His fiction came to focus on North American exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries and the hardships pioneers faced as they tackled unforgiving landscapes. Richter did extensive research, investigating primary sources and talking to older Americans with firsthand experience of pioneer days. He used the country's past to examine possibilities for its future.

Although he published the short story collection Early Americana and Other Stories in 1936, Richter wrote mostly novels for the rest of his career. The Southwest became the setting for his first novel, The Sea of Grass (1936). Borrowing images from conventional Western fiction, The Sea of Grass transcended the genre with its tragic narrative of 19th-century farmers and ranchers battling for land. In 1942 the book, along with another of his novels, The Trees (1940), won a Gold Medal for Literature from New York University's Society of Libraries.

In addition to telling stories of the West, Richter returned to his geographical roots and set several books in southeastern Ohio and Pennsylvania. His most successful novels were a series of three connected books known as The Awakening Land trilogy. The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950) trace the hardships and victories of the fictional pioneer Luckett family as its members move from Pennsylvania to Ohio. The trilogy follows the family through generations and relates a larger tale of the region's transition from wilderness to farming country to urban society.

In Richter's view Americans lost something valuable as technology transformed the nation's agricultural communities. Many of his novels deal with the perils of industrialization. The Light in the Forest (1953) explores these topics through the narrative of a young white boy raised by Native Americans in the decade leading up to the American Revolution (1775–83). When the boy, True Son, is returned to his white biological family as a teenager, he longs to go back to the forest. The novel contrasts rural life with town life through True Son's experience of freedom in the wilderness and confinement in town. Set in the colony of Pennsylvania and the territory then known as Ohio Country, The Light in the Forest creates a nuanced portrait of the region's complex past. It also deals with the plight of Native Americans facing the destruction of their land by white settlers.

Richter wrote 16 novels in all. His work is notable for its historical research and intimate details of everyday life. Later novels include The Waters of Kronos (1960), which is semiautobiographical. The protagonist, like Richter, returns to his eastern homeland after living in the Southwest and finds the region permanently changed after the arrival of a hydroelectric plant. Richter himself moved his family back to Pine Grove, Pennsylvania in 1950.

Awards and Legacy

Richter collected several awards for his writing, including the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for The Town and the 1961 National Book Award for The Waters of Kronos. He once described the overarching theme of his novels as "hardship into gain." True to his Pennsylvania roots, Richter remained in the area of Pine Grove until his death on October 30, 1968. By then his fascination with pioneer history and the challenges of the frontier had earned him comparisons to American novelist Willa Cather (1873–1947).

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