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Conrad Michael Richter (October 13, 1890 – October 30, 1968) was an American novelist whose lyrical work is concerned largely with life on the American frontier in various periods. His novel The Town (1950), the last story of his trilogy The Awakening Land about the Ohio frontier, won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His novel The Waters of Kronos won the 1961 National Book Award for Fiction. Two collections of short stories were published posthumously during the 20th century, and several of his novels have been reissued during the 21st century by academic presses.
Conrad Michael Richter was born in 1890 in Tremont, Pennsylvania, near Pottsville, to John Absalom Richter, a Lutheran minister, and Charlotte Esther (née Henry) Richter. His grandfather, uncle and great-uncle were also Lutheran ministers, and descended from German colonial immigrants. As a child, Richter lived with his family in several small central Pennsylvania mining towns, where he encountered descendants of pioneers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who shared family stories. These inspired him later to write historical fiction set on changing American frontiers. Attending local public schools, Richter finished his formal education when he graduated at age fifteen from high school.
Early career, marriage and move to New Mexico
At the age of 19, Richter started working as an editor of a local weekly newspaper, the Patton, Pennsylvania Courier. In 1911 Richter relocated to Cleveland, Ohio and worked as the private secretary to a wealthy manufacturing family. Richter married Harvena Maria Achenbach in 1915. They had their only child, Harvena Richter, in 1917. Richter worked subsequently for a small publishing company, initiated a juvenile magazine, and started writing short stories. During the 1930s, he also performed two brief stints as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Hollywood, California.
Richter continued writing and trying to sell short stories. His short story “Brothers of No Kin,” published in Forum magazine in 1914, was included in the "Roll of Honor for 1914" of American stories by Edward J. O'Brien, editor of the Best Short Stories of 1915. O'Brien wrote in his "Introduction" that Richter's story was the best of all those published in 1914; the editor was explicitly concerned with the development of an "American literature" and considered Richter as integral to this. This short story was re-issued as the title story of a posthumous collection published in 1973.
In 1928 Richter relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the sake of his wife's health. During this period, he also collected much material from which he created short stories about the Southwest frontier days. By 1933, Richter and his wife had returned to live in his hometown of Pine Grove, Pennsylvania. They subsequently alternated between Pine Grove, Albuquerque, and Florida.
During the early 1930s, Richter had numerous stories published in pulp magazines such as Triple-X, Short Stories, Complete Stories, Ghost Stories, and Blue Book. His Early Americana and Other Stories (1936) was considered his first successful book.
He persisted with his work, gradually writing and publishing full-length novels. Richter set his novels in different periods of American history on its changing frontier. He may be best known for The Sea of Grass (1936), set in late nineteenth-century New Mexico, and featuring conflict between ranchers and farmers. It was later adapted as a movie of the same name, directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, released in 1947.
Richter's novel The Light in the Forest (1953), set in late eighteenth-century Pennsylvania and Ohio, featured challenges faced by a young white man who had become an assimilated Lenape Amerindian after being taken captive as a child. After the boy was returned as a youth to white culture, he was considered suspicious. This novel also became very popular and had a second life as a movie, released in 1958. Richter returned to the topic of the white child raised in an alien culture in his later novel A Country of Strangers (1966). As noted by Ernest Cady in his review in the Columbus Dispatch, both books were written from the point of view of Indians. He wrote of Richter,
During this period, Richter also published the novels of his trilogy The Awakening Land, about the Ohio frontier: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950). In 1947 he won the Ohioana Book Award for The Fields. The Town was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1951. In a review of the last novel, Louis Bromfield, also an Ohio writer and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, wrote of the trilogy:
The trilogy was first published in one volume in 1966 by Alfred A. Knopf. It was adapted as a TV miniseries of the same name in 1978, in which several plot changes were made as a result of the changing social culture of the time, especially concerning race and sexuality. When the trilogy was reissued in 1991 by Ohio University Press, it was a revised edition that incorporated some of these changes.
Richter's short story, "Doctor Hanray's Second Chance", first published in the magazine The Saturday Evening Post in 1950 (June 10), has a theme of reconciling with the past. Richter returned to this theme in his autobiographical novel, The Waters of Kronos (Chronos)(1960). (Chronos was the ancient Greek personification of Time.) This novel won the U.S. National Book Award in 1961.
The short story "Doctor Hanray" was republished in the anthology, The Saturday Evening Post Fantasy Stories (1951) and in several later speculative fiction anthologies published by the Post and others. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database catalogs five of Richter's stories, including a very early one, "The Head of His House", from a 1917 anthology, The Grim Thirteen (Dodd, Mead).
After Richter's death, two short story collections were published posthumously. Additionally, several of his novels have been reissued by academic presses. When The Waters of Kronos was reissued in paperback format in 2003, one reviewer wrote,
Legacy and honors
Richter received national and regional literary awards, and several honorary doctorates.