It’s the birthday of novelist Conrad Richter (books by this author), born in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania (1890). His father was a Lutheran preacher, and the family moved from one coal-mining town to another. Richter said: “My father, grandfather, uncle, and great uncles were preachers. Their fathers, however, had been tradesmen, soldiers, country squires, blacksmiths, and farmers, and I think that in my passion for early American life and people I am a throwback to these.”
Richter’s wife, Harvena, was not in the best of health, and in 1928 the Richters uprooted and moved to New Mexico, hoping that the drier air would help her. There, Richter was charmed by stories of pioneer life in the Southwest and its land and folklore. He started writing longer fiction, and published his first novel, The Sea of Grass (1936), a story of cowboys and farmers in New Mexico at the turn of the century.
A neighbor in New Mexico, a longtime resident of Ohio, was fascinated by history, and the two men spent a lot of time talking about Ohio’s pioneer days. One day, his neighbor brought Richter a couple of books. Richter said later: “They were heavy, well used, more than 1900 pages in all. I opened them with misgivings but found them packed with some of the most fascinating, authentic, and often firsthand accounts of pioneer life that I had ever read. For weeks I took notes but could not begin to set down a tenth of what interested me so I asked him if he would trade these two volumes for two of my own.” These stories inspired him to write a trilogy of novels set in Ohio, The Awakening Land trilogy: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), which won the Pulitzer Prize. The books tell the story of Sayward Luckett, a young woman whose family strikes out for the wilderness of Ohio from Pennsylvania. When The Trees begins, Sayward is a 15-year-old girl who takes on the responsibility of her younger siblings after her mother dies; by the end of The Town, she is a wife and mother of seven children.
Richter never achieved the level of popular success he desired. After the disappointing sales figures of The Trees, his friend and editor Alfred A. Knopf offered an explanation: “I think you must reckon the archaic language which you deliberately adopted a commercial handicap. I don’t question its artistic advisability mind you, but I think you must reckon on the sacrifice involved. I think also that The Trees suffered rather from lack of action and story, and gave the reader not enough narrative to bite into and something of the impression of being an overture rather than the main show.” Also, Richter’s brand of slow-moving historical fiction had some tough competition from more relevant contemporary novels — the best-sellers of the year 1940 included For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Richter, always anxious about money, was disappointed over and over again by the sales of his novels. These days, his novel The Light in the Forest (1953) is probably his most read book, because it is required reading in many middle or high schools.
In The Trees, Richter wrote: “Everywhere she went the trees stood around her like a great herd of dark beasts. Up and up shot the heavy butts of the live ones. Down and down every which way on the forest floor lay the thick rotting butts of the dead ones. Alive or dead, they were mostly grown over with moss. The light that came down here was dim and green. All day even in the cabin you lived in a green light.”