Conrad Richter

Grave of Conrad Richter

Passing through the gap in the Blue Mountain, the GPS informed me I was arriving at my exit. Happy to be off the busy interstate 81, I drove southward into the community of Pine Grove. The overwhelming feeling of small-town America filled me with a sense of pride as flags fluttered lazily in the breeze as I passed through the town.

Finding Saint John’s Lutheran Cemetery, I parked nearby and set out to quickly find the grave of the man I sought. The grass cried out for water as it crunched under foot as I made my way to the simple grave that stood silently among the larger memorials of the cemetery. Scanning the stones in the area I was told where he was buried as I saw the memorial in the shadow of a pine tree. The simple stone of Pennsylvania author Conrad Richter is marked by the epitaph “Little grasses, I have / Come among you / Little grasses, you are / Taller now than I.”

Born in Pine Grove on October 13, 1890, Conrad Michael Richter was the son of Reverend John and Charlotte Richter. Growing up, he heard the stories told by his grandparents and uncles, along with the elders of the region, that told of the region’s history and folklore. The stories he heard would eventually influence his writings. But like most authors, Richter had a rough start. In 1909 at the age of nineteen, Richter began working for The Courier (Patton) and would soon be editing for The Journal and Leader (Johnstown) and The Pittsburgh Dispatch. The following year he would take a job as a private secretary for a wealthy Cleveland family.

Richter’s first published work was “Brothers of No Kin” a short story that would be included in The Best Short Stories of 1915. That same year he would wed Harvena Achenbach and settled near Harrisburg. Two years later, the couple would have one daughter, who was named in honor of her mother.

By 1924, Richter left his position as a private secretary and opened a publishing firm in Reading. That year, he published his first collection of short stories, Brothers of No Kin and Other Stories.

Richter moved the family to the American Southwest in 1928 when his wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis. While living here, Richter continued writing, this time focusing on the cultures and history of the region. His stories were published in many popular magazines of the time and readers were captivated by the detail he put into them. Many of his stories were about the Southwest, and he would publish Early Americana and Other Stories in 1936.

Richter’s breakthrough came in 1937, when he published The Sea of Grass, about the conflict between ranchers and farmers. The novel was adapted for the big screen in 1947 and would feature Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Note: more about Katharine Hepburn can be found here: Katharine Hepburn.

Even while writing about the Southwest, Richter never forgot Pennsylvania. Between 1940 and 1950, he wrote the Ohio Trilogy, featuring the Luckett family who emigrated from Pennsylvania to settle on the Ohio frontier. The Trees – the first volume – was published in 1940 and won him a Pulitzer Prize. It was followed by The Fields in 1946, which received the Ohioana Library Medal, and The Town in 1950, which also won a Pulitzer Prize. The novels would eventually be published as one volume entitled The Awakening Land.

Richter moved the family back to Pine Grove in 1950 and began working on the short novel most Pennsylvanians identify him with. In 1953, Richter published The Light in the Forest, which tells the story of True Son – also known by his birth name, John Butler – who is forced to choose between the culture of the Delaware who raised him and the culture of his birth family. In 1966, Richter returned to this theme with A Country of Strangers, which tells the story of Mary Stanton, who, with her son, faces the challenges of returning to the frontier settlements after being raised by the Delaware.

In 1960, Richter published The Waters of Kronos, followed two years later with A Simple Honorable Man. The Waters of Kronos would win the 1960 National Book Award for fiction. Sadly, the planned trilogy featuring the Donner family would never be finished.

In 1968, he published The Aristocrat, his final novel. On October 30, 1968, Richter died from a heart attack. He would be buried in the Saint John’s Lutheran Cemetery in his hometown of Pine Grove with many of his ancestors. His wife Harvena would join him four years later and his daughter in 2011.

I was first introduced to the writings of Conrad Richter like most Pennsylvanians – by reading The Light in the Forest while I was still in school. The novel captured my attention and I soon read everything the local library had, which introduced me to his other writings. I was pulled into his writings by the detail that he placed in his stories. His books brought to life the conflict on the frontier – whether it was in Pennsylvania, Ohio, or the western states – as family conflicted with culture; people faced the harshness of nature; the pioneer struggled with modernization; and nostalgia sought to survive the changing society.

While his writings were popular, they never were deemed “successful” – despite the awards, he was never a best-seller. The closest he had to a best seller was The Sea of Grass. In the years since his death, his works have been mostly forgotten about and it has only been in recent years many of his writings have been “discovered” and enjoyed by younger generation.

I finished paying my respects to the author, leaving him to rest next to his wife and daughter.

Note: What I did not know until doing research was Conrad’s daughter Harvena was also an author. Included in her writings are Virginia Woolf: An Inward Study and Writing to Survive: The Private Notebooks and Conrad Richter.

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