Cover image for Conrad Richter: A Writer’s Life By David R. Johnson

Conrad Richter

A Writer’s Life

David R. Johnson


$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02788-3

432 pages
6" × 9.25"
20 b&w illustrations

Penn State Series in the History of the Book

Conrad Richter

A Writer’s Life

David R. Johnson

“This is a well-researched and well-written psychological profile of an insecure, superstitious, but nonetheless rather appealing man. Johnson knows how to tell a story, describing in detail Richter’s unlikely path toward becoming an important writer.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Conrad Richter: A Writer's Life is the story of an aspiring writer who failed and then, desperate for money, tried again and wrote himself out of penny-a-word pulp magazines and into a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Based upon unrestricted access to all of Richter's letters, journals, notebooks, and private papers, this biography offers an intimate account of Richter's personal struggle to achieve success in his own and in other people's terms.

Johnson's biography will engage anyone interested in the art of biography and in a novelist's act of writing. Admirers of Richter's novels will also find much of interest in his life. So, too, will those who find value in the story of a man who, despite his sense of himself as an imperfect vessel for God's plan for human evolution, lived his life with as much grace, determination, and courage as he could.

“This is a well-researched and well-written psychological profile of an insecure, superstitious, but nonetheless rather appealing man. Johnson knows how to tell a story, describing in detail Richter’s unlikely path toward becoming an important writer.”
“Johnson has produced a thorough, well-informed, and readable account of Richter, who clearly ranks among the important American novelists of his time. Johnson knows Richter’s territory, and writes about it with real authority.”
“Biographer Johnson portrays Richter through letters and diaries as a serious, self-castigating artist, one as worried about his income as his storytelling. . . . Richter’s self-doubt and his prickly relationship with his publisher, Alfred Knopf, continued throughout his career, even when his autobiographical novel, The Waters of Kronos, won the National Book Award in 1961. In the brief acceptance speech that the pathologically shy author had Knopf read for him, Richter described ‘hardship into gain’ as the theme of his pioneer novels, but it could apply equally to his life, well and thoroughly depicted here by Johnson.”

David R. Johnson is Professor of English at Lafayette College.

Introduction: River to the Sea

On March 9, 1961, Conrad Richter was surprised to receive a telephone call from his publisher, Alfred Knopf. Though friends for more than twenty years, the two men communicated primarily by letter; telephone calls from Knopf came about as frequently as visits from the publisher to the novelist's home in the small Pennsylvania town of Pine Grove. Knowing his friend, Knopf began tentatively. "I think I have good news for you, " he said. In the pause that fol-lowed Richter ran through in his mind possible news that his publisher would know first-strong sales figures, a book club contract, perhaps an offer for film rights to a novel-but he was unable to guess the news Knopf had for him that day: Richter's latest novel, The Waters of Kronos, had been selected for the 1961 National Book Award for fiction. Almost as quickly as he understood the signifi-cance of his publisher's words, Richter grasped why Knopf had prefaced his announcement as he had. When Richter had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1951, there had been no dinners to attend, no public ceremony for the novelist to dread in advance and grit his way through. But the new prize, Richter under-stood, was going to be a different experience: the announcement of the National Book Awards would be a media event-and he at the center of it. He would even be expected to speak. When Richter asked if recipients always attended, Knopf was ready for the question. "Even Faulkner, " he replied.1

Feeling "stampeded but helpless, " Richter listened glumly as Knopf explained the details to him. In addition to attending the actual ceremony, Richter would be asked to join the year's other two winners, William Shirer and Randall Jarrell, in a photographing session, a news conference, and a television interview. As his publisher well knew, Conrad Richter had an unusually strong aversion to such affairs. In Pine Grove and elsewhere Richter was known to enjoy the company of others and to be good company himself: among friends, his laughter and gentle wit came effortlessly. But the novelist, who often sought out conver-sations with strangers, relishing the speech of ordinary people, had a dread of public events that bordered on a phobia. He habitually declined invitations to attend dinners, give lectures, grant television or radio interviews, or even attend signings at bookstores. When a circumstance like the National Book Award ceremony required his attendance, he was unable to work for days beforehand, suffering unallayable anxiety. Understanding Richter's limits, Knopf promised to get him excused from the television interview, provided his author agreed to go with him, after the awards ceremony, to the opera.2

On March 15, the day of the awards ceremony, Richter negotiated the pho-tography session without incident, though he thought the photographer who insisted that he pose holding his book in front of him "asinine." But at the news conference, the first question was "Where's Mr. Richter?" for only Shirer and Jarrell were to be seen. Entering the conference room, Richter had discovered a raised platform with three chairs upon it and a microphone in front of each. Unprepared to be so conspicuous to so many eyes, he placed himself in the first row of seats, directly below Jarrell and Shirer, and he sent Knopf's head of advertising, Harding Lemay, to explain that there he would stay throughout the questions. He would not participate, but if anyone cared to approach him afterwards, he would answer questions for individuals.

Of those who did approach the author of The Waters of Kronos, several were critics and reviewers who had already written reviews of his work, helping to spread Richter's reputation for fine, well-crafted novels, novels set in a past Richter re-created in a distinctively simple, richly evocative style. The most widely known were his first, The Sea of Grass, and a trilogy of novels about a family westering into frontier Ohio, beginning with The Trees and ending with The Town, the novel that had won the Pulitzer. These novels had made him nationally prominent, his face easily recognizable from the photographs that appeared with reviews in news magazines and major newspapers. But if reporters knew the face, they did not know, and may have been surprised by, the man who received their questions. Smiling a large, generous smile, Richter listened attentively to his questioners, then answered their queries seriously and with good humor. So controlled were his replies, his voice so confidently modulated, that it was hard to imagine why, just an hour earlier, he had declined to join his fellow winners on the platform. If they asked, he would have told them, simply, as he had often told others, that speaking in public was not one of his talents. He would not have said, because it was the sort of personal information he chose to keep to himself, that since adolescence he had been struggling to overcome his intense self-consciousness in public. One reporter did ask how Richter planned to deliver his acceptance speech before a large audience. "Oh, " Richter responded, "you have a surprise coming." That evening when Richter's name was announced, it was not Richter but Alfred Knopf who strode to the lectern to read the acceptance speech.3

Following the National Book Award ceremony, Conrad Richter kept his promise to attend the opera with Alfred Knopf, hearing Leontyne Price in Aida. The next day Richter skipped the television interview and returned to Pine Grove, where the seventeen completed chapters of a novel about his father's life as a country minister awaited him. And already he was gathering information for another novel, a book based on his own life, the story of a shy boy who struggled to understand his nervous sensitivity and to surmount it. When several years later Richter finally wrote the first pages of the novel he sometimes referred to as "River to the Sea, " he began with a chapter entitled "The Odd One"- corrected in the heavily edited typescript to read "The Boy"-followed by this first sentence: "The boy didn't know what was wrong with him then, only that he was different from other people including his brothers and parents." Shortly thereafter he listed the three qualities of the boy's family that "especially baffled him": how easily "they could let themselves die in sleep"; how they could "wel-come the company of other human creatures with their strangely disturbing presences, smells, and voices"; and "how they could go to the Golgotha of a church on Sunday, eager to join the press of other people suddenly and unaccountably subdued as if drugged."4

That boy was one Conrad Richter, an exceptionally sensitive child so uncomfortably out of place in his own family that he questioned whether he was even, rightly, a member of it. But as Richter himself certainly understood, from the beginning there had been another, a different Conrad Richter, one who was intensely attached to his parents and brothers, unhappy whenever his mother was not at home. This Conrad Richter took pleasure both in the idea of his patrician heritage from his mother's side-the Conrads, early settlers of Pine Grove, and the Henrys, like the Conrads a family of prominent Lutheran clergy-men- and almost equal delight in the idea of his Richter ancestors, generations of shepherds from the Black Forest. From them he inherited, he believed, his love of the out-of-doors, his preference for solitude, his dislike of large crowds, and his fear of speaking in public.

A family portrait from 1894 shows Lottie and John Richter with their three sons, baby Fred in Lottie's arms, the toddler Joe leaning against his father's knee, and Connie , four years old, standing sturdily between his parents. Roundfaced and blonde, Connie looks directly into the camera, a bright, alert young boy. In his facial features one can already make out his grandfather Henry's distinctive jaw line, though young Connie's mouth is fuller than that of his angular grandfather. In a portrait with Joe, taken perhaps six months earlier, Connie especially resembles his mother. In later portraits and candid snapshots from his teenage years, Connie looks more like his father at a similar age. If there had ever been any doubt of his parentage-and there was not-the close family resemblances would have put an end to it. He was most certainly Johnny and Lottie's boy, a Conrad, Henry, and Richter. The stolid Pennsylvania Dutch of Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, would have thought it some joke on the Richters if their oldest boy Connie (they pronounced it Kunnie) had ever said out loud what he was thinking.

By his teenage years Conrad Richter had dabbled in photography enough to be able to take a whimsical double exposure of himself. In it one Conrad Richter, in suit and tie, has settled himself comfortably on the front stoop of the family's home. His legs pulled up and his hands clasped about his left knee, he smiles in good humor and frankness as he looks directly at his double. The other Conrad Richter, standing beside the porch, a foot on the first step and his arm resting on his knee, seems less attentive to the event of the photograph or to his alter ego beside him. Jacket off and tie in disarray, he looks somewhere into the distance, not unhappy but unsmiling, as if he has not yet quite taken in a comment just made by his wisecracking twin. Perhaps the different expressions were deliberate; perhaps not. Regardless, the double exposure invites a symbolic interpretation, for in his early manhood there remained at least two Conrad Richters, and the two still somewhat in conflict.

One might be named "the go getter, " as he would title an early story, an outgoing young man with modern ideas with the verve to put himself forward, and plans to accomplish great things. At the top of his list was making "a little pile" of money to rescue his parents and especially his mother from the "desperate penury" of a small-town minister's salary.5 This young man was full of plans to succeed in business and not at all shy in trying out his ideas. (Before he was twenty he would establish a wholesale lumber business and later try to market nationwide a Pennsylvania Dutch staple, pretzels; at twenty-two he invested all he could in a speculative silver mining venture, buying the shares on time.) Nor was he hesitant in introducing himself to pretty young women on trains or in writing letters to the director of the National Park Service and the president of the United States to ask for jobs, or to William Dean Howells and Jack London, among others, proposing himself as a private secretary. This Conrad Richter had a winning manner, making him a leader among his friends. If he was at times a little shy, he had a smile that was genuine and mild blue eyes (he would call them gray) that looked straight at the person he was talking to. People liked him.

1. "I think I have"; "Even Faulkner": J, March 9, 1961.

2. telephone conversation with Alfred Knopf: J, March 9, 1961.

3. Richter at the National Book Award ceremony: J, March 16, 1961.

4. "The boy didn't know": RTS, 1-2.

5. "a little pile": CR to HAR, May 1, 1918; "desperate penury": J, March 24, 1928.

© 2001 The Penn State University

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.