Historical Markers
Conrad Richter Historical Marker
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Conrad Richter


Marker Location:
11 Maple St., Pine Grove

Dedication Date:
December 8, 1994

Behind the Marker

A man wearing a hat, suit, and tie leans against a tree with his arms crossed. A bricked sidewalk and row houses are to the right.
Conrad Richter standing on Tulpehocken Street, Pine Grove, PA, 1962.
The themes that stamped Conrad Richter’s award-winning fiction set their seal on his imagination early. As a boy, he loved accompanying his father, a Lutheran minister, on rounds through the farm country around Pine Grove, where the family lived, in the coal region east of Harrisburg. The boy was fascinated by the landscape and its openness, and mesmerized by the stories of the folks whose families settled the area generations before. But if the idea of the American frontier and the pioneer spirit fascinated him, so did its loss, with each inevitably crushing step of what he had come to see as the encroaching curse of civilization.
Just listen to the twined helix of resignation and anger in the voice of one of Richter’s finest fictional creations, Worth Luckett. An early transplant from an over-settled Pennsylvania to the Ohio wilderness of the eighteenth century, Luckett is a central character in Richter’s esteemed trilogy The Awakening Land, comprised of three progressively darkening novels, The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Time has brought change to Luckett’s beloved territory. "The country’s spoilt and folks are getting less account every day," he complains. "God Almighty made this country the way He wanted, and He never laid out any purtier…. Now folks want to make it just like the country they left back East. They’re crazy about money. A cabin’s not good enough any more…. They kain’t even tramp with the legs God Almighty gave them but have to ride theirselves around with hosses and fancy rigging. They’re never satisfied." 
Lottie Richter and her younger sons Joe and Fred, with the family dog Dixie, sitting inside the house.
Lottie Richter and her younger sons Joe and Fred, with the family dog Dixie,...
Not unlike the writer himself, really, though it was never fanciness that he strived for, but rather the always elusive perfection of his own craft. As he once joked about his compulsive rewriting process, "I probably turn the broom handle too much."
Born in 1890, Richter grew up in Pine Grove, and, after graduating from Tremont High School in 1906, took on a series of odd jobs. "I drove teams," he later recalled, "clerked, pitched hay, was a bank teller, a country correspondent, timberman, and subscription salesman." He liked the idea of the country correspondent best; at nineteen, he was running a weekly newspaper. It showed him what he wanted to be: a writer. 
A young man, head and shoulders.
Conrad Richter in his best suit, circa 1912.
Within a year, he had signed on as a reporter at the Johnstown Leader, then, in 1911, moved to the Pittsburgh Dispatch, before heading to Cleveland the following year for a job as a private secretary, which gave him the time he needed to try writing short stories. One of his first, "Brothers of No Kin," was included in a volume of 1914’s best, but Richter was disappointed in his $25 payment. "If this is what one got for the ‘best,' " he recalled, "I had better stick to business and write in my spare time only the type of story that could fetch a fair price, which I did."
That wasn’t all he did. Moving back to Pennsylvania, to a farm in Clark’s Valley, just north of Harrisburg, he married, started a publishing company, began writing children’s stories, created a magazine for children, wrote two long philosophical essays, and freelanced both fiction and nonfiction for a variety of magazines, including markerCyrus Curtis's Saturday Evening Post and The Ladies’ Home Journal. In 1924, he published his first collection, Brothers of No Kin and Other Stories. In 1928, he sold his company and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where doctors suggested the dry climate would help his wife’s failing health.
Full length photograph of Richter standing outside, facing front.
Conrad Richter, Albuquerque, New Mexico, circa 1934.
Until the move, Richter’s fictional output seemed indistinguishable from any number of his fellow writers in its post-war optimism and overall modernity. The move to the West expanded his horizons, in terms both of time and place. Though his writing always adhered to the spare, tight prose of the newspaperman he once was, his canvas changed to the Western themes of open spaces and the battles to tame them. He also began to take his fiction somewhere that other serious contemporary writers avoided: the nation’s past, which he craftily used as a laboratory to explore where America was headed. 
For the next two decades, Richter was consumed by his new world. Always a dogged researcher, he collected as much as he could on the West: notes from original sources, early rare books, newspapers and manuscripts, "but mostly," he recalled, "the memories of old men and old women still alive." Then, once again, he dedicated himself to writing the best fiction he could.
His first effort was another collection of short stories, Early Americans and Other Stories in 1936, followed in 1937 by his first novel, The Sea of Grass, a stunning tragedy of the vanishing frontier that pitted nineteenth-century ranchers and farmers against each other in a battle to control the open range. On the surface, it appeared to be a typical Western, but critics agreed that its depth transcended genre fiction, and the book was cited in 1942, along with The Trees, with a Gold Medal for Literature from the Society of Libraries of New York University.
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in MGM's Sea of Glass, film version of Conrad Richter's novel, directed by Elia Kazan. 1947.
Publicity Photo of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn for MGM's Sea of...
Richter wrote six more novels before moving with his wife and daughter back to Pine Grove in 1950, most notably The Awakening Land trilogy, which explored the ineluctable march of the Ohio territory toward industrialization; The Free Man (1943), a moving tale of a young immigrant’s quest for freedom set against the backdrop of the American Revolution; and Always Young and Fair (1947), a look at the changes in a small Pennsylvania town as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth. All come alive through the remarkable sense of research and detail with which Richter imbued his work. Though his themes were large, he relished the small picture, the everyday realities of life. That was the history that obsessed him, more so than the grand sweep of the history that was lived there.  
Back in Pennsylvania, his fiction remained focused on the wilderness, most notably in the novel The Light in the Forest (1953), which effectively mined Richter’s favorite theme, runaway civilization, through the story of a white child reared by Native Americans. His 1960 novel, the National Book Award–winning The Waters of Kronos, his most semi-autobiographical work, shed a contemporary light on the theme in its tale of an easterner returning home after years in the West to find almost all that he knew under the waters of a modern hydroelectric plant.
Elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961, Richter continued to write vigorously until his death, in Pottsville, in October 1968. With their clear ecological themes, his last books, including Individualists Under the Shade Trees in a Vanishing America (1964) and Over the Blue Mountain (1967), made him a heroic voice to a new generation of readers. His final novel, The Aristocrat, about a spinster railing against the twin woes of mediocrity and modernity, was published the month he died.
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