Sunday, May 31, 2015

He Did Go Home Again - Searching for Conrad Richter

Along Tulpehocken Street, Pine Grove, PA - Photo by Carl Mydans
Back in January I was reading David McCullough’s Brave Companions: Portraits in History (1991), a collection of essays, including his 1977 "Cross the Blue Mountain," a description of a visit the author made to the small central Pennsylvania town of Pine Grove and the home of Conrad Richter in the summer of 1963.  A fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, McCullough met and befriended Richter in the 1960s and has called the novelist "an American master," praising The Waters of Kronos (1960) as "his most beautiful book."

McCullough visited Richter at his home on 11 Maple Street, near the intersection with Mifflin Street where Richter was born 72 years earlier.  He described Richter as “authentic and exceeding modest American artist about whom too little has been said.”  When they first met Richter was working on his final novel, The Aristocrat (1968).  McCullough intended to write an article about Richter but it was never realized.  Instead a close friendship blossomed in the final years of Richter’s life.  McCullough would return to Pine Grove several times over the next five years, and Richter would visit him briefly on Martha’s Vineyard although he seemed anxious to return home to Pennsylvania.  It seems he always wanted to go home again.  The two men would correspond until Richter’s death on May 30, 1968.  After reading McCullough’s essay I thought it might be fun to make my own pilgrimage to Pine Grove to gain a better understanding of Richter’s life and writings.  I have read some of his books, but it was quite a long time ago.

I had been looking forward for quite some time to getting back out on the blue highways again with a good buddy; it had been a while since our last road trip together.  So why not Pine Grove?  Plans were set for an excursion into central Pennsylvania in late January.  Unfortunately, a major nor’easter brought with it a heavy snow storm which forced us to postpone our trip.  More storms and general inclement late winter weather, both in Pennsylvania and here in Maryland, kept us home bound forcing us to push the trip deeper into February, and then into March, and finally it just fell off the calendar for good.  I better understood why McCullough chose to make his first trip to Pine Grove at the height of summer.  My own first visit to Pine Grove finally happened this past week.  It was not a planned outing so much as pure serendipity.

Driving northeast of Harrisburg on my way to a literary gathering in Albany, New York, I passed an exit on Interstate 81 for Pine Grove.  I had not really studied the map beforehand and had not realized how close I would be to Richter’s hometown.  Unfortunately I did not have time to detour; I still had several hours to drive that day.  Instead I pledged to stop on my return trip.  It looked like I was finally going to have an opportunity to visit Richter’s native earth.
Born in Pine Grove, Conrad Richter (1890-1968) was the son of a Lutheran minister and he and his family moved around to several small central Pennsylvania mining towns in the coal region northeast of Harrisburg.  He eventually graduated from Tremont High School, ten miles north of Pine Grove, in 1906.  That would be the end of his formal education at age fifteen; he had to go to work to earn money to help support his family.  He worked for a spell as a teamster, a clerk, a farm worker, a timberman, a bank teller, and a salesman. In 1909, he took a job as a cub reporter for the Courier, a weekly magazine in Patton, near Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  He later sought out editing jobs on the Johnstown Journal and Leader and the Pittsburgh Dispatch.  Apparently he had the journalist’s touch and was told, “Boy, you’ll go far!”

Moving to Cleveland, Ohio in 1911 to serve as a private secretary for a wealthy industrialist, Richter would remain for the next thirteen years and it was there he took up his pen to write fiction.  Having married in 1915, with a child born the following year, Richter grew frustrated that his writing career could not support his family.  Returning to a high valley farm outside of Harrisburg in central Pennsylvania in 1924, his first story collection, Brothers of No Kin and Other Stories, was published in Philadelphia that same year.  Richter opened a publishing firm in Reading while pursuing his own writing,  eventually publishing stories in Ladies' Home Journal, American, and the Saturday Evening Post.

Due to his wife’s tuberculosis and deteriorating health, they eventually relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1928, and later to Arizona where Richter published a great deal of pulp fiction during the 1930s – mainly for the Saturday Evening Post – while developing an intense interest in frontier life in the American Southwest.  This interest is reflected in his collection, Early Americana and Other Stories, published in 1936.  His writing achieved a major success the following year as he was approaching age fifty with the publication of The Sea of Grass (1937), a best-selling novel about farming and ranch life in New Mexico which was awarded the National Book Award.  Southwestern frontier life was also the subject of his subsequent novels Tacey Cromwell (1942), Always Young and Fair (1947), and The Lady (1957).  The characters of the stories are an intricate element of the landscapes they inhabit.  Richter, much like other writers of the period, also worked briefly as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Hollywood in the late 1930s. 

Even while living in the Southwest Richter never forgot his Pennsylvania roots and between 1940 and 1950, when he returned to Pine Grove, he penned and published his Ohio trilogy.  The first volume, The Trees, was published in 1940 and won the Pulitizer Prize.  It was followed by The Fields (1946) and The Town (1950), which also won the Pulitizer Prize in 1951.  McCullough calls the trilogy “an American masterpiece, as vivid and as moving an account as we have of pioneer life.”  This still holds true.  The trilogy tells the story of a pioneer family’s roots in Pennsylvania after the American Revolution, its eventual migration into the primordial forests of southeastern Ohio, and the conquering of this vast wilderness.  The books were followed by The Light in the Forest (1953), also set in late eighteenth century Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The pull of native soil was strong, and Richter and his wife returned to his hometown of Pine Grove to live in 1950, settling into a stately house at 11 Maple Street where they would remain until Richter’s death in 1968, only occasionally escaping for a few weeks to the Gulf Coast of Florida, or to Pawcatuck, Connecticut or the Mount Desert Island, in Maine, where he would continue to write.  During this time Richter produced eight more novels, a novelette, and several short stories and magazine articles.  But it was two autobiographical novels – The Waters of Kronos (1960), which won the National Book Award in 1961, and A Simple Honorable Man (1962), that climaxed his writing career.  The Ohio trilogy was also republished as a single volume - The Awakening Land - in 1966 as The New York Times heralded Richter as a “modest giant” among American writers.

These two late novels grew out of Richter’s family life during his youth in Pine Grove.  In the latter, a “prequel” of sorts to The Waters of Kronos, Harry Donner, the narrator’s father, leave a storekeeper job to enter into the Lutheran church and to minister to the needy and the poor in fictional rural coal-mining communities in Pennsylvania.  This difficult, some time violent, and often thankless task takes a heavy toll on Harry and his entire family as they struggle to keep the family intact as they move from place to place.  The story continues in The Waters of Kronos.  The narrator, John Donner, is Harry’s son and a well-known writer and the author of a book of about his hometown of Unionville, Pennsylvania (a fictional version of Pine Grove).  He returns home from the West to find the town flooded following the construction of a nearby hydroelectric dam.  There John Donner ponders the fates of his family and the rest of the townspeople and the despoiling of the American landscape, a favorite topic in Richter’s writings.  The novel raises questions about its autobiographical elements and the extent it reflects nostalgically on childhood scenes and key events in Richter's own family life.  It addresses the age old question whether it is possible to go home again. 

But Richter did go home again, and he wrote passionately about the past.  “I don’t believe he much cared for history in the conventional sense,” McCullough wrote in his essay.  “As some people are born with perfect pitch, he had a perfect sense of time past.”  It was as if he had lived in the past and now came home “to tell his stories.”  Not stories of great historical figures, but the stories of the common man and his fate in America.  “You could say,” McCullough added, “that he was a patriot in the largest, best meaning of the word.”  Richter valued what he called “the old verities” of “courage, respect for one’s fellow man, self-reliance, courtesy, devotion to truth, a loathing of hypocrisy, the power of simple goodness” which he sensed was quickly disappearing from the American scene.
Conrad Richter suffered a heart attack and passed away on October 30, 1968 in nearby Pottsville at the age of 78.  He is buried close to his parents on Cemetery Hill not far from his home on Maple Street and the St. John’s Lutheran Church where his father once preached.  Two short story collections – Brothers of No Kin and Other Stories (1973) and The Rawhide Knot and Other Stories (1985) – were published posthumously and most of his books are still in print.

Not much is said about Richter today two generations after his death and I was curious what evidence I might find of his life in Pine Grove.  Back in 1963 McCullough had driven from New York and approached the town from the southeast having crossed over Blue Mountain that demarcates the eastern margin of the Appalachian range where it abuts the Lehigh Valley.  The Appalachian Trail runs along its crest.  I approached from the north on Route 125, happy to abandon the traffic-addled Interstate 81 for the back roads.  Upon arrival I found it little changed from the time he last walked these quiet, tree-lined streets almost fifty years earlier.  A very typical small American town with a population hovering around 2000, I discovered it celebrating Memorial Day in typical small town fashion.   Flags and banners hung from the streetlights and adorned several buildings along Tulpehocken Street, the main north-south drag, and Mill Street, the east-west axis.  I had seen photographs of these streets taken when Richter lived here and they appeared not to have changed very much.  Young boys were fishing along the banks of the Swatara Creek as it coursed through town while others flocked to a small pond in the town park and to the local swimming pool.

Most of the existing town, founded in 1830, dates from the 19th and early 20th centuries and it is now a National Register Historic District (as is Mount Rainier, Maryland where I have resided for the past 33 years).  There is a short street named in Richter’s honor in the middle of town, and I quickly found Richter’s last home at 11 Maple Street.  It looked just the way McCullough described it in his 1977 essay.   “The house, a white stucco on Maple Street, was the largest I had seen while driving into the town.  There was a neat front walk, a small front porch with columns, a large screened porch over to one side.  Everything – house, walk, me – was bathed in cool green light under the shade trees.”  Other than that, I found little outward evidence of Richter’s years here in a town that clearly meant the world to him.  I drove over to the Lutheran cemetery where he is buried but chose to honor the “No Trespassing” signs posted at the entrance.  Besides, it would have been difficult to find his final resting place and to read his own epitaph:
                        Little grasses, I have come among you.
                        Little grasses, you are taller now than I.

Richter was popular but never fashionable.  There were no best sellers among his many books even if they were critical successes.  Having now visited Pine Grove - the model for Conrad Richter’s fictional Unionville - I have decided I must read his novel, The Waters of Kronos.  Perhaps then I will more fully understand the importance of Pine Grove, Pennsylvania to the man and his writing.

In the meantime, I left Pine Grove behind, to cross the Blue mountain just as David McCullough did on his trip of discovery.  After all, I too had to come home again.

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