CONRAD RICHTER: A Writer's Life

David R. Johnson, Author . Pennsylvania State Univ. $39.50 (407p) ISBN 978-0-271-02097-6

Once, when asked how to succeed in writing, Richter, a Pulitzer Prize winner, advised his correspondent to lose everything in the stock market, go into debt and have a sick wife and a young daughter—and preferably to do all this during the Depression. This how-to biographical outline omitted a strict Lutheran upbringing in Pennsylvania Dutch country, an oedipal relationship with a gifted mother and a lifelong neurasthenic disposition. Biographer Johnson portrays Richter through letters and diaries as a serious, self-castigating artist, one as worried about his income as his storytelling. Although the young Richter attempted ventures in journalism, lumber and wholesaling pretzels, he was always writing stories aimed at the Saturday Evening Post during his off-hours. Eventually, as his business schemes repeatedly failed and his wife's latent tuberculosis developed, writing was the only vocation left, whether formulaic stories for popular magazines or occasional Hollywood screenwriting, such as a sequel to The Frisco Kid. Finally, a move to New Mexico for his wife's health inspired an interest in American pioneer history. The resultant novel, and the trilogy comprising The Trees, The Fields, and The Town (this last won him the Pulitzer), brought critical praise and comparisons to Willa Cather. 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, a professor of English at Lafayette College. 20 illus. (June)

Reviewed on: 05/28/2001
Release date: 06/01/2001
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