Conrad Richter: A Writer's Life

Conrad Richter: A Writer's Life

by David R. Johnson

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“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.”

—Fred Hobson, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

“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.”

—Scott Donaldson

“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.”

Publishers Weekly

Having unrestricted access to all the writer's letters, journals, notebooks, and private papers, Johnson (English, Lafayette College) describes how Pennsylvania-born Richter (1890-1968) failed as a writer, tried again out of financial desperation, and wrote his way from penny-a-word pulp magazines into a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Product Details

Penn State University Press
Publication date:
Penn State Series in the History of the Book
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Pine Grove


When Conrad Richter, his mother, and two younger brothers boarded the train at Pine Grove Station in December 1900, they were departing not so much from a home—the family had lived in four different houses during Connie's ten years—as from a community, an extended family of relatives and near-relatives. Although a small town, 150 houses spaced along the six blocks of Tulpehocken and three of Mifflin Street, Pine Grove was settled, permanent; houses were known by the names of the families that built them and, more often than not, continued to live in them. By 1900 all of Tulpehocken Street was paved in red brick, a source of pride among the townspeople, as were the shade trees, maples and ashes, horse chestnuts and elms, spreading high above the streets. Behind the shaded walks, interspersed among the single and double houses on Mifflin Street and Main, as most people called Tulpehocken, were four churches, seven stores, two hotels, and several taverns. All made familiar landmarks for a young boy exploring.

    One of the hotels, the Mansion House, had been the home of young Connie's mother's people, the Conrads, for whom he was named, and its taproom was the first place to look for his paternal grandfather, Mike Richter, in late afternoons after his day's work for the railroad was done. One of the stores, M. H. Boyer and Company, was his father's—or had been until John Richter had sold his share the previous summer. Until then John Richter could be found behind its walnut counters every day but Sunday, from six in the morning until his last customerdeparted, between nine and ten o'clock at night. Two of the churches had been the charges of Connie's maternal grandfather, the Reverend Elias Strickhauser Henry, a tall, spare man of stern countenance but lively wit. Young Connie had been timid in his presence but happy that his grandfather was so important a man. At Reverend Henry's funeral three years before, the mourners overflowed both sanctuaries of St. John's and a third service had to be conducted out-of-doors.

    Both his grandfather's churches were on Main Street, several blocks apart. St. John's Lutheran Church was two doors down from the Lutheran parsonage, next to the big square Filbert house where Connie's brother Joe had been born. St. Peter's was farther down Main Street, south from Grandfather Richter's house, where Connie and his mother and brothers had lived since their house had been sold to Johnny Martin. St. Peter's was what was known as a union church, a church shared by two congregations. Two years after Elias Henry became the pastor of St. John's, the Lutheran congregation of St. Peter's asked the young Reverend Henry to become their minister as well. Pa-Pa Henry had agreed, hoping to persuade the two Lutheran congregations to join together. But that was not the way of the Pennsylvania Dutch. For forty years the twenty families of St. Peter's Lutheran congregation quietly declined invitations to worship in St. John's; they had their own reasons for remaining small and separate, they said, and could not be persuaded. One of those reasons was that they did not want to give up their pretty stone church to the Reformed congregation that shared it.

    North of Mill Street were the tanneries, the flour mill, the ironworks, and the rail yard. Over by the canal, below Aunt Esther Conrad's house on the corner of Mifflin and Morris Streets, was the coal yard where Ed Christ, ignoring the objections of neighbors, allowed neighborhood boys to use his shanty as a clubhouse—provided, of course, that they did not steal his coal for their stove. Connie had been born in Aunt Esther's big brick house, and there he had attended her kindergarten. When Aunt Esther became too addled to live alone, confusing him with her own brothers, his mother's sister Elizabeth—Aunt Lizzie—and her family had moved in to care for her.

    Even after his family had moved from the Filbert house to their own home, a half double a few doors away from Grandfather Richter, Connie, Joe, and Fred, the youngest brother, would walk to their Aunt Esther's. There they would find his Aunt Lizzie and her husband Robert Irwin, a railroad conductor like Grandfather Richter, and their cousins Beth and Henry. Beth was named for her mother, and Henry bore his mother's maiden name, but nobody but Aunt Lizzie called her son anything but Trap. It was at Aunt Esther's that Connie and Trap laid their plans to run away to hunt buffalo in the West, hiding out with their cache of goods filched from the store. Soon after dark the runaways were pulled from their hiding place, scolded for stealing, and sent off to bed.

    Aunt Lizzie was lame and had trouble with the steps to the basement kitchen of the Morris Street house, but she could tell wonderful stories and play just about anything on the piano. She gave piano lessons, and as often as not when he visited, Connie would find some luckless Pine Grove youth practicing at the square piano in the parlor, and his aunt, cooking below, rapping on the pipes to call attention to missed notes and faulty timing. Although he would in later years teach himself to play after a fashion, somehow Connie escaped the piano lessons.

    For most of the year, the Richter boys' life in Pine Grove was an outdoor life. Summer was best, for then there was no school and days were lazy in the summer sunshine. There was time for fishing for catfish in the lower basin of the canal, and for swimming under the railroad trestle, the best swimming hole on Swatara Creek. On warm days boys would gather by Irwin Loser's watch box, playing tag and poker for jack straws until the swallows returned to the covered bridge. That meant it was one o'clock, time for the half mile walk to the railroad trestle for an afternoon swim. Nobody took a bathing suit. For Decoration Day, called simply "the Thirtieth" in Pine Grove, each family carefully prepared its grave plot at the cemetery. Then came the parade, old Major Filbert leading the Civil War veterans in their faded blue uniforms as they marched down Main and up Cemetery Hill, there to honor the Union dead. In June churches held strawberry festivals, to which everybody was invited, and later in the summer there were church picnics, where the older boys would parade with lap blankets across their shoulders, the sign that they had charge of the family buggy and were available for young ladies desiring to see some fancy trotting along country lanes. In September school curtailed most longer excursions into the woods and fields, but there remained hours of light after the day's lessons, and Saturdays, and fall break for teachers' sessions, when they could climb Blue Mountain to look for pawpaws and persimmons, or walk the Long Trail through the hardwoods to Squire's Woods to gather chestnuts. Sundays were less appealing, indeed to young Connie Richter they were a source of dread, for inside the church while the morning sermon droned on, light seemed to dim into a depressing gloom. Forever after he would remember Sunday church services as "the menace that spoiled Friday night and Saturday."

    In fall 1900 Connie and his brothers were all too young to join the late-night torchlight parade to celebrate William McKinley's reelection—though Connie and Joe, when left with the hired girl, sometimes sneaked out of a window to join their friends. Nor is it likely that their mother Lottie Richter would have allowed them out to join Trap and his gang for a Halloween night of outhouse tipping and harness switching. But though they weren't the rascals that Trap was said to be—Trap was famous as the only boy ever expelled from kindergarten, and by his own Aunt Esther—there was evidently more than guilt by association. When the constable came round to report misconduct, he sometimes stopped at the Richter boys' door.

    After winter frost hardened the ground and snow covered the roads, the coal sleighs, laden with anthracite for farmers' coal bins, slid silently through the back streets behind the muffled thumping of the heavy draft horses, their breath steaming. Then there was sledding on Cemetery Hill and Bird's Hill and on the Long Stretch down from Blue Mountain. When the ice froze smoothly on the upper basin of the canal, skaters slid in silent arcs across its southern end. At the northern end boys would gather to speculate about the thickness of the ice where the springs were, daring each other to be the first to venture across the places where the ice was a dangerous deep blue green. Ed Christ once ordered Josie Emerich and his ice cutters away from the area of the basin cleared of snow for ice-skating. "So it's pleasure before business," Josie sneered. "That's right," answered Ed. Long since left idle by the railroads, the canal had no other function in 1900, unless it was to remind the town how directly related its prosperity was to the transporting of hard coal.

A family story has it that a Conrad was the first to discover anthracite north of Pine Grove, initiating the town's and his own family's prosperity. Be that as it may, the town grew from a crossroads village in 1830 because of the large deposits of hard coal nearby. A gap in Sharp Mountain to the north of Pine Grove, through which Swatara Creek flowed, made the town a natural junction point for the early canals and then the railroads transporting coal to Philadelphia and Baltimore. In time Pine Grove became the market town for the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers whose fields and orchards spread across the valley between Sharp and Blue Mountains and for the Irish and Eastern European miners who dug coal from the veins pitching steeply down into the hills.

    The first Conrad to come to Pine Grove was Henry W. Conrad, who visited sometime after his marriage in 1810 to Elizabeth Kendall. The daughter of a Revolutionary War soldier who had crossed the Delaware with Washington, Elizabeth brought to the marriage a dowry of extensive landholdings in Schuylkill County. Those tracts may well have spurred young Henry—he was twenty-one in 1810—to think of leaving Montgomery County, where his own family was as substantial and well-connected as the Kendalls. His father Frederick Conrad, a blacksmith and farmer, had by steady industry developed his holdings to include a grist mill and a sawmill. Frederick Conrad had also found time to serve as a justice of the peace, a delegate to the state legislature for four terms, and a representative to the United States Congress for two. It was Henry who, it was said, returned from a surveying expedition bearing samples of stone coal. That might have occurred after his service as a captain in the War of 1812, or perhaps much later. After a term as a prothonotary for Schuylkill County from 1821 to 1824, Henry Conrad served as justice of the peace and deputy county surveyor, a job that would have sent him into the hills above town. But of course he could have learned his surveying, and found the stone coal, while exploring his wife's land. By 1830 he had built the Mansion House, combining an inn, store, and a tavern. Henry and Elizabeth Conrad appear not to have developed the coal lands, and the funds to build the Mansion House most likely came from Henry's inheritance; his father Frederick died in 1827.

    A Jacksonian Democrat and an abolitionist, Henry Conrad was as politically active as his father had been, convincing his neighbors to establish a school in Pine Grove and serving two terms in the state legislature. There were also persistent rumors that the Mansion House served as a station on the underground railroad. One teenaged girl, Black Hettie, stayed on at the Mansion House and elsewhere in Pine Grove, serving as a nurse to some of the Conrad children. Trap would remember Black Hettie visiting his Aunt Esther in her home.

    The Conrad family lived quite comfortably through the 1830s, and Squire Conrad—a title conferred upon him as a magistrate—bought a tavern in North Pine Grove and parcels of land to add to the large tract on which the Mansion House stood, stretching from Tulpehocken Street to the Swatara. But in the years following his death in 1841, the inherited coal lands were traded away for others farther west, which proved to be unproductive, and little by little the Mansion House tract was sold off, perhaps to pay for the educations of some of his eight children. There were six girls—Catharine, Esther, Sarah Ann, Charlotte, Valeria, and Mary—and two boys—Frederick William and Victor Lafayette. Frederick and Victor both attended Gettysburg College and Seminary, traveled widely abroad, and served prominently in the Lutheran Church in Philadelphia, where they jointly edited the Lutheran Observer.

    Esther Conrad also went away for schooling. Speaking French and German fluently, she taught languages to young ladies in Ohio before returning to teach in Pine Grove. When she returned she had built on Conrad land a house meant to last for generations, with a foundation thirty inches thick, walls of doubled brick, and windowsills hand hewn from timbers. Townspeople recognized as hers the poems signed "Hadassah" in the Schuylkill County Herald, but she was better known as the good Samaritan of Pine Grove, inviting any unfortunate into her home. In her last years (she died in 1908) she would sometimes escape through a window of her home to return to the Mansion House where, she thought, parents and sisters were awaiting her as they had in her childhood.

    The Conrads remained the social equals of the Millers, the Stees, the Forrers, the Filberts, and the other propertied families of Pine Grove even as they slipped from equality of estate. When in 1852 the new Lutheran minister of St. John's began to call upon Sarah Ann Conrad, the third-eldest daughter, the arrangement seemed natural enough to everyone. She was only a year older than the Reverend Elias Strickhauser Henry, her birthday being September 23, 1822, and his November 30, 1823. She was pretty, socially adept, and active in St. John's Lutheran Church. And of course she was a Conrad. They were married on September 12, 1853. In time there were three children: Elizabeth Lydia, born on June 30, 1854; George Conrad, on February 22, 1856; and Charlotte Esther, on April 22, 1859. Though a minister's salary was not large and Sarah brought little from her family's reduced holdings, there was extra income from weddings and funerals, and, evidently, an occasional windfall from a horse trade. And at harvesttime each year, there was a profusion of vegetables and fruits for canning and preserving, for Elias Henry took great pride in his garden. It was a happy marriage until tragedy struck in August 1869. On a family picnic Sarah Ann slipped while picking berries, falling from a cliff to her death. Two years later Elias Henry married Elmira Seidel, a pious woman and a conscientious stepmother, hardworking and caring, but for the children never a replacement for their dear lost mother.

    Elias Henry continued his ministry, traveling by buggy and by horseback to attend to the congregations of his four churches, two rural churches as well as the two in Pine Grove. Throughout all these years, the Reverend Elias Strickhauser Henry was a prominent member of the community, respected by all except the "Copperheads" whom he had angered by his abolitionist sermons. Although they never carried out their threats against him, they did, one Sunday morning, roach the mane and tail of his buggy horse. Later he would be equally vocal in denouncing the Molly Maguires, the secret organization accused of labor agitation, terrorism, and murder in the anthracite fields. Among his intimate friend he was known as a wit and a teller of tales heightened in humor by his unsmiling delivery. When he died of Bright's disease in 1897, his obituary in the Lutheran Observer summarized his years of service: he preached 10,086 sermons, baptized 6,408 children, confirmed 1,681 persons, married 1,240 couples, officiated at 2,489 funerals. His grandson Conrad would later speculate that his years among the stolid Pennsylvania Dutch must have seemed to him an exile, but there is no evidence that he himself had such thoughts. In more than forty years service he had never once taken a vacation. "The devil doesn't take a vacation," he was reputed to have said.

    At Elias Henry's urging, his son George followed him into the Lutheran ministry. In 1900 he was pastor of the Lutheran Church at Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, a distance from Pine Grove. Elizabeth—Aunt Lizzie—became the family musician; the youngest child Charlotte, once she outgrew her tomboyishness, became the family scholar. Lottie took after her Aunt Esther, the family said. Like her Aunt Esther she became a schoolteacher, and for a while after the death of her fiancé, Edward Kim, it seemed that she might, like her Aunt Esther, be looking ahead to a life without a husband and children of her own.

By Pine Grove standards, the Richter family was far less august than the Conrads. When the flood of 1862 destroyed the Union Canal from Pine Grove to Jonestown, carrying away a railroad trestle and washing out sections of track, the Reading Railroad sent John Michael Richter to supervise a work gang. Brusque in speech but taciturn in demeanor, still speaking with a pronounced German accent, Mike Richter got on well enough in the predominantly German community to decide to stay. When the trestle was repaired, he became a section boss for the Tremont and Lebanon spur of the Reading Railroad, bringing his wife and family to North Pine Grove, then moving shortly thereafter to a company house on Tulpehocken, across from Canal Street. There he would live until his death in 1915.

    Mike Richter had come to the United States in August 1854 from Alten-Baden, Germany, where he had been born on July 21, 1834. It has been said he came to escape conscription into the army. The son of Absalom Richter, listed in the family genealogy as a shepherd, as were Absalom's father and grandfather, Mike Richter learned English well enough to court Suzannah Michael of Reading, marrying her on February 16, 1856. Three children were born before the family moved to Pine Grove: Tillie Richter, Sarah Sophia, and on September 11, 1861, John Absalom Richter. In Pine Grove four more children were born: Mary Ann, Henry Michael, Emma Regina, and Bessie Christine.

    Late in his life John Absalom Richter wrote an extended memoir of his adolescence and early manhood in Pine Grove. From this account it is known that he was a thoughtful and a pious young man, deeply affected by the deaths of his little brother Henry Michael, who died at four in 1872, and sister Bessie, who died at eleven in 1889. In his sorrow he found comfort in religion, he wrote, and by his teenage years John Richter decided that he was called to the Lutheran ministry. His father Michael had other ideas, however; when his wife Suzannah told him of his son's wish to attend college and then seminary, his response was final: "I had to work; I guess he'll have to as well." Another man might have found softer words for such a hard truth, but Mike Richter did not mean to be unkind, only practical: a workingman simply could not afford to send a child to college.

    During the summers of his fifteenth and sixteenth years, 1876 and 1877, John Richter worked for his father as a laborer on a section gang. At the end of the second summer John Richter saw no reason to return to school, there being no chance for him to attend college, and so his father found for him another job, that of outside man for Sherman's Store. Robust and gregarious, John Richter settled into the routines of hauling, storing, and clerking, ignoring for several years the railroad and its opportunities, which his father repeatedly offered. Eventually he became brakeman for the ballast train on which his father was conductor, and soon thereafter he agreed to become stationmaster of the Pine Grove station. His decision may have been influenced by his courting of Lottie Henry. The two had grown up knowing each other, attending the same school and church, but Lottie Henry was two years older than he and had been three years ahead of him in school. Only after the death of Ed Kim, Lottie's boyfriend and the older brother of his own best friend Eugene, did John Richter begin to take special notice of Lottie Henry. In time there was a daily correspondence between them, and though many in the town would not have thought the match a favorable one for the minister's daughter, John Richter was nonetheless of good German stock and strong in his religion. Elias Henry evidently had no objection.

    After two years of letter writing, John and Lottie married on September 4, 1884. He was twenty-three and she twenty-five years old. When no children came, Dr. Seyfert gave them some exceedingly sad news. Lottie's womb was somehow turned around and she would not be able to conceive children. That sadness was then compounded by an extended separation: the railroad transferred John to the Lansdale station, north of Philadelphia, too far to travel home except on occasional weekends, and so for two more years John and Lottie wrote each other letters that crossed in the mail. Then came the news of the death of John's best friend, Eugene Kim. Eugene had been superintendent of the St. John's Sunday School, and with his loss the church fathers decided they needed John Richter back to replace him. To accomplish this, two church members offered John Richter a chance to join them in buying a store: for $1,500 he could be a quarter partner. John Richter borrowed $1,000 from his father-in-law and in 1888 returned to Pine Grove as store manager and partner in M. H. Boyer and Company and as superintendent of the St. John's Sunday School.

    About a year later, Lottie had wonderful news to tell John. In spite of Dr. Seyfert's prediction she was carrying a child. After anxious months, early in the morning of October 13, 1890, Dr. Seyfert delivered to Lottie and John their first child, a boy. Smiling down at Lottie and her baby, Dr. Seyfert said, "Never was a baby more welcomed than this one." Lottie named him Conrad Michael, the maiden names of his two grandmothers. A day or so later, as Conrad Michael slept beside her in his crib, Lottie had a vision of a procession of dignitaries, richly robed, coming one by one to pause before the crib and then slip away. Another family might have explained this strange occurrence as a dream, as Lottie herself reported that she believed she was experiencing until, glancing at the bureau mirror, she discovered that she could see the reflection of the visitors' backs. But for the Conrads and Henrys, who shared stories about strange happenings in the Morris Street house where Connie was born and who recognized Lottie as a sensitive, one especially aware of presences unfelt and unseen by others, Lottie's vision was a sign confirming another. Conrad Michael had been born with a caul, in German folk tradition a sign that a child was destined to live a special life.


Meet the Author

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

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