National Book Award winners, part 5: 1960’s The Waters of Kronos, by Conrad Richter.

16 Aug

Almost all writers are eventually lost to time. In some cases they are rediscovered, to great import. (Read The Swerve to see how important a single book can be.) In some cases, they slither along, held in print by cabals of devoted fans. (Read Lovecraft, Portis, Himes.) In some cases, a writer slips from the canon as a travesty of American letters. (Read any of John Williams’s books, especially Stoner, to see what I mean.) And in some cases, a writer was over-esteemed to begin with and needs to go gently into the good night.

So we come to Conrad Richter. Richter’s The Waters of Kronos won the 1960 National Book Award. He beat out Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away, (ridiculous) Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (absurd), and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (a travesty). That same year John Barth published The Sot-Weed Factor,  Walter Miller released A Canticle For Liebowitz, and Graham Greene, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, and Philip K. Dick, to name a few, all toiled over their best works.

Richter isn’t studied. He isn’t read (except his young adult novel, The Light in the Forest, which is a middle school staple). I don’t know anyone who even knows who he is. The gates have shut on his work. In fifty more years he’ll be nothing more than a footnote. It’s a tough thing to say about a writer’s entire body of work, but in Richter’s case, this isn’t a bad thing.

He isn’t a bad writer. He has technical skill, a nice, evocative way of describing turn of the century small-town American life. He writes direct, at times elegant sentences. He has ideas. He grapples with moral issues. But he lacks the fire, the madness, the strangeness, and the richness of great works of art. He’s intriguing, serious, and square. He’s a small novelist who somehow made it to the top of the field. There’s probably an interesting story in how he did this, I just don’t know it.

Richter was raised by Lutherans in Pennsylvania. His father was a Lutheran minister. His grandfather was a Lutheran minister. So were his uncles. A dour, moodiness saturates this novel. Darkness, storm clouds, barren earth, aging people, an inevitable pall of death; Martin Luther would have been proud. Everything is cast in a pre-destined shroud. It doesn’t make for thrilling reading.

Dour, self-serious Lapsed Lutheran revisits his memories. Nothing is accomplished.

Dour, self-serious Lapsed Lutheran revisits his memories. Nothing is accomplished.

The story is simple, almost a fable. An old man returns to his hometown to find it buried under tons of water. A dam has been built, the graves have been moved, and the old man wanders a cemetery looking for the family plot. He reads the engraved etchings of his ancestors, coming to this mirthless conclusion: “Their wives, who outlived them, had no epitaphs.

In so doing, the old man moves backwards in time. He meets his parents when they were young, his grandparents, his uncles and aunts, his younger self. He asks questions, is stymied, confronts old mysteries and anger from the past. Everything he sees will be destroyed, all the people are already dead, the buildings and roads at the bottom of a man-made lake.

That’s the novel, entire. With a few dozen adverbs and twice as many similes, and a switch in setting to the Midwest somewhere, it could be a Ray Bradbury short story. There’s little villainy, plot, or even mischief. The old man wanders here and there, no one helps him, no listens to him, his family spurns him, the end.

Kronos is personal. You can feel Richter’s actual family shimmering beneath these fictional characters. He’s confronting the limits of his own love for his family. And, I’m guessing, investigating his own lack of belief in his forefather’s religion. Here’s a great little passage, where the old man explores his ambiguity towards his father:

Standing there outside his father’s store after all these years, he could feel it tonight, gripping him without rhyme or reason, holding him back, a grown man, even today. Sometimes he wondered if, whatever it was, it hadn’t been the origin of his interest in books and nature, not born of commendable thirst for knowledge, but from a shying away from his father’s world of enthusiastic socialibility with people, which had given him as a boy only difficulty and suffering so that he found relief in freedom and solitude in fields, the forest and the printed page, like an unreasoning moth released from the hand and soaring in air it had never taken cognizance of before.

He’s another passage, where the old man witnesses his grandfather’s funeral:

It was more pagan than he realized, John Donner told himself, closer to the Greeks. As a youth he had thought it criminal to torment the bereaved with mournful words and dirges. The feeble efforts to disguise evil with the words, “Asleep” and “At Rest,” carved serenely over pits of corruption had angered him. Now that he was older he wondered if he might not have been too thin-skinned and refined. If you had friends and neighbors to climb the hill and raise well-meant words over you at last, why should you prefer paid strangers consigning you to earth or fire?

Nifty, tidy writing, with erudition and heart, but little else. Time to move on. Goodnight, Conrad. Other writers await.

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