1951 Pulitzer Prize Review: The Town by Conrad Richter

“Sayward awoke this day with the feeling that something had happened to her.”

The third and final book in Conrad Richter’s “Awakening Land” trilogy, following The Trees (1940) and The Fields (1946), Pulitzer Prize-winner The Town (1950) concludes the personal saga of Sayward (née Luckett) Wheeler, a pioneer woman who grows up and witnesses the extraordinary changes taking place across the Ohio River Valley –her town transforms from an Indian-populated forest, to pioneer farming town, and finally into an economic hub. As described in prior novels, her parents initially moved to the region to set down roots, but it was up to Sayward to raise her siblings when her father abandoned the family to live as a frontiersman. Here, the pioneer life was harsh, brutal, and unforgiving for Sayward. There were frequent encounters with the Shawnee, Delaware, and Wyandotte. But by the opening of The Town, things have decidedly changed. Sayward, now in her 40s, is married to a sometimes-sober judge named Portius, and together they have no less than ten children.

At the outset, Sayward senses a change within herself as well as in her town. As more and more people migrate to the Ohio River Valley every year, and after the sheer exhaustion of raising ten children, Sayward feels disconnected from her husband, her children, her body, and even her town. Consider the following early passage:

“Now why, she wondered, did a woman’s hams have to get heavy just when she needed them supple and light the most? Could those hams spell out that no more child would rise up between them? And why did her breasts, that used to be stout as wood ducks, hang down now like old shook-out meal bags? Ten babes, counting the one that a lay over yonder in the burying ground, had drunk from those bags months on end” (5-6).

It is this brand of crass but vivid imagery that Richter chooses to introduce us to his protagonist, but it gives a sense of the pure physicality that has been invested into growing both a town and a family.

Joining fellow earlier Pulitzer Prize winners (Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons) The Town is conservative in tone –Sayward frequently laments the passage of time and the changing nature of the region. She is saddened by the disappearance of sprawling forests, and dismayed by the rise of mills and farms, along with the influx of new people who bring a hurried pace of life to this humble community. Even the town’s name is changed, from Moonshine Church to Americus. Nevertheless, in becoming a rich woman, Sayward decides to sell off portions of her rural land so her family can relocate to a mansion in town (much to her husband’s delight).

Throughout the novel we are given episodic glimpses into life around Moonshine Church/Americus –there is a competition for the county seat, a public battle over the judgeship, the construction of a new courthouse and a bridge over the river, along with a canal, and various scandals which plague her children –everything from pregnancies and marriages to sickness and politics. Interestingly enough, each chapter opens with a brief epigram at the header, with quotes from the likes of Zoroaster, Sophocles, and even fellow Pulitzer Prize winners like H.L. Davis and Ellen Glasgow. In one of the episodes, Sayward is reunited with her long-lost sister who was taken in by the Lenape while still a child (thanks to a deathbed confession from her father, Worth Luckett), in another instance, her son Resolve becomes governor. 

However, far and away the most complex character in the novel is Sayward’s youngest son, Chancey. As a child he was plagued by “ill omen and pestilence” (i.e. a heart condition) and he often yearns to be alone –Sayward wonders if she may come to regret suffering by keeping him alive as an infant. Chancey is something of a thinker and an insomniac. He is alight with a creative, fictive imagination, and he is known to sometimes stretch the truth. He falls in love with a neighbor girl, Rosa Tench, but they are forbidden from seeing one another due to a past mystery, which is later revealed to be a scandal. Rosa is actually Chancey’s half-sister, the product of his father’s wayward infidelity with the local schoolteacher. Sadly, Chancey is forced to end their budding romance one day at the fairgrounds in a hot air balloon. Rosa, confused and distraught, tragically commits suicide with the very knife she used to cut the balloon loose. As a result, Chancey develops an embittered perspective toward his family. As he grows up, Chancey becomes a poet and journalist in Cincinnati for a newspaper called the New Palladium. Increasingly persuaded by socialist ideas, he begins to reject his mother’s view of the world, and even publishes against her in print. The Town ends on the eve of the Civil War as Chancey returns to Americus while his newspaper begins to fail. He learns that his mother has been anonymously sponsoring the paper for many years, despite his contrarian viewpoint. At the end of her life, all of Sayward’s good deeds come to light and Chancey reconsiders his assessment of his mother. Lying on her deathbed, she wants nothing more than to see the trees through her nearby window.

“‘Mama,’ he called louder. There was no quiver of the eyelids. His mother only lay there, silent and oblivious as in the majesty of death. He knew now that she would never answer him again, that from this time on he would have to ponder his own questions and travel his way alone” (432-433, closing lines of the novel).

Surprisingly to me, “The Awakening Land” series has continued to remain a somewhat influential series over the decades. In 1966, Alfred A. Knopf issued a complete hardback edition of the trilogy, in 1991 The Ohio University Press issued paperback reprints of the trilogy, and in 2017 Chicago Review Press issued reprints of the books. In 1978, television miniseries was created for the entire “The Awakening Land” series (though some key moments were omitted, most notably the brutal suicide of Rosa Tench). Personally, I hope this is the last of the droning, austere pioneer books among the Pulitzer Prize-winners. For me, The Town is not an example of the best the Pulitzers have to offer.

As a unique point of interest, in The Town Conrad Richter gives grateful acknowledgement to a variety of public and private historical collections from whom he conducted research on everything from the geography of the region to the dialect of the Pennsylvania “pioneer” slang (hence all the “Pennsylvany” and “Ameriky” references) with thanks to “those men and women of pioneer stock among whom he lived both in the East and West, whose lives and whose tales of older days gave him a passionate love for the early American way of thought and speech, and a great respect for many whose names never figured in the history books but whose influence on their own times and country was incalculable. If this novel has had any other purpose than to tell some of their story, it has been to try to impart to the reader the feeling of having lived for a little while in those earlier days and of having come in contact, not with the sound and fury of dramatic historical events that is the fortune of the relative, and often uninteresting, few, but with the broader stuff of reality that was the lot of the great majority of men and women who, if they did not experience the certain incidents related in these pages, lived through comparable events and emotions, for life is endlessly resourceful and inexhaustible. It’s only the author who is limited and moral.”

On the 1951 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The 1951 Pulitzer Prize Jury for Fiction consisted of only two members: returning Jurors David Appel and Joseph Henry Jackson. I am not entirely certain as to why a third Juror was not included (what happened to Frederic Babcock from the prior year?)

  • David H. Appel (1910-1984) was a longtime features and book editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer (1946-1970). He also wrote several children’s books and was a freelance editor at The New York Times. He died in 1984 at the age of 74.
  • Joseph Henry Jackson (1894-1955) was the longtime literary editor of The San Francisco Chronicle. He gained a wide following with his daily book review column, “A Bookman’s Notebook”, and with his radio program, “The Reader’s Guide”, broadcast over NBC’s Pacific network. Originally from New Jersey, he moved to California after World War I. He led a book review radio program beginning in 1926 and published several books himself. He died of a stroke in 1955 at the age of 60 while recording a book review for NBC radio.

The following are some notable quotations I encountered while reading:

“To herself she guessed that Moonshine Church could get along by itself. It wasn’t doing bad for an upstart town along the river. All day long you could hear the broken tune of the sash sawmills like giant horseflies buzzing and lighting, stopping and starting, whining and skipping, for the saws cut only on the down stroke” (45-46).

“Oh, times had changed since her pappy had cut down the first big butts around here. Things moved mighty fast” (73).

“Why, she thought she had half forgot she was a woodsy, but this made her feel like one of those sassafrac folks from out in the brush fetching her poor traps in a fine mansion house. It was really her house as much as Portius’s, for hadn’t she built and paid a good half of it? And yet she found no welcome between these fine plaster walls or among the rich” (209).  

“Americus was getting too big for its britches…” (271).

“All afternoon Chancey had to listen to the pioneer singing and story telling. Their theme was ever of hardship and tragedy, of drowning and starving, of mourning, and sudden death. Now how could these old people be so pleased and comforted by such dark and terrible tales? They engulfed Chancey in gloom. He found coming up in him today the creeping terror that used to plague him in church…” (291).

“That was when for the moment Chancey couldn’t believe it. Rosa dead, and by her own hand!” (355, on the moment Chancey is informed by his mother of Rosa’s death).

“Outside the window he could see a regiment of Union troops, eager for glory and mad for death, marching down the street on their way to answer their backwoods president’s war call” (420).

Who Is Conrad Richter?
Conrad Richter (1890-1968) was born the son of a Lutheran Minister in Pine Grove, CA. The town had been named in part by his great-grandfather, a local squire, store, and tavern keeper (he was also a Major in the War of 1812). One of Richter’s ancestors fought under George Washington, and another was a Hessian mercenary in the British service. As a child, he bounced around various mining towns in Pennsylvania where he was first exposed to descendants of the early pioneers and he memorized their stories which would later inspire much of his fiction. Richter attended local public schools and completed the bulk of his professional education at age 15 when he left high school. He worked various oddjobs including at a Pennsylvania newspaper and as the private secretary to a wealthy Ohio manufacturing family. He married Harvena Maria Achenbach in 1915 and they had a daughter, also named Harvena in 1917. She was to be Richter’s only child.

From here, Richter entered the world of published writing –he wrote short stories, and tales for children, as well as a brief stint writing screenplays for MGM in Hollywood. His family lived all over the United States from New Mexico to Florida before returning to Pennsylvania. In addition to winning the Pulitzer in 1951 for The Town, Richter was also a nominee of the National Book Award in 1937 for his debut novel The Sea of Grass, a tale about the conflicts between ranchers and farmers in late 19th century New Mexico. He later won the National Book Award in 1961 for his novel The Walter of Kronos. It was made into a film in 1947 starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey (directed by Elia Kazan). Richter also won the regional Ohioana Award and received high praise for The Town from fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner, Louis Bromfield. His death in 1968 was followed by two posthumously published short story collections. In 1994, Richter’s historic home at 11 Maple Street in Pine Grove, PA was formally dedicated with a historical marker.

Richter, Conrad. The Town. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 1963.

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