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David R. Johnson, professor of English and associate provost at Lafayette, has published the first biography of Pulitzer Prize-winning American short-story writer and novelist Conrad Richter.

Conrad Richter: A Writer’s Life is published by Penn State University Press in the Penn State Series in the History of the Book. It has a June publication date, but copies became available earlier this month through Penn State and Internet outlets.

Richter (1890-1968) was born in Pine Grove and died in Pottsville, both in Schuylkill County, Pa. He had been the most significant American writer of his era without a biography written on him. He is best known for The Sea of Grass, published in 1936, The Light in the Forest (1953), and a trilogy about pioneer life, The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950).

The Town won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A decade later, Richter won the National Book Award for an autobiographical novel, The Waters of Kronos (1960).

Conrad Richter: A Writer’s Life “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,” says Fred Hobson, professor of English and Lineberger Professor in the Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and biographer of the American journalist and critic H.L. Mencken.

Johnson became aware of the lack of a biography about Richter through a regional studies course on Northeast Pennsylvania that he taught with Donald L. Miller, Lafayette’s John Henry MacCracken Professor of History. He says two main factors motivated him to take on the project.

“Number one, Richter left behind a journal that he had written in for 44 years,” he explains. “It’s an incredibly complete document covering the personal and professional activities of his life, with everything from the vitamins he took each morning to the kinds of problems he was having with a story or novel — or his wife, or publisher. I saw that I had a treasure trove.

“I also decided that I liked the guy,” Johnson adds. “You can’t work for the many years that a biography takes without liking the person, or at least you wouldn’t want to do it. Despite his own sense of himself as a shy and nervous man, despite some of his idiosyncracies and superstitions, Richter was a remarkable man – quite admirable in many ways.”

After encountering initial resistance from Richter’s daughter, Harvena, Johnson gained unrestricted access to and permission to quote from all of Richter’s letters, journals, notebooks, and private papers.

“I had to convince her that I was a suitable biographer,” he says. “She had closed off access to his papers, and I had to convince her that I had a perspective that would fairly explain her father’s life.” In addition to these documents, Johnson spoke with Richter’s surviving family members and residents of Pine Grove.

Johnson began the project in the mid-1980s, when he began a long stint as head of the English department, taking a month or two for research over the summer when possible. He and Richter’s daughter and widow are considering further work with Richter’s papers.

Johnson joined the Lafayette faculty in 1974. He is the recipient of Lafayette’s Marquis Distinguished Teaching Award for exceptional contributions to students, the curriculum and the College; Christian R. and Mary Lindback Award for distinguished teaching and contribution to the campus community; and Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Faculty Lecture Award in recognition of excellence in teaching and scholarship.

This year Johnson was mentor to Andrew Dixon ’01 of Warminster, Pa., a Marquis Scholar and English major who wrote a senior honors thesis on faith, religion, and ritual in the writings of Ernest Hemingway.

He holds a master’s and doctoral degrees from Penn State and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland.

Categorized in: Academic News