- Writing to Survive: The Private Notebooks of Conrad Richter
During the fifty-five years 1913-1968 that delineated his literary career, Conrad Richter produced an impressive number of novels and short stories that earned him a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and a place among America's foremost historical fictionists. At his death, Richter (1890-1968) left as an unpublished literary legacy a similarly extensive number of notebooks and journals about his writing theory and process and also about his tormented authorial struggles. His only child Harvena Richter, herself a published poet, story writer, and literary scholar, has excerpted representative examples of those notebooks and journals and presented them with her own observations.
Harvena Richter organizes Writing to Survive into twelve chapters and prefaces it with a chronology of her father's life and with an introduction setting forth the work's purpose and scope. Then she adds to the main body of the book: endnotes by chapters; appendices of story outlines, notations on plotting, and an excerpt from one of Conrad Richter's novels to suggest something of his theory about the correlation of human physical and psychical energy and language; a bibliography of works by and about Conrad Richter; a note regarding the translation of his works into languages other than English; and an index. The book also contains some family photographs.
As a whole, Writing to Survive reveals as much about Conrad Richter the person and aspiring writer as it does about his writing. Its primary title suggests that his fear of financial failure, which had an actual basis during the great economic depression of the 1930s, enabled him to avoid writer's block but that even then his anxieties about and struggle with the creative processes at times almost overwhelmed him. Conrad Richter therefore maintained the notebooks and journals, as Harvena Richter suggests, in part as "a hedge against what seemed to him to be imminent disaster"—the fear that he would not produce works that would sell; and he husbanded more background material and ideas for characters, dialogue, and plots than he could use. But in part, as Harvena Richter does not say but perhaps infers, Conrad Richter used the notebooks and journals as a catharsis for his often troubled emotions, that is, as a place where he could unburden. [End Page 292] Some of his fiction, notably the novels most autobiographical, provided a similar catharsis for his doubts and fears; but the notebooks and journals served as a stronger purgative.
Inasmuch as Writing to Survive is presented from an insider's perspective that only a family member could have, it requires of the reader an act of faith as to its objectivity. But based upon my own interviews and correspondence with Conrad Richter and on my cursory examination of some of the notebooks in the preparation of my book—from that experience, I willingly accept the requirement. I am persuaded that Harvena Richter has exercised judicious selection and presented the materials not only objectively but with candid and penetrating insight. Leon Edel is correct in saying that Writing to Survive is an "engrossing record" edited with "skill and wisdom."