Conrad Richter – “The Town”

Two Pulitzers in one year for me is a huge uptick in activity. So many times, I have thought of stopping doing this project. Recently Drew and I thought about shutting down this website. We decided not to close down the site, and after that decision I registered for a graduate class in American literature where all of the books assigned were Pulitzer prize winning novels. I read Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad for this class and posted about it recently. As I began wrapping up this semester, I needed a break from the readings for both of my classes and I decided to finish Conrad Richter’s The Town. Richter’s 1951 Pulitzer Prize winner is the final book in the trilogy known as the Awakening Land trilogy. The Wikipedia entry on this book is oddly flawed in ways that seem troubling, and I may research one sticking point to that the Ohio State University Press put out a revised edition in 1991 that made changes to the text that reflected the changes made in a 1978 television version. This seems like a ridiculous idea that cannot possibly be true, but seems like such a specific lie that it bears looking into. I have requested this edition via I-Share libraries, and want to find the places this anonymous person said were changed. Another flaw is that this wiki entry says that Chancey writes his paper from a socialist perspective which is not exactly clear to me. The moment he meets Johnny Appleseed at his “real family’s” house is when everything changes for Chancey. Johnny Appleseed is not a socialist but a Swedenborgian, a separate religion based on Christianity. It is in this vein that he separates from his family, their way of life, and their pioneer heritage.

There is much in this book that echoes our current times and the eternal struggle between young and old. Chancey gets the last words about his sudden conversion to, or at least questions of, the pioneer generation and their penchant for hard work and not cutting corners. Just before this, the reader wanders through the addled mind of Sayward pronounced “Saird” as she slowly slips away into dementia. This is one of the most gripping pieces of prose I have ever read and its dangling just on the edge of sentimentality and nostalgia while being cripplingly beautiful is a tightrope that is a masterful touch that I stopped to reflect on before he mucked it up with the Chancey’s comeuppance in the final lines. Sayward, as the heroic matriarch, watches her own mind and the new life she built with Portius tenderly slip away from herself was spellbinding in a way that reminds me of a fascination with words on pages that sometimes I look track of. I am not convinced that The Town needs to be reread for all of time the way immortalizing a book like this in a list like this ensures. Chancey is one remarkable character and the love interest between himself and his half sister Rosa is a strange twist for a book like this to situate as his main love interest which is a bold and rewarded choice. Then situating Chancey as rich and Rosa as poor, and yet both parents against it, their final flight away in a hot air balloon and the girl committing suicide is a very brave choice for this novel in the 1951. There are so many strange choices in this book like the oldest daughter sneaking away to present herself, naked, to the guy the runs the sawmill. Portius himself as a strange and ecstatic character available to the cast of characters in settings like this. Johnny Appleseed running into the foreground – thrust in as a true anchor of the historicity of this novel.  Slotting in a real-life character in this novelization of the lives of pioneers in Ohio is a foreshadowing of future Pulitzer winner March by Geraldine Brooks who includes Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I would not recommend this book to future Pulitzer readers or to future English classes. It is far from my favorite, but also pretty far from the worst book in this list. I may have had more invested in the characters if I had read the rest of the trilogy. Richter has a deft hand and a masterful eye for literary details and situations, and he also quotes from Lamb in His Bosom which is one of the signature pieces of Pulitzer’s lore that they wink at one another throughout the history of the prize.

I plan on finishing this prize at my earliest possible convenience and finally being able to pursue something else for once in my life. I have 8 books left. 2 of which I am more than half way finished. 4 of which have been awarded as prizes since we have started this project. So, really I have 4 to finish – 2 of which I have started before. Then Drew and I embark on one of the craziest parts of this journey – writing this terrible book. I look forward to seeing where that project goes as well.

 

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