I recently discovered Conrad Richter’s The Waters of Kronos, the winner of the National Book Award in 1961. This little gem of a novel is a dazzling example of katabasis (a descent to the underworld): the hero’s trip to his hometown turns into a mythic, revelatory descent to the past.
My mother read Richter’s elegiac novel during my rare periods of sleep, if I ever slept, which she said I did not. Richter’s books were popular with her generation, and her cronies all gave us copies of The Light in the Forest, his beautifully-written novel about a boy captured in a raid and raised as an American Indian, who, under terms of a treaty, is forced unwillingly to return to his white family years later. Richter earnestly chronicled the lives of Americans in small towns and on the frontier in different periods of history.
In The Waters of Kronos, the hero, John Dalton, a famous novelist, longs to revisit the past, as so many of us do as we get older. He cannot in reality visit his hometown, because a dam was built years ago and Unionville is buried under a lake. And so he drives from his home in Albuquerque to Pennsylvania to visit the cemeteries that were removed from the town before it was flooded
In simple, lyrical prose, John describes the terror of loss of place when he first views the dam and the lake. The dam breast was “like the white end of a colossal burial vault…” He reminds himself that he had known this was what he would see.
And yet he couldn’t shake off the feeling that under his feet he had come upon something frightening. He had had a glimpse, small as it was, into an abyss whose unfathomable depths were shrouded in mist, a bottomless chasm that he had known existed, if only in the back of his mind and in the back of everyone else’s mind, but which he had never seen face to face or directly looked down into before. Perhaps one had to be old as he to recognize what one saw, to understand first how man had struggled up so painfully and so long, and then with that sad knowledge to come upon one’s own once living, breathing and thinking people swallowed up in the abyss, given back to primordial and diluvial chaos.
This is eerily resonant. It is what we all experience as time passes, but it is twice as bad. As we age, our hometowns change: the downtowns disappear, trees are cut down, and old buildings are demolished to make room for condos. In my hometown, a tornado destroyed a church and floods have destroyed many university buildings, which have not yet been rebuilt. It is as though they never existed. And so we understand why John is shocked and angry that the government decided to build the dam and destroyed a way of life and the environment.
He thought of all he had once known and loved buried at the sunless bottom of the dark water–the red roofs and green trees, the life and talk and tender thought that went on under them; the brave brick schoolhouse and its white belfry…
The cemeteries are meaningless: bodies moved from the town and buried under identical white stones, as in a military cemetery. He drives a little further and finds the road to Unionville known as the Long Stretch. He knows it will end in water, but fantastically the road is real. He knows he must be ill , but when he sees a wagon he hitches a ride and descends into Unionville. “John Donner had the feeling he was descending from where he could never return.”
Is John hallucinating? Was Richter influenced by knowledge of the testing and experimentations with LSD in the 1950s and ’60s? Was he reading the Beats? I think it is more to do with the literature of katabasis, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, etc. In Unionville, John has the eerie experience of seeing the town as it was when he was a child He sees the people he loved: he stands outside his father’s store, and is sure that his father, singing behind the counter, must know he is there. But his father is 35, and does not recognize John, who is an old man. None of his family members recognize him, except for a great-aunt, who mistakes him for hisgrandfather, who has just died. He has arrived the day before Pap-pa’s funeral, and all are busy.
Occasionally Richter is a bit heavy-handed, but that is in a way part of his charm. Yes, he is a little corny sometimes, but that is a part of American culture, and sometimes a part of American regional literature. It is very difficult to describe these little pockets of a lost way of life without sentimentality. But I absolutely loved this book. I highly recommend it.
I wonder if this is partly autobiographical (well, obviously not the descent). Richter (1898-1968) grew up in Pennsylvania, lived in Albuquerque for a time, and then returned to Pennsylvania.
Oh, and I should tell you that “kronos” means “time” in Greek. (I’m sure most of you know that.)
Richter is most famous for The Town, which won the Pulitzer in 1951, and was the third of his trilogy, The Awakening Land, about the Ohio frontier.