Nothing in Common: Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest & Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

This is a catch-up post about two classics with nothing in common.

1.  Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest (1953)

Richter pretty cover LIGHT_IN_FORESTSo many of us read The Light in the Forest in school.  Does it hold up?

Yes, it is an American classic.  Richter, who won the Pulitzer for The Town and the National Book Award for The Waters of Kronos, is famous for his novels about life on the frontier in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

In The Light in the Forest, set in the eighteenth century, Richter relates the story of a white boy captured in an Indian raid in Pennsylvania.  Cuyloga, a warrior of the Lenni Lenape tribe, adopts John and renames him True Son.  He lives blissfully with his new family.  Ten years later, a treaty is signed, saying all the captives must be returned to their white families.  True Son is cruelly torn from his Indian family.

Richter movingly depicts True Son’s attachment to the beauty of the forest and the Lenni Lenape way of life.

He could see the great oaks and shiver-bark hickories standing over the village in the autumn dusk, the smoke rising from the double row of cabins with the street between, and the shining, white reflection of the sky in the Tuscarawas beyond.  Fallen red, brown and golden leaves lay over roofs and bushes, street and forest floor.  Tramping through them could be made out the friendly forms fo those he knew, warriors and hunter, squaws, and the boys, dogs and girls he played with.

On the long march, guarded by soldiers, True Son is accompanied by his  friend Half Arrow.  Little Crane, who walks with his white squaw (who will also be returned to her white family), reminds them that the Great Spirit made the Indians, with their black hair and dark eyes and skins. On the other hand, the whites, who are light, dark, or in-between, are “a mixed breed.” He says, “The reason they act so queer is because they’re not an original people.  Now we Indians are an original people.”

True Son, aka John, is unable to adjust to life with his white family. When John’s uncle murders White Crane, who has come in peace with Half Arrow to visit True Son, he and Half Arrow run away and take refuge in the forest.  Their time there  is idyllic:  “Abundance supported them.  Completeness was for the taking.  Days unfolded, rich and inexhaustible.”

But nothing is simple:  violence begets violence.   When the boys return to the Lenni Lenape, some insist on revenge for White Crane’s death, and Cuyloga, True Son’s father, reluctantly agrees.  Neither the whites nor Indians are completely innocent, though Richter leans towards the culture of the Indians.

A fascinating, heart-rending little gem of a book.

1.  Virginia Woolf’s Orlando:  A Biography (1928)

Woolf penguin Orlando+coverWoolf’s comic novel, Orlando, was a surprise when it was published in 1928 after To the Lighthouse.

Orlando is one of Woolf’s lightest books, dedicated to Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West.  In Alexandra’ Harris’s Virginia Woolf, a wonderful short book about Woolf’s life and work, she says that Woolf’s teasing novel is a a fanciful biography of Vita Sackville-West, with a tip of the hat to her ancestors.  And it had the tone of Woolf’s playful letters to Sackville-West. The hero, Orlando,  is a beautiful androgynous man, a courtier, and an aspiring poet.  He lives for more than three centuries, first as  a man and then as a woman.

Harris quotes Elizabeth Bowen, who In her 1960 preface to Orlando remembered,

This Orlando–we did not care for the sound of it. The book was, we gathered, in the nature of a prank, or a private joke; worse still, it was personal.”

Virginia woolf orlandoSome fans of Woolf’s abstract novels were put off by her whimsical portrait of Orlando, whom we first meet as a 16-year-old in the Elizabethan age .  “He–for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it–was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.”  Slicing and beheading is not the usual way to begin a book, and in this first chapter there are many references to slicing and heads: Orlando’s father had struck the head from the shoulders of a pagan. And when Queen Elizabeth visits, the first thing she notices is Orlando’s head.  While his head is bowed, she strokes it.  And she invites him to her court.

As a  young man at Elizabeth’s court, Orlando has a doomed love affair with a beautiful Russian princess, whom he calls Sasha.  After a long winter festival, with Woolf’s fantastical descriptions of festivities and ice palaces on the frozen Thames, Sasha stands him up during a thaw and sails away on her ship with the gritty sailor she really loves.  Orlando, crushed, returns to his estate and works on his poem, “The Oak Tree.”   And when he invites Greene, a poet and comrade of Shakespeare and Marlowe, to visit and talk about poetry, Greene lambastes all the writers of his day.

Just as writers worry that Amazon will influence publishing, so Greene blames the booksellers for bad writing.  The Elizabethans cannot live up to the Greeks, he says.

Now all young writers were in the pay of the booksellers and poured out any trash that would sell.  Shakespeare was the chief offender in this way and Shakespeare was already paying the penalty.  Their own age, he said, was marked by precious conceits and wild experiments–neither of which the Greeks would have tolerated for a moment.  Much though it hurt him to say it–for he loved literature as he loved his life–he could see no good in the present and had no hope of the future.  Here he poured himself a glass of wine.

Greene also satirizes Orlando’s poem and deeply wounds him. Orlando decides to go to Constantinople as an ambassador.  While there, he magically falls into a coma and becomes a woman.   Now she is Lady Orlando, and when she returns to London, there is a lawsuit to see whether she is indeed entitled to her property.  (It goes on for centuries.)  She is a hostess who entertains Pope and Dryden, though their wit seems dry, pursues her own poetry, adjusts to changes of weather in the nineteenth century and finally publishes her  poem, “The Oak Tree.”   In the twentieth century she has become a wife and mother.  And, after all this time, she is only 36.

I enjoyed this literary fantasy, which reminds me of some of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s whimsical novels, particularly The Corner That Held Them, a comic novel about a convent in the 12th century.

Conrad Richter’s The Waters of Kronos

Conrad Richter

Conrad Richter

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…

waters of kronos richter 41bnktvHo0L._SL256_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.

conrad richter 03TheWatersOfKronosThe person he most frantically longs to see is his mother.  He keeps glimpsing her from afar, under a black veil, or with her face turned away.

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.