Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 12:38PM
National Book Awards, www.nbafictionblog.org

The Waters of Kronos

by Conrad Richter

Original Publisher: Houghton, Mifflin and Company
Current Publisher: Penn State University Press

Harold Augenbraum writes:

I bought my copy of The Waters of Kronos from AbeBooks.com. It’s an ex-library copy, so it has its own way of looking preserved, like a shiny memory of my mother in a cloche hat. Inside, someone had left the New York Times obituary of Conrad Richter. There’s a photograph in which Richter, also looking preserved, resembles the aging John Cheever, or a former small-town banker indicted for embezzling. The yellowing obit notes that Richter’s first novel, The Sea of Grass, was a runner-up for the National Book Award in 1937. I didn’t know there was a National Book Award in 1937. The version we have now was established in 1950. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this. I once read that Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath won the National Book Award in 1940.

The second interesting part of the obituary is the mention (it is unsigned) that Mr. Richter won the National Book Award for The Waters of Kronos, in which “the hero visits (his hometown) as it used to be and discovers the Oedipal theory of father-son hatred to be false.”

Well, that may be true, and it certainly is one interpretation, probably by a fairly literary analysand. But what I took away from my reading was the “walking nightmare.” The book begins with a nod to realism. A man returns to the vicinity of his hometown, which is now under water from its flooding to create a hydroelectric dam (Richter, says the New York Times, “lamented progress”). Though the town is submerged, the graves have been moved to higher ground (hint, hint). The man, John Donner (John Donne? The Donner Party? You tell me.) walks through the cemetery, and when he gets to the other side, he hitches a ride with a man in a wagon, past where the water should be, into the town itself. We quickly realize that we have been thrown backwards in time. Donner is an old man who revisits his childhood. Weird. Intriguing. Thought-provoking. If Proust had written Brigadoon, it would be The Waters of Kronos.

Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, an editor and translator.

ISBN: 9780271022406

Fiction Finalists that Year:

Fiction Judges that Year: B.J. Chute, Robert M. Coates, Arthur Mizener

The Year in Literature:

More Information:

This was Conrad Richter’s first and only National Book Award, but he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Town a decade earlier in 1951.

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