The Waters of Kronos


This is the story of John Donner, an aging writer who has driven from the West Coast back to Unionville, Pennsylvania, where he grew up. He discovers that the town he once knew has been submerged under the Kronos River because of a dam created to supply power for a hydroelectric plant. After viewing where the residents of the town cemeteries have been relocated, Donner finds himself on a road that went through Unionville to coal mines, where he improbably sees a wagon carrying coal and seemingly rides this wagon into the past. Once there, he finds it is the night before his grandfather's funeral, and although he knows the town and its inhabitants, they do not know him. The novel proceeds from there.

Appearing in 1960, the novel won the National Book Award in 1961. Frank Wilson's review of the Penn State Press edition in the July 13, 2003 Philadelphia Inquirer asserts that the novel is "at once a searing examination of conscience and a heartfelt act of contrition. John Donner learns, not that you can't go home again, but that you can't really leave home in the first place. Home is the baggage you carry wherever and however far you wander."

Most readers never think about how an author's idea becomes the printed text in front of him or her. Even fewer readers have the opportunity to glimpse that process. The Conrad Richter Papers provide this opportunity. This site traces the development of a crucial scene in The Waters of Kronos, the beginning of "The Source," when John Donner visits his family who are enjoying a meal together after the funeral of Donner's grandfather.

The text and images available on these pages provide a useful juxtaposition with another Pennsylvania writer, John Updike, whose efforts can be viewed in The Buchanan Dying Web site. Like Updike, Richter revised heavily. The collection contains much background research for the novel as well as story sketches, lists, directions to himself, and other materials. Clearly Richter was interested in creating a sense of authenticity in speech, behavior, and location. He also had a particular sense of the themes and issues he wished to address in the novel.

Penn State Press recently reissued The Waters of Kronos. Information about purchasing the novel can be found on the Penn State Press site.

Richter's Notebook for the Novel

Richter maintained notebooks for all of his novels. The materials in the notebook for The Waters of Kronos are on looseleaf, usually handwritten, but sometimes typed. The notebook does not seem to represent a chronological narrative of the novel's creation. Although the pages are numbered in pencil, this was probably done after the entire notebook was completed and may have been done by the author's daughter who donated the material. Based on the marks on many sheets, Richter seemed to return to much of this notebook during the writing process. The notebook gives the viewer a sense of how Richter wrote.

Starting with page 9 and continuing, Richter handwrites a list of words and phrases, some marked with a check. Most likely, these are terms he wished to use in the novel or perhaps descriptions of traits which he wanted to give his characters.

Richter frequently wrote himself notes regarding changes and additions to the novel. These notes give a sense of what Richter wanted to emphasize in the novel and what he viewed as its shortcomings. For example, on page 8, Richter types, "Good loving names for the places of P. G. As Combray is sed [sic] over and over again in Proust until you see and know it." This statement is followed by a list of place names in the novel.

Listing was an essential element of Richter's creative process, which can be seen in the notebooks for all of his novels as well as in the personal thesaurus that he created. Here, lists of potential titles for the novel can be found. Page 17 includes a list of possibilities considered by Richter for the novel, including Death and Life, The River and the Wind, When the Summer's Light is Spent, and the eventual title, The Waters of Kronos, tucked between The Lake and The River. The variety of similar titles help emphasize how important landscape was to be in the novel. Richter also worked through possible chapter titles (18, 19). Although Richter seemed set on the titles of the first three chapters, The River, Silt, The Chasm, the next five contain several variations. There are lists of names as well as concepts for the novel. On one sheet, Richter includes the names of his relatives in a left-hand column and their corresponding characters in the right hand column. Absent from this list is his name, but the corresponding name to John Donner, the novel's main character, is empty.

On several sheets, Richter appears to gather details for his characterizations of Donner's parents. On pages 38-42, Richter describes the Mother in the novel including short passages that may have found their way into the novel. Pages 43 and 44 are devoted to the Dad, and include entries such as "Dad's odor 13" and "The coast is clear."

There are also pages (72-79) with what appear to be scenes, moments, and ideas with dates alongside them. These may be references to journal entries.

The notebook reveals that Richter also considered a different ending for his novel.

Richter's Notes for the Novel

In addition to a notebook, there are additional materials gathered as notes for the novel. Although these materials are kept separate from the notebook, often they concern many of the same issues. For example, there is a sheet that has "Death and Life," which was an early title for the novel, scribbled out. There is a directive "Put Into It" at the top of the page as well. One of Richter's entries reads, "Fill it with things good for the soul, so a reader can take it up as The Bible and find solace and goodness in its incidents and teachings--with compassion and pity." In the left margin, Richter has written "Spiritual" in red pencil and "OK" twice in black pen.

There is another typed sheet with The Good People at the top followed by "Important." The Good People was another potential title for the novel. Richter writes, "Must have many violent things to contrast the goodness of the good people, their going ahead quietly in their prayers and religion while others get drunk, fight, killed in mines, debauchery, illegitimate children baptized, wife beaten and deserted." Richter continues and directs himself "Talk to Stan, to Callender, to judges, to country justices." Maybe these sheets were left out of the notebook because Richter in the end wasn't as interested in "Other Ways to Bring Violence, Powerfulness" to the novel.

The notes also further illuminate Richter's struggle to decide how to conclude the novel. On a sheet headed "2 Last Chaps," Richter types that he is taken in by his mother and returns to his old bedroom. "He and his mother have talks, almost like of old. She wonders why she is talking to him like this." At the bottom of this same sheet, Richter writes, "Never gets to home--only to home next door," which has an "OK" written in the left margin.


The manuscripts show that Richter worked over the drafts several times. For the most part, these handwritten corrections are made in pencil over the typescript. Within individual drafts of the novel, there are variant pages marked A, B, etc. that are used when more significant revisions are made.

One of the most heavily revised and worked over sections of the manuscript includes John Donner's visit to his family after the funeral. As the many variations suggest, Richter struggled to get it right. The sequence of events in "The Source" seems to have changed from the initial draft, which includes Donner's passing out near his childhood home and being taken in by Mrs. Bonawitz. After an initial draft, this event is preceded by the dinner visit.

Folder 9 contains what is marked (probably by Harvena Richter) as the earliest version of "The Source." In this chapter, Donner has passed out and been taken to Mrs Bonawitz's home, where a doctor is sent for. While there, John Donner as a boy comes into the room where the adult Donner lays. The pages end with the elder Donner speaking to the boy about what the elder Donner calls a "monster," which is revealed to be himself at the end of the chapter. Another gathering of pages is marked as an early version of Chapter 8 (the Sea), which continues Chapter 7 (The Source).

The table headings follow how the manuscript materials are organized and labelled in the files. This organization may have been done by the author's daughter.

Earliest Version of Chapter VII "The Source"
x x x x x
Variants of Revision of Chapter VII "The Source"
x x x x x
x x x
Typescript Copy
x x x x x
x x x x x
x x x x x x
Corrected Typescript #1?
x x x x
Corrected Typescript #2?
x x x x
Author's First Proof
x x x x
Plate Proof
x x x x x

The Waters of Kronos | Correspondence | Inscriptions | Richter and Goedecke | Financial Records | Study Guide