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True Grit ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels

    People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the
    wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did
    not happen every day.
        -Mattie Ross, True Grit

Thus begins one of the funniest, most under appreciated novels in all of American Literature.  In a much discussed 1998 essay for Esquire, the critic Ron Rosenbaum billed Charles Portis, "Our Least-Known Great Novelist," and said of him:

    ...Portis has become the subject of a kind of secret society, a small but extremely elite (if I say so
    myself) group of admirers among other writers who consider him perhaps the least-known great
    writer alive in America. Perhaps the most original, indescribable sui generis talent over-looked by
    literary culture in America. A writer who--if there's any justice in literary history as opposed to
    literary celebrity will come to be regarded as the author of classics on the order of a
    twentieth-century Mark Twain...

But both Rosenbaum and the novelist Jonathan Lethem argue that Portis does not get his critical due, in part, because of the movie version of True Grit.

This would be true for several reasons; among them that : critics badly underestimate the Western as a literary form and assume Portis is a "mere" genre writer; intellectuals hate John Wayne, who won his only Oscar playing Rooster Cogburn in the film, and so dismiss the author who made the part possible; and, conversely, the movie is so good that people who might read a good Western feel that they don't need to read this book, having seen the movie.  Now, I've not yet read the more contemporary works that Rosenbaum in particular raves about, but I've been a huge fan of both this book and the movie True Grit for some twenty years and I think the precocious Mattie Ross and Rooster, a man with true grit, are two of the immortal characters, and Mattie's one of the distinctive voices, in American fiction.  If Mr. Rosenbaum's Mark Twain comparison is apt, then this is Portis's Huckleberry Finn (see Orrin's review).

Like Huck & Jim or Holmes & Watson, the novel derives great comic tension from the odd couple pairing of the stubborn, but proper, Mattie and the stubborn, but slovenly, Rooster.  Here's the interplay between the two as Mattie tries to hire Rooster:

    'I am looking for the man who shot and killed my father, Frank Ross, in front of the Monarch
    boardinghouse.  The man's name is Tom Chaney.  They say he is over in the Indian Territory and I
    need somebody to go after him.'

    He said, 'What is your name girl?  Where do you live?'

    'My name is Mattie Ross,' I replied.  'We are located in Yell County near Dardanelle.  My mother is
    at home looking after my sister Victoria and my brother Little Frank.'

    'You had best go home to them,' said he. 'They will need some help with the churning.'

    I said, 'The high sheriff and a man in the marshal's office have given me the full particulars.  You
    can get a fugitive warrant for Tom Chaney and go after him.  The Government will pay you two
    dollars for bringing him in plus ten cents a mile for each of you.  On top of that I will pay you a
    fifty-dollar reward.'

    'You have looked into this a right smart,' said he.

    'Yes, I have,' said I.  'I mean business.'

    He said, 'What have you got in your poke?'

    I opened the sugar sack and showed him.

    'By God!' said he.  'A Colt's dragoon!  Why, you are no bigger than a corn nubbin!  What are you
    doing with that pistol?'

    I said, 'It belonged to my father.  I intend to kill Tom Chaney with it if the law fails to do so.'

    'Well, that piece will do the job.  If you can find a high stump to rest it on while you take aim and

    'Nobody here knew my father and I am afraid nothing much is going to be done about Chaney
    except I do it myself.  My brother is a child and my mother's people are in Monterey, California.
    My Grandfather Ross is not able to ride.'

    'I don't believe you have fifty dollars.'

    'I will have it in a day or two.  Have you heard of a robber called Lucky Ned Pepper?'

    'I know him well.  I shot him in the lip last august down in the Winding Stair Mountains.  He was
    plenty lucky that day.'

    'They think Tom Chaney has tied up with him.'

    'I don't believe you have fifty dollars, baby sister, but if you are hungry I will give you supper and
    we will talk it over and make medicine.'

Naturally, Rooster, who's brutal shoot-first-ask-questions-later style is headed out of fashion, does agree to take the job, though, to his consternation, Mattie insists on going along, to guard her investment.   They are also joined by a third, equally stubborn, but less savvy, traveling partner, LaBoeuf, a supposed Texas Ranger, who is after Chaney for shooting a Texas State Senator.  The three head into the Oklahoma Indian Territory after Chaney and have the expected hair-raising adventures, ending in a literal snake pit.

The quest for justice gives the book the big theme that great literature ought to have.  Moreover it is a quintessentially American theme.  We've often discussed in these pages how the fundamental tension in human affairs runs along the fault line that separates the urge for Freedom from the desire for Security and how democracy in general and the American system in particular represent the triumph of the vision of Freedom.  But there is a necessary precursor to Freedom, and that is Justice.   As has been graphically demonstrated since the end of the Cold War, peace, freedom, capitalism and democracy, powerful as they are, can not function unless there is a system of law which is applied promptly and fairly to all citizens.  It matters not how much money we pour in to Russia; democracy and free market reforms will not gain traction until law and order is established there.  Citizens can only have the faith in each other that capitalism and democracy require if they are certain that those who try to exploit freedom will face impartial justice.  The frontier America of True Grit is a land where the inconsistent application of Justice served to make Freedom illusory.  As in so many Westerns then, the moral core of the story lies in the pursuit of Justice by normal law-abiding citizens, who depend on characters who walk the fine line between civilization and violence to secure it for them (see Orrin's reviews of Shane, Hondo, Riders of the Purple Sage and The Searchers).

Such are the elements that tie the story in to the classic canon of American Literature, but what makes it unique is Mattie Ross.  Though just 14 years old and a girl alone in the still Wild West, her steadfast commitment to and belief in the populism of the Democratic Party, the saving grace of the Presbyterian church, her Father's right to Justice, and her own ability to get it for him, endow her narrative with a judgmental character which is very amusing.  Here she is discussing the horses that her Father was shot while trying to buy:

    I had hated these ponies for the part they played in my father's death but now I realized the notion
    was fanciful, that it was wrong to charge blame to these pretty beasts who knew neither good nor
    evil but only innocence.  I say that of these ponies.  I have known some horses and a good many
    more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts.  I will go further and say all cats are
    wicked, though often useful.  Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces?  Some preachers will say,
    well, that is superstitious 'claptrap.'  My answer is this : Preacher, go to you Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.

That's just good funny stuff.  Book or movie, you'll not soon forget Mattie Ross, nor Rooster Cogburn.


Grade: (A+)


Charles Portis Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Charles Portis
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Charles Portis (IMDB)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Norwood
    -Reading group: True Grit by Charles Portis (Sam Jordison, 6 Nov 2012, The Guardian)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Norwood (novel)
    -BIO: Portis, Charles (Vered Kleinberger, Spring 1999, Scholar Blog, Emory)
    -BIO: Charles McColl Portis (1933–2020) (Encyclopedia of Arkansas)
    -AUDIO BOOK: Charles Portis - Masters of Atlantis Audiobook (YouTube)
    -SHORT STORY: THE WIND BLOWETH WHERE IT LISTETH (Charles Portis, August 26, 2013, Oxford American)
    -SHORT STORY: MOTEL LIFE, LOWER REACHES (Charles Portis, April 3, 2014, Oxford American)
    -SHORT STORY: Combinations of Jacksons (CHARLES PORTIS, MAY 1999, The Atlantic)
    -SHORT STORY: I Don't Talk Service No More (Charles Portis, May 1996, The Atlantic)
    -INTERVIEW: Read a rare interview with Charles Portis about his Arkansas days (Will Stephenson June 17, 2014, Arkansas Times)
    -Excerpt: 'True Grit' (NPR)
-ESSAY: The Novelist Who Truly Understood the South (Hamilton Cain, Jun. 4th, 2023, The Atlantic)
    -TRIBUTE: Donna Tartt on the Singular Voice, and Pungent Humor, of Charles Portis (Donna Tartt, 6/09/20, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: Charles Portis, a Journalist With True Grit (Jay Jennings, Jul. 14, 2017, Daily Beast)
    -ESSAY: OUR LEAST-KNOWN GREAT NOVELIST: Do Charles Portis’s Trailways dreamers possess the mysteries of the universe? (RON ROSENBAUM, January 1998, Esquire)
    -TRIBUTE: Charles Portis’ “Norwood” at 50: A Review (Joe Meazle, August 4, 2016, Arkansas Times)
    -ESSAY: Pure Nitro: 40 Years of Charles Portis’s Comic Masterpiece ‘The Dog of the South’: Adored by generations of writers as well as the likes of Bill Hader and the Coen brothers, this wonder of American literature is four decades old this year. How is it that this absurd and hilarious 1979 novel can say so much about our current collective psyche? (Elizabeth Nelson Feb 1, 2019,, The Ringer)
    -PROFILE: True Grit, Odd Wit: And Fame? No, Thanks (Charles McGrath, Dec. 19, 2010, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: Like Cormac McCarthy, But Funny (Ed Park, 3/01/03, Believer)
    -OBIT: Charles Portis, Elusive Author of ‘True Grit,’ Dies at 86 (Roy Reed, Feb. 17, 2020, NY Times)
    -OBIT: Charles Portis, author of 'True Grit,' dies at 86 (Amir Vera, 2/17/20, CNN)
    -OBIT: True Grit author Charles Portis dies aged 86 (Alison Flood, 18 Feb 2020, The Guardian)
    -OBIT: Charles Portis: the unsentimental cult novelist who wrote True Grit,/a> (Martin Chilton, 18 FEBRUARY 2020, The Telegraph)
-OBIT: ‘True Grit’ Author Charles Portis, a Comic Genius, Is Dead (Malcolm Jones, Feb. 19, 2020, daily Beast)
    -OBIT: True Grit author Charles Portis dies at 86 (Joey Nolfi February 18, 2020, EW)
    -OBIT: American Novelist Charles Portis, Author of True Grit, Dead at 86 (Halle Kiefer, 2/18/20, Vulture)
    -OBIT: Charles Portis: 'True Grit' author worked at The Commercial Appeal (John Beifuss, 2/18/20, The Commercial Appeal)
    -TRIIBUTE: Charles Portis: the unsentimental cult novelist who wrote True Grit (Martin Chilton, 18 FEBRUARY 2020, The Telegraph)
    -TRIBUTE: Gritting My Teeth: Losing Charles Portis (Terry Barr, Feb 19, 2020, Medium)
    -TRIBUTE: Remembering the Great Charles Portis (Called "our least-known great writer" Portis was a sui generis talent who produced some of the most memorable books of the twentieth-century (Jonathan Rogers, 2/18/20, Forma review)
    -PROFILE: JUST SHORT OF ESCAPE VELOCITY: Reflecting on the life of Charles Portis (Jay Jennings, JUNE 26, 2014, Idle Class)
    -TRIBUTE: The American Anthropology of Charles Portis (KALEB HORTON, FEB 20, 2020, Slate)
    -ESSAY: One-Eyed Gods and One-Armed Gods: Does True Grit tap into an ancient myth? (PAUL DEVLIN, FEB 04, 2011, Slate)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Of Gnats and Men: A New Reading of Portis (Ron Rosenbaum • 05/24/99, NY Observer)
    -TRIBUTE: Graced Grit: A Hymn-laced Eulogy to True Grit Author Charles Portis (Barbara Castle, February 28, 2020, Front Porch Republic)
    -ESSAY: Greasing the skids (Stefan Beck, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: Portishead: The Literary Genius of Charles Portis (ALEX HEARD, October 8, 2012, New Republic)
    -PROFILE: The Author Behind ‘True Grit’ (John Jurgensen, Dec 21, 2010 , WSJ)
    -TRIBUTE: WHAT CHARLES PORTIS TAUGHT US (Wells Tower, 2/20/20, The New Yorker)
    -TRIBUTE: Nothing Makes Sense Except Charles Portis: He showed me another South. (jacob Rosenberg, 2/21/20, Mother jones)
    -TRIBUTE: Remembering Charles Portis: ‘True Grit’ is just the entry point for this master of American fiction (John Warner, 2/20/20, Chicago Tribune)
    -TRIBUTE: REMEMBERING CHARLES PORTIS (The Editors | February 18, 2020, Oxford American)
    -SPEECH: TEN HIGH WITH MR. PORTIS (Jay Jennings | April 8, 2014, Oxford American)
    -TRIBUTE: Charles Portis Was One of the Great American Novelists Sometimes, a handful of books is all you need to speak volumes: Charles Portis Was One of the Great American Novelists (TOBIAS CARROLL, FEBRUARY 18, 2020, Inside Hook)
    -ESSAY: A Portis Reader (Julie Cline, SEPTEMBER 2, 2011, LA Review of Books)
    -TRIBUTE: Give a Shout Out to Charles Portis and His Extraordinary Novel ‘True Grit' (Allen Barra, Apr. 20, 2018, Daily Beast)
    -ESSAY: A String of Maybes: Speculating the Elusive Charles Portis (Aaron Gilbreath, October 2013, The Gettysburg Review)
    -TRIBUTE: Appreciating Charles Portis (Kyle Brazzel, May 18, 2016, The Awl)
    -INTERVIEW: Pelecanos on the Enduring Power of 'True Grit' (Chris Lehmann, 6/02/06, NPR)
    -ESSAY: The Lure of the Oeuthre: On Charles Portis and Flannery O’Connor (Glen David Gold, NOVEMBER 18, 2012, LA Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: The world's most miserable gazillionaire: Even a full-blown Portis gnasherfest couldn't get big gorgonzola Mike Eisner to say cheese. (DOUGLAS CRUICKSHANK, MAY 8, 1999, Salon)
    -TRIBUTE: R.I.P. Charles Portis, Great American Writer. (Dan Sheehan, February 18, 2020, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: The Resurrection of Charles Portis (Hollywood Reporter, 1/5/2011)
    -PROFILE: Escape velocity (Paul Greenberg, 10/31/12, Jewish World Review)
-ESSAY: Old Weird America: The dark comedies of Charles Portis (Justin Taylor, 6/28/23, The Point)
    -ESSAY: The Curse of True Grit (New Republic, April 7th, 2023)
    -INTERVIEW: Notes on Charles Portis’s notes: Jay Jennings pores over a cache of papers by America’s “least-known great writer” (Jay Jennings, April 24, 2023, Library of America)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Oddballs and Odysseys of Charles Portis: In “True Grit,” and other novels, Portis displayed a genius that went beyond character in the strictly literary sense. (Casey Cep, 4/10/23, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Place and Character in True Grit (Casie Dodd, 3/04/22, Ploughshares)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Masters of Atlantis Is Essential Reading for the QAnon Age: Charles Portis’ book about a fictional cult has amassed a devoted following of its own, with Michael Cera, Bill Hader, and The Office creator Greg Daniels among its fans (BRIAN BOYLE, DEC 31, 2020, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of Rooster: The Life and Times of the Real Rooster Cogburn, the Man Who Inspired True Grit by Brett Cogburn (Publishers Wwekly)
    -ARCHIVES: Charles Portis (Publishers Weekly)
    -ARCHIVES: Charles Portis (The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of Norwood by Charles Portis (Dan Kois, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of Norwood (Martin Levin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Norwood (Douglas Cruickshank, Ralph)
    -REVIEW: of Norwood (Aaron Gilbreath, Kenyon Review)
    -REVIEW: of Norwood (NOVELLA CARPENTER, The Stranger)
    -REVIEW: of Norwood (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Norwood (Dan Kois, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of Norwood (Rich Horton, Strange at Ecbatan)
    -REVIEW: of Norwood (Nicholas Deshais, Inlander)
    -REVIEW: of Norwood (Readings)
    -PODCAST: Episode 26: Charles Portis, Norwood (January 21, 2013, Book Fight)
    -REVIEW: of Norwood (Harrison Freeman, The Ringer)
    -PODCAST: True Grit (Good Story)
    -REVIEW: of True Grit by Charles Portis (Rohan Maitzen, Open Letters)
    -REVIEW: of True Grit (Ingrid Norton, Open Letters)
    -REVIEW: of True Grit (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of True Grit (Christopher Hirst, the Independent)
    -REVIEW: of True Grit (Madison Asher, Clay)
    -REVIEW: of True Grit (Edward Gwynne, Grimdark)
    -REVIEW: of True Grit (Donald A. Hoglin, Western American Literature)
    -REVIEW: of True Grit (Stefan Beck, B&N Review)
    -REVIEW: of True Grit (Jeff Baker, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW: of Gringos by Charles Portis (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Gringos (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Book That Changed My Life: Wells Tower The acclaimed author on the subtle genius of True Grit author Charles Portis' underrated gem, Gringos (WELLS TOWER, May 27, 2011, GQ)
    -REVIEW: of Gringos (Carlo Rotella, Public Books)
    -REVIEW: of Gringos (Robert Houston, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Gringos (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Gringos (Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Masters of Atlantis (Carl Scott, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of Masters of Atlantis (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Masters of Atlantis (John Anthony West, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Dog of the South by Charles Portis (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Dog of the South (Ron Rosenbaum, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Dog of the South (Larry L. King, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Escape Velocity by Charles Portis (Bill Morris, The Millions)
    -REVIEW: of Escape Velocity (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Escape Velocity (John Preston, Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Escape Velocity (John Powers, NPR)
    -REVIEW: of Escape Velocity (Carlo Rotella, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Escape Velocity (Wes Davis, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of Escape Velocity (Katherine A. Powers, B&N Review)
    -REVIEW: of Escape Velocity (Stefan Beck, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW: of Library of America Charles Portis Collected Works (Casey Cep, The New Yorker)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Charles Portis (IMDB)
    -IMDB: True Grit (2010)
    -IMDB: True Grit (1969)
    -ESSAY: Repo Man: Glen Campbell in Charles Portis’s Norwood (Rebecca Bengal August 16, 2017, Paris Review)
    -INTERVIEW: BOLD TALK: with filmmaker Katrina Whalen (Jay Jennings, August 25, 2013, Oxford American)
    -FILM: Norwood (1970) (Amazon Prime)
    -INTERVIEW: Joel and Ethan Coen on 'True Grit': We completely ignored the original ( Will Lawrence, 28 Jan 2011, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEWS: True Grit (2010) (MetaCritic)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: A REQUIEM FOR THE HORSES IN THE COEN BROTHERS' TRUE GRIT: In this dark, weighty film, humans and animals alike are beasts of burden (OLIVIA RUTIGLIANO, 3/03/21, Crime Reads)