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True grit: Charles Portis’ great American novel turns 50 this year

by Philip Martin | April 15, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette True Grit Illustation

There are some things that are true about art.

One is that sometimes the best work is accomplished by women and men who are trying to do something straightforward and relatively modest. They do not set out to write the Great American Novel, they just want to tell you a story.

Sometimes that story turns out to be durable as myth, strengthened in its retellings. Sometimes the story becomes bigger than the book. The characters become people we know. We tend to forget about the writing in these books, about the author's style and voice. As we become engrossed in the narrative, the storyteller disappears.

The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that it's easier to make a good movie from a bad book than from a great one. That's probably true. No one has ever gotten The Great Gatsby right. A Confederacy of Dunces has allegedly driven some who've tried to adapt it mad. Did you hear that James Franco made a film version of As I Lay Dying? Exactly.

A filmmaker has a better chance of making a great film from pulp than from a great book, in part because film necessarily streamlines and sharpens. The thinky bits get blue-penciled; Hamlet becomes an action hero. While there are exceptions -- Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson persist as literary figures, despite Hollywood's recurrent raids on their ideas -- it is dangerous to try to transpose literary value to film. The best thing that might happen is a kind of CliffsNotes version of a story; the worst might be the usurpation of a worthy novel's place in the landscape. Think of how James Whale's Frankenstein (a good film) has occluded Mary Shelley's gothic work -- Boris Karloff's stiff-legged monster was hardly the intelligent, eloquent creature of the book.

So what are we to make of the fact that two pretty good movies have been made of Arkansas writer Charles Portis' True Grit?

True Grit was published 50 years ago. It first ran as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post, then Simon and Schuster published a hardback edition. As novels go, it's pretty slim -- 215 pages -- and you can just about read it in one sitting if anyone will let you sit that long. The Oxford American is putting on a series of events to commemorate the 50-year-old novel's publication next weekend. For tickets and more information go to or call (501) 374-0000.

Portis, 84, is a local guy, often known by the diminutives "Charlie" or "Buddy." In years past he was said to have frequented a spot where I sometimes have lunch, but I've never spoken to him. They were protective of him there, I've heard that a table loudly discussing him was asked to leave because management thought they were staking out the bar in hopes of a Portis sighting.

People say Portis was reclusive but I know plenty of folks who know him. I used to have a telephone number for him. But I never called that number, mainly because I didn't want to stammer around on the phone, blubbering about how he's such a great writer and all. That would probably be painful for him and not much fun for me.

Besides, I don't really know what I could ask him that would make this particular piece better. All you need to do is read True Grit to understand what I mean when I say it's not just a good novel, but one of the greatest books ever produced by an American. I don't think I could say anything like that to Portis (or anyone else) over the phone or to his face; he wouldn't know what to say to whatever truth-teller jumped up in his grill with the news. He knows it or he doesn't. Either way, it puts him at a sort of saintly remove from the yabbering that normally goes on between interviewer and interviewee. Do I want to talk to Buddy Portis? Hell no. I'm scared of him.

True Grit was Portis' second novel, after 1966's Norwood (which was well received when it was published and still holds up, having survived being transposed into a forgettable 1970 movie that employed Joe Namath and Glen Campbell). It seems very different from most of the cultural signifiers we remember from that tumultuous year. It almost feels like a reaction to the upheavals, although it's probably more likely that Portis -- who had quit his journalism job as the London correspondent for the New York Herald-Tribune and returned home to try to write fiction -- wasn't attending closely to current events while he was holed up in what his onetime stablemate at the Herald-Tribune, Tom Wolfe, famously described as "a fishing shack! In Arkansas!"

Maybe he wrote the book as a kind of reaction to what was going on in the streets and salons. But more likely he just wanted to tell us the story of Mattie Ross.

. . .

If you've seen the 1969 Henry Hathaway film (screening April 20 at Little Rock's Ron Robinson Theater) that stars (and focuses on) John Wayne you might not realize that Mattie is not telling her story from the point of view of a 14-year-old girl. She's an aging spinster -- a banker who's looking back at a childhood incident from the brink of the Great Depression. The novel is her reminiscence, a knotty, unsentimental and wonderfully austere account of how she took matters into her own hands and suborned the cooperation of not entirely honorable Rooster Cogburn (who in the novel is a short, fat fellow with a history of bloody atrocity) to go after the coward who robbed and killed her daddy.

The murderer, Tom Chaney, has a Cain-like gunpowder mark on his face and is based on a real person, a member of Henry Starr's bank-robbing gang named Frank Cheney. (There was a historical Rooster Cogburn as well, but Portis' creation combines the traits of a few other lawmen, most notably Fort Smith's one-eyed Deputy Marshal Cal Whitson, legendary deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves and Oklahoma lawman Henry "Heck" Thomas.)

As 14-year-old Mattie, Hathaway cast 21-year-old Kim Darby; the character presents as pert and fetching, a daddy's girl on a dangerous mission. Darby, born into a performing family (her parents were dancers) had been acting for years. She projected a maternal softness and a latent sexuality that belies Portis' sharp-elbowed little girl. The scene where the vainglorious Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Glen Campbell, in his first screen role, stepping in after Elvis Presley turned down the part) attempts to spank her is played as vaguely erotic, with Cogburn musing -- as he pulls his pistol to stop the violence -- that the Ranger is "enjoying it too much."

In the novel Mattie is not a particularly likable character.

She is severe and unforgiving, the antithesis of the archetypal freewheeling American youth as embodied by Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield. "I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains," she intones when Cogburn offers her a sip of whiskey as medicine.

The Coen brothers, who remade the film in 2010, likened the character to Alice in Wonderland. Donna Tartt compares her to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz in an afterword she wrote for the 2011 paperback edition of the book. She has gone through the looking glass, having left the relatively civilized environs of Dardanelle for the Oklahoma Indian Territory.

And it's true she has a relentlessness similar to Dorothy, but she doesn't want to go until after she's had her vengeance. Mattie is a civilizer, a law reader, an organizing principal -- as much a symbol of imposed order as a piano in a homestead parlor. An unforgiving moralist, an Old Testament raver like John Brown, an imperial tamer of chaos who's perpetually suspicious of others' motives. She lights out for the wilderness not for the freedom that it promises, but to extend her Scots Presbyterian notions of justice.

Huck left to escape the civilizing influence of Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly. Mattie is Aunt Polly, eager to impose her sensibilities on the savages and outlaws rambling through the Choctaw Nation. She is not at all excited by the possibilities promised by the frontier. She means to see the heathens hanged.

She will make common cause with Cogburn, a historical character, and later the self-regarding Texas Ranger LaBoeuf in order to accomplish her punitive goals, but she's reluctant to admit these rough men as equals.

Mattie is a cranky old maid, but we can love her for the creaky humanity that leaks through her Scotchgarded facade -- her affection for her game pony, her pal Little Blackie, her affecting (and affected) rhetorical habits which include the seemingly random use of "quotation marks" to preserve the authenticity of the story she is telling us. Mattie's dryly musical voice is a miracle of vernacular precision and authorial intent -- she reveals only and exactly what is necessary.

A key to that voice might be found in Portis' personal history. After a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps* during the Korean War, Portis enrolled in the University of Arkansas and worked for Fayetteville's Northwest Arkansas Times. One of his duties was editing the correspondence columns written by little old Mattie-type ladies who lived in the hinterlands. He confessed he edited all the character out of their copy; perhaps he saved it up for Mattie.

. . .

The 2010 Joel and Ethan Coen movie (screening April 21 at Ron Robinson) is much more in line with Portis' original vision than the John Wayne vehicle and with the brothers' darker sensibilities. It keeps faith with the novel -- just as, to a point, Hathaway did. Both True Grit films rely heavily on Portis' dialogue.

While the Coens' film is more astringent and lacks Hathaway's sweetened ending, it does not wander down black trails in pursuit of violent quirk. The Coens have made what is essentially a family movie, albeit one informed by the revisionist '70s Westerns that made Hathaway's Grit (released the week before Sam Peckinpah's paradigm-shifting The Wild Bunch) seem anachronistic even in its initial run.

Here the spotlight shifts away from the Rooster Cogburn character (played by an unintimidated Jeff Bridges) back onto Mattie Ross (age-appropriate newcomer Hailee Steinfeld). She, more than any other character, possesses the title-like quality. Quick with sums and to invoke the name of the mysterious Lawyer Daggett when pony trading with her inferior, Colonel Stonehill, this Mattie is true to Portis' creation (although Steinfeld is probably prettier than any Mattie that Portis ever imagined).

All this said, it seems likely that "true grit," a phrase that has entered the American lexicon along with "Catch 22," will always be identified with Wayne's version of the one-eyed fat man which, like most of Wayne's roles, is just another version of John Wayne: the one for which he won his only Oscar. Such is the power of movie stars. The real Rooster Cogburn was far more problematic that the movies make him out. (The novel acknowledges he rode with William Quantrill guerrillas; the scene where he puts the reins in his mouth to fire both pistols at once is based on something Quantrill himself is said to have done.)

The real Mattie Ross is a 64-year-old woman who lost her arm during her long-ago adventure, who never married and spent her life keeping accounts. But for that one episode, she has lived a gray and lonely life. She never sought out Cogburn or LaBoeuf again, although she talks of finding them. And we realize the formal, contraction-less language of the characters, is just the ventriloquism of an old and brittle pendant.

The closest Mattie ever came to love was those days she spent with Cogburn.

True Grit is not a coming-of-age story. Mattie arrives fully formed and never changes. She gets what she wants and pays severely for it.

Which makes True Grit a tragedy -- or just a sad story. And maybe one of the Great American Novels.

For information on the film screenings, visit: or call (501) 320-5715.


Photo by Democrat-Gazette file photo
Charles Portis (left) talks to John Wayne on the set of 1969’s True Grit. Wayne won an Academy Award for his performance in the first film version of Portis’ acclaimed novel.
Acclaimed Arkansas writer Charles Portis in 2010
Book cover for Charles Portis' "True Grit"
Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld starred in the 2010 remake of True Grit, directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture.

Style on 04/15/2018

*CORRECTION: Writer Charles Portis served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War. His military affiliation was incorrect in previous version of this story.

Print Headline: True grit: Charles Portis’ great American novel turns 50 this year


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