Merriam Webster defines cult as “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work such as a film or book.” This weekend hundreds of cultists will gather in Little Rock, Arkansas, to celebrate a person and a work. Charles Portis is the person and the work is his novel True Grit, which turns fifty this year. (A likely no-show is Portis himself, who has never established a public persona through profiles and interviews.)
True Grit begs the question as to whether a book in print fifty years after publication and which inspired two hugely successful films can properly be labeled “cult.” Mass cult might fit better.
Portis’s unassuming little novel—in most editions it clocks in around 220 pages—seems an odd candidate for such devotion. Written by a former Marine sergeant and journalist from southern Arkansas with only one previous novel to his credit (the moderately successful Norwood , the endlessly hilarious account of an ex-Marine's journey from Texas to New York to collect $70), True Grit couldn’t have been farther outside the mainstream of ’60s American literature.
In 1968, critics were arguing about whether John Updike’s Couples accurately depicted suburban life, whether Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night was journalism or literature, or whether Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge was literature at all. I have no way of proving this, but I would bet that True Grit is still read by more people than those three combined.
True Grit—and Portis’s other novels, too—have, despite invariably good reviews, been only grudgingly accepted by the literary establishment. That Portis' novel took so long to win such respect may be due to being labeled a western.
In his 1971 An Introduction to American Literature, Jorge Luis Borges compared the North American western unfavorably to the gaucho and outlaw tales of Argentina. “A tardy and subordinate genre,” Borges called our westerns, which seldom deviate from standard themes and archetypal characters.
Borges knew his gringo lit, but he missed, as did most critics, the rise of the Great American Western Novel. The first shot, so to speak, was Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964), a tall tale told by the only white man to survive Custer’s Last Stand. Then came Michael Ondaatje’s Neruda-inspired book-length poem The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), Ron Hansen’s novels about the Dalton Gang, Desperadoes (1979) and the James Gang, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983), Larry McMurtry’s epic story of a cattle drive from Texas, Lonesome Dove (1985), Cormac McCarthy’s novel of Bruegelian carnage in the early Southwest, Blood Meridian (1985), Pete Dexter’s elegiac tale of the last days of Wild Bill Hickok, Deadwood (1986), and most recently, Daniel Woodrell’s Civil War-era novel of Quantrell’s Raiders, Woe To Live On (1987) and Mary Doria Russell’s fictional account of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the O.K. Corral, Epitaph (2015). Next week, The Library of America is releasing Elmore Leonard: Westerns, which includes the original stories for classic western films Valdez Is Coming, Hombre, and 3:10 to Yuma.
True Grit, in common with all of these, is about violence and the creation of myth and legend in the frontier west. And it can’t be pigeon-holed into the tardy and subordinate label of genre. True Grit alone places a female at the center of the story.
Its heroine is Mattie Ross, who, in her seventies, reflects back on events from her youth when, at the age of 14, she set out from her home in the western Arkansas town of Dardanelle to avenge the murder of her father by “the outlaw Tom Chaney,” one of a band of cutthroats led by “Lucky Ned” Pepper. (True Grit, like many great American novels, is a monologue.)
Chaney’s apprehension demands a trek into the Choctaw Nation, at the time a refuge for the worst renegades. Mattie accompanies two lawmen, LaBoeuf (pronounced La-Beef), a Texas Ranger full to the brim with Texas, and a U.S. Marshal, Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, who rode with Quantrell in the Civil War. It’s a simple story, and Portis never lets it get more complex than that.
Mattie Ross is as dogged in her determination and as bereft of sentiment as Arkansas’s “hanging judge,” Isaac Parker, to whom she hopes to deliver Tom Chaney. A church-going, Bible-quoting country girl—Portis’s schoolteacher father taught scripture at school and his mother was a Methodist minister’s daughter —Mattie’s stern Presbyterian ethic makes you wish she was working for Robert Mueller. She is unwavering: “I have never been one to flinch or crawfish when faced with an unpleasant task,” as shown in this scene from the Coen Brothers’ film version when she pursues Rooster and LaBeouf to Carter Burwell’s theme.
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Mattie is one of the great female characters in American literature. She’s often compared to Huck Finn, but I don’t think the two would have gotten along. (Mattie is more like the school teacher Huck would have jumped on a raft to get away from.) Her temperament is more akin to Captain Ahab’s, though if Mattie has been chasing him, the white whale would have been hanging from a yardarm inside 200 pages.
She has her prejudices: “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?”
The Ranger LaBoeuf comes on to her and is roundly rebuffed. His ego bruised, he threatens to leave her behind while he pursues Tom Chaney, whose trail he has been on for months,
“Criminal investigation is sordid and dangerous and is best left in the hands of men who know the work.”
“Well,” she retorts, “if in four months I could not find Tom Chaney with a mark on his face like banished Cain”—Chaney has a powder burn on his cheek—“I would not undertake to advise others how to do it.”
“A saucy manner,” the ranger fires back, “does not go with me.”
“I will not be bullied,” she fires back, and she will not be.
Her undertaking is daunting and dangerous. She must pursue her father’s killer and his cohorts into territory where “the civilizing arts of commerce do not flourish.” A practical girl, Mattie knows her limits; she must find a lawman whose qualities are stated in the book’s title. A sheriff in Fort Smith provides thumbnail descriptions of federal marshals she might hire: “The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn… is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is as straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.”
“Where,” Mattie asks, “can I find this Rooster?”
The cadence and rhythms of Portis’s prose in True Grit were shaped by the speech of his older neighbors in rural Arkansas—people who grew up speaking English that owed much to the King James Bible with echoes of Shakespeare’s English and traces of the oral traditions of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. It’s a speech light on contractions and Latinate words, largely unaffected by television or even radio. It’s the resonance of the Old Testament, lightly seasoned, on occasion, with classical allusion. Portis’s ear never lost it.
Willie Morris once told me about the old folks where he grew up in Yazoo, Mississippi: “They didn’t read much poetry but knew how to speak it.”
Portis left home for the Marine Corps and Korea, came back to graduate from the University of Arkansas in 1955, then went to New York five years later to take a reporter’s job at the legendary New York Herald-Tribune. In 1964, he got a terrific assignment as the paper’s London bureau chief and reporter; it amused him to tell friends that a man named Karl Marx had once been a London correspondent for the old New York Herald. In an interview with a student at University of Arkansas, he said that the Herald’s editors “might have saved us all a lot of grief if they had only paid Marx a little better.”
While in college, he had a part-time job at a small paper editing the stringers in tiny communities, typing up their handwritten reports. All of the color of their idiosyncratic imagery found its way into his notebooks and, eventually, into Mattie and True Grit’s other characters:
— LaBoeuf to Mattie, “You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements.”
— Lucky Ned Pepper tells her, “You do not varnish your opinions.”
— After Rooster wins a shootout with Lucky Ned’s gang, a jubilant Mattie exclaims, “It was some daring move on the part of the deputy marshal whose manliness and grit I had doubted. No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much.”
In 2011, I was dismayed to find Larry McMurtry dismissing the language of True Grit in the New York Review of Books: “Well, it’s in a certain tradition… I thought the book and the film [the Coen Brothers’ 2010 version] were both prolix, the conversations ran on too long and could have been shortened by a few sentences. Example, the conversation between Mattie and the horse trader about the price of Texas ponies.”
Myself, I would liked the exchange between Mattie and the horse trader to go on even longer. It included two of my favorite lines from the book. “I do not entertain hypotheticals,” the exasperated horse trader tells her. “The world as it is is vexing enough.”
Balking at Mattie’s price for a horse, “I would not pay such a sum for winged Pegasus.”
McMurtry was right that Portis’s dialogue is in “a certain tradition.” It’s the tradition of 19th century westerners, especially those who had roots in the South, such as Georgia native Doc Holliday, who, in the middle of a 30-second gunfight at the O.K. Corral, really did tell a man aiming a gun at him, point blank, “Blaze away. You’re a daisy if you do.”
The language of True Grit influenced scriptwriters of the best westerns of the last few decades, including Tombstone (1993) and the HBO series Deadwood (2004-2006). I’d pay a Mayweather-McGregor type fee to see a verbal shootout between Mattie and Al Swearengen in Deadwood. I’d take Mattie in a TKO, and she wouldn’t even have to cuss.
It would seem a paradox that Charles Portis should remain a cult figure even after True Grit has become a household name in the wake of two hugely successful films. The movie rights were snapped up even before the book was published, perhaps eclipsing the novel. (Norwood was also made into an enjoyable little movie in 1970 with a surprisingly pleasant lead performance by Glen Campbell and the best acting, to date, by Joe Namath.)
Portis is the author of three other novels—The Dog of the South (1979), Masters of Atlantis (1985) and Gringos (1991)—all quirky, idiosyncratic, and hilarious, and all of them with cult followings. (Masters of Atlantis is about a cult.) Oddly, none of these have been filmed.
The likely candidates to film them are Ethan and Joel Coen, who with their 2010 film are the only ones to have rendered Portis faithfully to film.
The 1969 version of True Grit directed by Henry Hathaway wasn’t bad and won John Wayne his only Oscar for playing Rooster Cogburn. Its problem is that it was a John Wayne vehicle; the story is centered around Rooster rather than Mattie, which may have been a plus considering that Kim Darby was a weak presence. Once again, Glen Campbell did a nice turn as LaBoeuf.
But the Coens’ film, top to bottom, is better cast. Jeff Bridges, an actor of far greater resources than Wayne, is a much more believable Rooster Cogburn—his Rooster enters the story as if from a side door and acts with Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie, never threatening to push her aside.
Steinfeld, 13 when filming began, gives an astonishingly full performance, perhaps the greatest by a young teenage actress ever and one that should have earned her the Oscar as best actress, not best supporting actress for which she was nominated.
The Coens’ film has the sepia-tinged look (courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins) appropriate to photographs of the period, and the score by Carter Burwell is woven around inspiring old Protestant hymns, most notably "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," that offer an aural complement to the film’s visuals. (The hymns seem to be playing on the ear buds of Mattie’s internal iPod.)
The film also gives us something the book could not: a stirring, near-Homeric journey by Rooster, who rides her lovely black pony to death to save the snake-bitten Mattie. In one of the film’s most gorgeous images, their figures are silhouetted on a ridge while a piano plays "Everlasting Arms." It’s pure heroism, uncut by the Coens’ characteristic caustic irony.
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The Coens were also faithful to Portis’ ending, in which a middle-aged Mattie goes to see Rooster in a Wild West traveling show hosted by Cole Younger and Frank James. A courtly Younger, hat in hand, quietly informs her that Rooster has died just a few days earlier. “We had some lively times,” is the only solace he can offer her. (“Keep your seat, trash,” Mattie snaps as a parting shot to Frank James, who didn’t stand when she approached.)
In the closing scene, Mattie, who has moved Rooster’s remains to her family’s burial plot, is shown visiting the graves of her father and Rooster under a huge bare tree. In a scene with the look of an N.C. Wyeth painting, Mattie walks away. “Time,” she says in a voiceover, “just gets away from us.” Iris Dement sings the hymn over the closing credits.
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The Coens’ True Grit is that rare great movie made from a great book. “It’s not Tolstoy,” Larry McMurtry said of Portis’s novel in NYRB, “It’s not Faulkner.” That’s a surprising remark coming from the author of Lonesome Dove. Tolstoy and Faulkner and Henry James are usually cited by snobs of my acquaintance as the reason they won’t read Lonesome Dove. I don’t know how Faulkner would have felt, but Walker Percy loved the novel (“It is a delight. Mattie Ross from near Dardanelle, Arkansas, is here to stay, like Huck Finn.”), and so did Roald Dahl (“I was going to say it was the best novel to come my way since… Then I stopped. Since what? What book has given me greater pleasure in the last five years? Or in the last twenty? I do not know.”), and surely Mark Twain would have slapped his thigh after reading True Grit.
Roy Blount Jr., who will be speaking Saturday at the True Grit celebration, once wrote, “Portis could have been Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.” Exactly. And as we all know, “funny” never gets the respect it deserves, especially in literary circles. But True Grit is a funny book and a great American novel.
(Both film versions of True Grit are being shown at the 50 Years of True Grit celebration, which also features a concert by Iris DeMent.)
And if you commute, I highly recommend the audio book, narrated superbly by Donna Tartt, another Portishead.