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Year with Short Novels: True Grit & Greatness

True Grit

By Charles Portis
Published in 1968
In print through Overlook

This article is part of a series which delves into a different short novel each month, revisiting classics and considering neglected masterpieces. To read the series introduction, “The Sweetness of Short Novels,” click here. To suggest a short novel for inclusion in the series, write to ingridnorton[at]live[dot]com.

Here is what happens:

Mattie Ross, an intrepid Arkansan fourteen year-old, and Rooster Cogburn, a federal marshal, lie in wait to ambush a bandit gang. It’s the dead of night, deep in Indian Territory. Snow dusts the ground. They are hiding in the woods near a highway dugout where the outlaws, fresh from robbing a train, are coming to swap out stolen horses. To pass the cold night, Rooster regales Mattie with stories of his past: riding rough for the Confederacy in the Civil War, running a saloon in Cairo, Illinois, robbing a high-interest bank in Las Vegas, and shooting buffalo on the plains of Texas.

On the other side of the hollow, their partner, a Texas Ranger named LaBouef (pronounced “LaBeef”) also waits, his powerful rifle at the ready. Just before dawn the bandits arrive, laden with loot from the Katy Flyer. But they sense a trap. Lucky Ned Pepper, their leader, fires three warning shots in the air; a rattled LaBoeuf shoots the horse out from under the bandit chief. LaBoeuf’s repeated shots volley forth across the hollow. Rooster takes up his Winchester at the same moment. Mattie jerks her hand away as hot cartridge casings from his rifle fall on her. Lucky Ned Pepper swings onto a fallen comrade’s horse. He and most of the other bandits make off as fast as they can.

When it’s over, Rooster and LaBoeuf lash the left-over outlaw corpses onto the bandits’ stolen horses. Mattie and the two men ride down a packed-gravel road to the town where the train got held up:

We made quite a caravan. If you had chanced to be riding up the Texas Road on that bright December morning you would have met two red-eyed peace officers and a sleepy youth from near Dardanelle, Arkansas, riding south at a walk and leading seven horses. Had you looked closely you would have seen that four of those horses were draped over with the corpses of armed robbers and stock thieves. We did in fact meet several travelers and they marveled and wondered at our grisly cargo.

The progression from tense wait to chaotic shoot-out to grim caravan through the winter morning, carries a great deal of force. Charles Portis’s True Grit is full of scenes that possess the same innately cinematic quality. The action of the 1968 novel, originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, hinges on vengeance. Tom Chaney, a tenant on Mattie’s family land, shoots her father in Forth Smith. Chaney, whose main identifying feature is a gunpowder mark on his face “like a banished Cain,” quits Arkansas for Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and holes up with Pepper. Meanwhile, the spirited and spiteful girl travels to the frontier capitol to take care of her father’s body. There, she vows revenge and recruits Rooster, a one-eyed marshal, to help her. The tale has a mythic clarity to it, just as Mattie has a staunch, eye-for-an-eye sense of justice.

Little wonder that the Coen Brothers have made a movie out of it. The trailer for the film (to be released around Christmas) has all the drama of close lantern light and the click of cocked revolvers, crowded hangings and chilly rivers. But the chief element that makes the novel such an absolute delight is untransferable, and that is the voice of Mattie Ross herself. From the first two sentences onward, she is an unforgettable narrator:

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. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.

The key in the opening is Mattie’s furious specificity as she pivots from murder to the gold pieces in her father’s trouser band. Plain and outspoken, she has a mean streak and is a devout Presbyterian. Mattie “once rode a mean goat through a plum thicket on a dare,” cites scripture habitually, and has “never been one to flinch or crawfish when faced with an unpleasant task.” The latter she says before viewing her father’s body. That she would then ride into Indian Territory with men three times her age never seems unbelievable because of her intense, uncompromising practicality (she entraps the man who sold her father some ponies into buying them back and uses the money to pay Rooster Cogburn).

In True Grit, style conveys personality in such a complete way that Mattie seems not just real but close, her presence woven deep into everything she describes. As she looks at her father’s corpse, spite rankles: “What a waste! Tom Chaney would pay for this! I would not rest easy until that Louisiana cur was roasting and screaming in hell!” While Mattie is entirely earnest as she makes such declarations, there’s a mordant humor in them. It comes not from their absurdity but from their very reality. The novel’s pleasure comes from sharing in her unswervingly delivered judgments. It’s the gratification of listening to a polemicist: compromise is gleefully discarded and extreme stances are delivered with conviction and relish.

Mattie’s frontier cadences mix vivid metaphors (Mrs. Floyd “could no more keep her mouth closed than can a yellow catfish”) with a Biblical formality. Charles Portis, an Arkansan who would go on to write three more novels, knew what he was talking about. Cutting his teeth as a cub reporter at Northwest Arkansas Times, one of his responsibilities was to go through the dispatches of “lady stringers” in the Ozarks and redact religious and folksy ornamentation. The linguistic zeal of True Grit arises partly from the revenge that Portis takes on the drab neutrality of newsman’s English. Attending the trial of a robber she explains:

I have a newspaper record of a part of that Wharton trial and it is not an official transcript but it is faithful enough. I have used it and my memories to write a good historical article that I titled, You will now listen to the sentence of the law, Odus Wharton, which is that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead! May God, whose laws you have broken and before whose dread tribunal you must appear, have mercy on your soul. Being a personal recollection of Isaac C. Parker, the famous Border Judge.

But the magazines of today do not know a good story when they see one.

Mattie’s voice makes such digressions hilarious and speeds forward the plot. When Mattie approaches Rooster Cogburn to get his help hunting down Chaney, she says, “They tell me you are a man with true grit.” Alcoholic, roguish, and worldly wise, in many ways Rooster stands opposite to Mattie’s unyielding insistence on law and order. But as violent circumstances test the pair, an uncomplaining stoicism turns out to be the quality that sustains them both. At the core, Mattie and Rooster are bold and intensely loyal. Their actions are never romanticized. Staking out dugouts on winter nights is cold and tiring business. Guns misfire and horses startle. Though resilient and practical to the final page, Mattie by no means emerges unscathed. The novel suggests that in difficult times, her and Rooster’s hard-bitten virtues are the only traits of consequence.

This moral compass is what makes True Grit a vivid portrait of the American West. The novel takes place in the 1870s. Its idiomatic depiction of heroism taps a deep vein of American myth: the ballad, the folktale, other assorted travelers like the dime-store Western and yellow tabloid. But the outlaws, marshals, and Reconstruction-era officials that figure in the story are perfectly true to the region’s history. The book is full of small details of the time, like the boys who sell parched peanuts, fudge, and “‘hot tamales’ out of a bucket” at a triple hanging.

Throughout the work, there are signs that this world’s tide of adventure is receding. Rooster, about 40 years old when Mattie meets him, already laments the passage of better, more free-wheeling days. Trying to fill out his fee sheets (he is basically illiterate), Rooster laments “all the regulations laid down by Uncle Sam.” He confides in Mattie, “If you don’t have schooling you are up against it in this country, sis … that man has no chance any more. No matter if he has got sand in his craw, others will push him aside, little thin fellows that have won spelling bees back home.”

At the end of the novel, it is 1903 and Mattie is in her 50s. The last she hears of Rooster Cogburn is that he is part of a Wild West show playing a baseball park in Memphis. The war stories that seemed so real when they knelt in that hollow waiting for Lucky Ned Pepper are now paraded as amateur theatricals. Rooster’s fate symbolizes what happens to stories of bravery as they become bloated and idealized in retelling—how the West turned into the Western.

One of the peculiarities of American history is the speed with which the U.S. transforms from a hardscrabble country with an ever-extending frontier to a prosperous suburbanized nation over the course of one century—and the amnesia that accompanies the change. But the hundred years between the end of True Grit and the present only comprise four or five generations. In El Dorado, Arkansas, the town where Portis was born in 1933, gunfights tore up the courthouse square in 1902, kicking off the three year Tucker-Parnell feud. During Portis’s childhood, hangings, railroad robberies, and renegade Yankee marshals were part of living memory, as was the pioneer stoicism of making due with very little. The dogged Puritanism of Mattie Ross is a closer kin than we think, part of any national lineage one might contrive. Some forty years after Portis created Mattie Ross, we remain drawn to her side. The upcoming Coen Brothers’ adaptation attests to that enduring appeal. For the secret to True Grit’s greatness resides not in collective history but in character. By locating fortitude and grit in the past, we hope to find it in ourselves.

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Ingrid Norton has written for publications including Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Soundcheck Magazine.