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Year with Short Novels: True Grit & Greatness

By (December 1, 2010) 5 Comments

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.

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


  • Karen Bergh says:

    Thank you for your pointed and thoughtful presentation of the key to the Portis novel and the faithful interpretation of same by the Coen brothers in their recently released film remake of the 1969 original.

    Mattie Ross’s “voice” is reminiscent of a time long gone, and is brought skillfully to life in the Coen version of the film. While the dark, grittiness (sorry for the pun) of the Coen version caused me to grimace in a few spots, indeed, I laughed out loud in the movie theater as the new version of the film allowed the delightful barbs, verbal jousting and stilted Victorian-like language to take center stage. It was a truly pleasureable experience, one I cannot remember having had at any movie of the last 20 years.

    I particularly enjoyed the scene where she admonished her fellow travelers that they had left her with “a congress of louts,” a different phrase from the original film (I’d have to look it up in the book, but I believe it to be faithful to the original written word). As a native of Arkansas, and a heritage tied to the rural southern part of the state, I hooted throughout the film at what I feel is an uncanny unearthing of the essence of the prim, tough, proud heritage of my kin.

    I am inspired by Charles Portis’ legacy, and would love to meet him one day (I have friends who know him), though I understand he is rather reclusive.

    After seeing the new True Grit, I am reminded of my roots, and the brilliance of a fellow Arkansan whose talent has given us several American treasures.

    I’ve always thought I had a book hiding in me somewhere, but have never allowed the freedom and creative flow necessary to achieve it…perhaps now is a good time!

  • Mary says:

    Yes, it takes tough folks to move west, hang out there, thrive, and make our country strong. My Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas roots jump up and cheer at this book and film. Right is right, and it takes true grit to stick to it.

  • Anonymous says:

    Ingrid Norton’s review of True Grit is written with an elegance and surgical precision which cuts straight to the underlying truth and beauty of the novel by Charles Portis. She is another one of our contemporary prophets who discern the truth when they find it and who have the ability to proclaim the truth for us to learn from it.

    The novel and this recent film adaptation by the Coen brothers presents for us the truly tough task of living up to the truth in our own personal actions and relationships each and every day.

    This is the real test of true grit. In our actions and relationships, pursuing a balance which rises out of the tension between the virtues of justice and compassion, in the “everlasting arms” of our humanity at its best.

  • Terry Scoggin says:

    The only details I would dispute in Ms. Norton’s otherwise excellent essay regard her dating of the novel. There are three major time sequences in the novel: (1) the “now” of the novel, the time at which the older Mattie Ross tells this story; (2) the “then” of the novel, when Mattie was fourteen and she has her adventure with Rooster; and (3) her journey in 1903 to Memphis, Tennessee to see Rooster in the “Wild West” show, culminating in her hearing of his death and moving his body to her family’s plot.

    It is quite easy to date (3), since the novel is specifically cites the date as 1903. Time (2) is likewise simple, since Mattie wonders in 1903 whether Rooster will still remember her, since “A quarter of a century is a long time!”

    Time (1) is the most difficult, but it’s not impossible to get quite close. She refers in the early pages of her monologue to at least two events later than 1903: the death of Yarnell Poindexter “in the flu epidemic of 1918” as well as the Presidential election of 1928 (she says she and her family have been staunch Democrats “right up to and including Governor Alfred Smith, and not only because of Joe Robinson.”).

    That would mean that the novel’s main story, when Mattie was fourteen, took place in late 1878, sometime after her father decided to go to Fort Smith “in November when the last of the cotton was sold.” That would mean that Mattie was born in 1864.

    Since 1903 is 25 years after 1878, and the latest event cited in the novel is the election of 1928, 25 years after 1903, it is reasonable to assume for purposes of symmetry that the “now” of the novel is also that year.

    This would mean that Mattie is 64 when she tells her story in 1928 and that she was 39 in 1903. She also says in the book’s last paragraph that LaBoeuf would be “in his seventies now, and nearer eighty than seventy.” Since she describes him when she first sees him as “about thirty years of age,” this would also align with a 1928 date for the current time of the story.

    Please let me know if you find inaccuracies here. Thanks!

  • jack says:

    The problem with the Coen bros’ rendition of this amazing novel is that it seems to pluck out any references to Mattie Ross’ obvious Christian beliefs in being the driving force behind her particular drive to seek reckoning for her murdered father. In fact, other than a stirring rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” there’s not a single clue that young Miss Ross is the “Cumberland Presbyterian” she claims that she and her family were in the ’69 True Grit.

    Even the memorable horse dealing interactions she has with the Strother Martin “Colonel Stonehill” in the ’69 film are laced with references to Mattie’s Christian upbringing and beliefs (and to a lesser extent, of Stonehill’s). She tells Stonehill, after he says she is wrong to go with Rooster to look for Chaney, that the “good Christian” does not shirk from their duty… . Stonehill then admonishes her, “nor does the good Christian” engage in undue risks (or something like that). The Coen bros plucked both of those little references out of the script.

    It is also worth noting that Portis’ naming Mattie with the last name “Ross (a huge Scottish name),” when combined with the Cumberland Presbyterian tie-in, pretty much guarantees that young Mattie was of Calvinist belief and, by the accounts of the book (which I’ve not had the pleasure of reading), would have been driven by deep Biblical conviction that justice had to be done and that God would see her through to justice, despite her being way out of her element and at the mercy seemingly of unsavory and unknown adult males with guns.

    This all began to bug me the more I read comments on YouTube and elsewhere about how moving the above mentioned Christian hymn was and how much it really captured the point of the movie. I beg to differ. The movie (which I enjoyed), from first to last, was sort of an agnostic film, for all intents and purposes (clearly by design), and to throw the very real 1870 hymn (complete with powerful Christian imagery) in for “mood,” is just odd. It doesn’t tie in with anything in the movie, unless one acquaints Mattie’s prim demeanor, dress and speech to be sufficient tie-in to such a song of depth, conviction and belief. I say those superficial features, as enjoyable as they were, are not enough to convey what needed to be conveyed about Mattie and her upbringing. It could have been done deftly (as was attempted with some success in ’69 film) and did not have to turn into a religious epic, with young Mattie quoting chapter and verse every time Rooster popped a cork.

    It is obvious that today’s Hollywood is not open to showing Christian people (especially “puritanical” people [like those that were the backbone of the country as it went from backwoods joke in London parlors to liberator of an enslaved world 160 yrs later]) and their beliefs (much less their God and Savior, and the Book He left them) being the reason for anything good, noble or courageous happening.

    As for those who say few moviegoers want to see or hear that, I say tough. And, it would be true to the novel the Coen bros SAY they were trying to be faithful to, right? The failure to bring this out from the novel and to the moviegoers’ attention results in the key force in the movie, Mattie, not being developed as a character as reasonably fully as she needed to be. Youthful charm (which Miss Steinfeld has in abundance), well-researched period clothing and speech, would have been all the more effective had the Coen bros not decided to sanitize Mattie’s Christian beliefs and upbringing…no matter whom it may have offended.

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