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True Grit (1968)
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
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
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
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
'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
'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
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
'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
'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
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
That's just good funny stuff. Book or movie, you'll not soon forget Mattie Ross, nor Rooster Cogburn.
See also:Charles Portis (2 books reviewed)
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels
-STORY: "I Don't Talk Service No More." (Charles Portis, The Atlantic Monthly, May 1996)
-STORY: Combinations of Jackson (Charles Portis, The Atlantic, 1995)
-ESSAY: Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis: How to Create an American Cult (Carl Scott, 2/01/12, First Things)
-PROFILE: Charles Portis, the man who wrote True Grit: How an enigmatic and reclusive ex-marine created Rooster Cogburn and inspired the 10-time Oscar contender. (Martin Chilton, 1/28/11, The Telegraph)
-Charles (McColl) Portis (Vered Kleinberger, Spring 1999, Postcolonial Studies at Emory)
-PROFILE: LIKE CORMAC MCCARTHY, BUT FUNNY: CHARLES PORTIS, AUTHOR OF TRUE GRIT, GOT JOHN WAYNE HIS ONLY OSCAR. HE ONCE HAD KARL MARX’S OLD GIG (AS THE LONDON BUREAU CHIEF FOR THE NEW YORK HERALD-TRIBUNE). HE’S WRITTEN FOUR OTHER NOVELS, THREE OF THEM MASTERPIECES, THOUGH WHICH THREE IS UP FOR DEBATE. HERE’S 7,000 WORDS ABOUT A GUY YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF. BUT SHOULD, WE SAY. (Ed Park, March 2003, The Believer)
-REVIEW: Rereadings: How Mattie got her man (Donna Tartt, January 8, 2005, The Guardian)
Like Cormac McCarthy, but Funny: Charles Portis wrote five novels, four of them classics, one of them True Grit. How come you've never heard of him? (Ed Park, March 2003, The Believer)
-ESSAY: Of Gnats and Men: A New Reading of Portis (Ron Rosenbaum, 5/24/99, The New York Observer)
-INTERVIEW: with Ron Rosenbaum (Tim Cavanaugh, Feed Mag)
-ESSAY: Portis' Head (Jesse Berrett, City Pages)
-ESSAY: I want to be alone : J.D. Salinger isn't the only reclusive writer in America (JEFF BAKER, The Oregonian)
-ARCHIVES: "charles portis" (Find Articles)
-REVIEW: of Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis (John McNally, Missouri Review)
-REVIEW: of The Dog of the South (Ron Rosenbaum, NY Observer)
-REVIEW: of Norwood by Charles Portis (Deal W. Hudson, The Crisis)
-REVIEW: of Norwood by Charles Portis (Michael Swindle, The Denver Post)
-REVIEW: of Norwood by Charles Portis (The Stranger)
-REVIEW: of Norwood ( gnosticdogma)
-BOOK LIST: Screened out : The author of "Motherless Brooklyn" spotlights five terrific novels overshadowed by their film versions. (Jonathan Lethem, Salon)
-BOOK LIST: Funny pages : THE DEADLINE POET AND AUTHOR OF "THE TUMMY TRILOGY" PICKS FIVE BOOKS THAT MADE HIM LAUGH (Calvin Trillin, Salon)
-BUY IT: True Grit (1969) (DVD)(amazon.com)
-BUY IT: VHS (amazon.com)
-INFO: True Grit (1969)(imdb)
-ESSAY: Marguerite Roberts : A Woman with True Grit : She wrote. She rode. She fought the blacklist. (Joseph McBride, November '99 issue of "Written By")
-REVIEW ESSAY: A Portis Reader: a great writer’s walking papers. (JULIE CLINE, 2nd Sep 2011, LA Review of Books)
-ESSAY: Literary History of the American West - Lawmen and Outlaws (TCU)
-ESSAY: Literary History of the American West - Contemporary Trends in Western American Fiction (TCU)
Book-related and General Links:
Hey...what's the deal did they find Mattie's father's killer?
- Mar-29-2006, 14:33
Interesting you should mention her early description of the horses. Her heartbreaking but characteristically curt paean to the horse that becomes her own and saves her life ("There never lived a braver pony.") is the emotional heart of the book, I think. Anyway, it was at that moment I stopped just loving the book and became rabidly evangelistic about it.
- Brian Jones
- May-24-2004, 15:40