True Grit by Charles Portis: A Classic Novella, Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge

Arkansas novelist, Charles Portis’ classic tale turned 50 last year.

My version of the book was a 50th Anniversary Edition published by Overlook Press New York, 208 pages long, with an additional Introduction, Afterward, and Essays.

I really loved this novel. Charles Portis published it in 1968. (The movie rights were snapped up before the book was published!) It is narrated by the iconic heroine Mattie Ross as she recalls, from the vantage point of old age, events which occurred she was 14 in about 1880. Mattie’s family lived on a farming property near the town of Dardanelle, Yell County, Arkansas. Her father had gone about 70 miles west to Fort Smith to buy ponies for hunting in rough country. While in Fort Smith, he was murdered needlessly by his wastrel farmhand Tom Chaney, a man to whom her father had previously shown great kindness.

Mattie’s home was near Dardanelle on the right-hand side of the map. Her father, then herself, rode 70 miles to Fort Smith. Both towns were in Arkansas.
Tracking the outlaw Tom Chaney Lead into the Winding Stair Mountain in Choctaw Country, in Oklahoma. In 1880, however, there were yet no State lines.

Independent, strident, forthright, Mattie, who was also gifted with being able to drive a hard bargain, and having a strong sense of justice, travels to Fort Smith searching for a Federal Marshall to take her into Indian Territory (Choctaw Country, also a haven for renegades) to either arrest Chaney and return him to stand trial and hang for he father’s murder, or to shoot him herself with her father’s gun. She is looking for a man with True Grit to lead her into the Indian Territory and she chooses Rooster Cogburn. 

LaBoef, a Texas Ranger, also in pursuit of Chaney, completed the trio……. 

The horses need a special mention. Rooster’s “tall” horse was called Bo…he is felled in the classic shootout.

Matty’s choice of pony, which she bought back from the horse trader, was named by her, Little Blackie. Little Blackie was probably on the way to the soap factory if not for this. Later in the book, Little Blackie and LaBoef pull Mattie from the snakepit.

Mattie states, “Then I saw the horse. It was Little Blackie. The scrub pony had saved us! My thought was: The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner.”

 Then, Rooster rides her lovely black pony to death to save the snake-bitten Mattie. 

The written and spoken language of the story was contemporary to the time of the events, with many intriguing colloquialisms.

There is a very good review of the book in The Daily Beast by Allen Barra, which reflects on the language. 

“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.”  

While in college, he (Portis) 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.”

“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).”

Viewing both the movies of True Grit is also well worthwhile. The 1969 version stars John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, Glen Campbell as LaBoef, and introducing Kim Darby as Mattie. This version was regarded as a vehicle more for John Wayne. I love that John Wayne rode the horse he always rode in his Western movies. Wayne insisted on doing the final scene hurdle of the four-post fence himself on his characters replacement “tall” horse, ie., his own regular movie horse. It was exhilarating to watch.

The 2010 version is regarded as more complex, and sticking more closely to the book. It starred Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon as LaBoef, and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie.

Below is Allen Barra’s list of 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.”

A SEPARATE PEACE by John Knowles (A Classic Tragic Novel)

I selected “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles to read as my choice for A Classic Tragic Novel. This was one of three books which I purchased from Barnes and Noble, 7th Avenue, New York, each written by American authors. It is a coming-of-age novel first published in 1959, regarded as an American Classic, and which has been a set book for study in American schools over the years since it was published. It is set in the Summer of 1942 at a wealthy boarding school in New Hampshire.

The story focuses of a small group of boys who have a further time at school before graduating; however, enlisting looms for all of them. Gene is an introverted academic, sharing a room with the outgoing, adventurous, athletic Finny. Gene becomes jealous of Finny, unbeknownst to Finny. During a dare-devil game participate in by a group of the boys, Gene manages to cause Finny to lose balance on a high tree branch causing him to fall to the ground, instead of into the river below. The book follows the reactions of Gene, the eventual realisation by Finny and the reaction of other boys. A second accident for Finny has the ultimate consequence, with disturbance into the future for many of them. Feelings are admixed with the pervasive sentiments regarding war and peace. Finny had a separate peace.

I was pleased I read this book. I thought it captured the effect and foreboding of the War on these very young men, juxtaposed with the further imprint on them all of a stupid act born of immaturity and jealousy with tragic consequences. It was curious to me that seemingly there were no mature adults having any presence or impact on the psyches of these young men; but perhaps this is the norm for essentially teenagers to be anxious about and aspiring to their own sense of agency without adults. I felt affected by the tragedy myself.

The author, John Knowles, had himself attended Phillips Exeter Academy, on which he based the school in the novel called Devon. Knowles then spent time in the US Army Air Forces at the end of WW11 – in the novel some of the boys considered leaving school at their 17th birthday to join the Air Force, rather that wait to be drafted into the Army on finishing school. Finny was based on friend he met at a summer session, as in the novel; that friend was a friend of Robert Kennedy. Gore Vidal claims that Knowles told him that the character of Brinker was based on him.

Knowles other significant book was Peace Breaks Out, set just after the war, at the same school. but written in 1981, so long after A Separate Peace. Knowles seems to have been processing his own response to youth, camaraderie, war, peace and loss.

I was able to buy the movie of the same name in Google Play. I enjoyed the movie as well, another interpretation of the novel.