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.”

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Living in The Gap following growing up in Brisbane. Also lived in Nambour, Mt Isa, Cairns, Beaudesert, Ipswich, qualifying as a "Queenslanda". Retired and loving growing extended family, sub-tropical gardening, cooking, reading, politics, aquaerobics, family genealogy, sewing, knitting, film, IT, all things Mac, Pinterest, Goodreads, State of Origin.......

3 thoughts on “True Grit by Charles Portis: A Classic Novella, Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge”

  1. A totally rivetting review, adding to the experience of recently watching for the first time both movie versions of “True Grit”!
    (Watching John leap a four-rail fence on his horse, was a nice finale for the first film.)

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