True Masterpiece

The joy of rediscovering True Grit

By Stephen E. Smith

In the late 1960s, a friend who’s an avid reader of popular fiction plowed through the novel True Grit and saw the John Wayne/Kim Darby movie on the same day, immersing himself in Charles Portis’ yarn set in Indian Territory in the late 1800s and acquiring what must have been a disconcerting insight into
Hollywood’s inherent ability to mangle art (at the very least, the movie moguls could have spared us the sorry acting of Glen Campbell). About the same time, I read True Grit and concluded that the novel was chockfull of memorable characters and the quirkiest dialogue ever uttered by fictional beings who aren’t working overtime at being funny.

My friend and I have been quoting lines from the novel for almost 50 years — not constantly, of course, but when our conversation happens onto a subject that might be illuminated or made humorous by a sentence or two attributable to Rooster Cogburn or Mattie Ross, we’ve never hesitated to employ Portis’ superbly crafted dialogue. I’m particularly fond of quoting from the exchange between the horse trader Stonehill (played in the original film by the inimitable Strother Martin) and Mattie as she attempts to wrangle a refund for the ponies her late father had purchased. Stonehill threatens to go to a lawyer and Mattie responds, “And I will take it up with mine . . . He will make money and I will make money and your lawyer will make money and you, Mr. Licensed Auctioneer, will foot the bill.” Who hasn’t wanted to utter that sentence when dealing with a litigious tormentor?

My friend is fond of quoting passages from Rooster’s hilarious, self-serving explication of his checkered past, as when he alludes to the wife and the son he abandoned: “She said, ‘Goodbye, Reuben, a love of decency does not abide in you.’ There is your divorced woman talking about decency . . . She took my boy with her too . . . You would not want to see a clumsier child than Horace. I bet he broke forty cups.”

But enough. You can quote almost any passage from the novel, including sections of Mattie’s deadpan first-person narration, and you’ll likely set the table on a roar.

I’m not in the habit of rereading novels, but that’s exactly what I did after seeing the Coen brothers’ adaptation of True Grit. I decided to give Portis’ novel a thorough reassessment almost a half century after my first encounter with Mattie Ross. After all, America was a very different place in 1968: the women’s movement, the war in Vietnam, the counterculture. Would the novel hold up to changes in mores and tastes? Is it as well-written as I remembered?

I completed the reread, taking my time and occasionally re-evaluating scenes I judged particularly memorable, and here’s what I concluded: True Grit is great American fiction — not a great American Western — but great American fiction period, worthy of study as a literary masterwork and occupying a station commensurate with
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Unfortunately, True Grit has never attracted the academic attention that Twain’s masterpiece and Harper Lee’s sentimental story of the South have garnered. It is a genre Western, and what self-respecting academic would publish a monograph titled “Repression, Revision, and Psychoanalysis in the Soliloquies of Rooster Cogburn”? But from the novel’s opening sentence — “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” — Mattie Ross establishes herself as the archetypal American hero, an individual so self-possessed that she’s capable of rejecting collective wisdom. In that one sentence, Portis establishes a form and voice that embodies an entire sensibility, a collection of manners, mores, thoughts and feelings, faithful to the spectrum of American experience and emblematic of a rich inner and outer life. As Clarence Darrow wrote: “. . . he (an American) is never sure that he is right unless the great majority is against him.” That’s Mattie Ross, and the reader is instantly smitten.

And it’s Mattie’s steady voice and an unwavering determination — as profoundly established as that of Scout Finch and Huck Finn — that propel the reader through the multiplicity of experience that confronts her. Rooster Cogburn is Mattie’s antithesis — alcoholic, vulgar, pragmatic, possessed of almost every human weakness but redeemed by fortitude and a strained, awkward sense of loyalty and a disarming honesty. “I found myself one pretty spring day in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in need of a road stake and I robbed one of them little high-interest banks there. Thought I was doing a good service. You can’t rob a thief, can you? I never robbed no citizens. I never taken a man’s watch.”

When it comes to the major themes around which literature teachers construct their lessons, True Grit touches subtlety on each and every one — the frontier, the American dream, East vs. West/North vs. South, the journey from innocence into knowledge, sense of community, sophistication vs. a lack thereof, etc. — and it does so without a trace of burdensome preachiness. But mostly, the novel is a story that suspends time, freezes the reader in a moment in our history that evolves finally into the present, giving us a sure knowledge of who we are and how we came to be here. What more can we ask of an American novel?

The John Wayne and Coen brothers’ cinematic interpretations of True Grit are entertaining and reasonably faithful to the original work, but it’s Portis’ novel that’s the real deal, a solid piece of Americana that deserves to be read and studied for generations.

It occurs to me, finally, that I should have said all of this 50 years ago — True Grit was as deserving of praise then as now — but as Mattie Ross articulates succinctly in the novel’s conclusion: “Time just gets away from us.”

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.

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