My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Charles Portis, often hailed as a great but unsung American writer, died last month, so I read his most famous novel in memoriam. True Grit, published in 1968, is a Western and a bildungsroman. It is the elderly Mattie Ross’s first-person recollection as she looks back from the vantage of the 1920s on an adventure she had in the 1870s, when she was 14 years old.
A rogue of a hired hand named Tom Chaney shot and killed Mattie’s kind, sober father in a drunken skirmish, so the adolescent sets out from her family farm in Yell County, Arkansas, to recover her father’s property and avenge his murder. When she arrives in Fort Smith, the place where her father was killed, she contracts a U. S. Marshall to hunt down Tom Chaney in the Choctaw Nation, where he has escaped with the Lucky Ned Pepper gang. This Marshall is Rooster Cogburn, an aging drunkard and ex-Confederate soldier who’d served under the bloody command of Captain Quantrill, a “peace officer” notorious for shooting first and asking questions later. Joined by the vain Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (“He called it LaBeef,” Mattie notes), Mattie and Rooster hunt their prey to destruction, though not without some heavy losses of their own.
From the novel’s opening pages, where Mattie in her deadpan style reports her sight of a “triple hanging” in Fort Smith, to its narrative climax with her fall into a snake-pit underworld, Portis provides a classic journey from innocence to experience. Mattie may begin with precocity, but she ends with wisdom. Along the way, she earns the respect of Rooster and LaBoeuf, both of whom had regarded her as a pest of a girl distracting them from their quest.
In parallel to young Mattie’s bildung, the hunt for Chaney—and Mattie’s example of rectitude—inspires Rooster to transcend himself, to rise from his alcoholic dissipation and corruption to heroic stature in the defense of justice. The novel provides hints that, despite his squalid life, he’d had such potential all along, as in an early episode when he rescues a mule two boys are torturing for fun:
Two wicked boys were sitting on the edge of the porch laughing at the mule’s discomfort. One was white and the other was an Indian. They were about seventeen years of age.
Rooster cut the rope with his dirk knife and the mule breathed easy again. The grateful beast wandered off shaking his head about. A cypress stump served for a step up to the porch. Rooster went up first and walked over to the two boys and kicked them off into the mud with the flat at his boot. “Call that sport, do you?” said he.
If Rooster’s moral revival is the novel’s main appeal to filmmakers and older actors like John Wayne and Jeff Bridges, Mattie’s narrative voice is the star of Portis’s show. Though much of the book is comprised of enviably lucid narrative and dialogue as only the best popular fiction can provide, Mattie’s digressions add novelistic texture and make her a character of memorable depth and complexity. In one aside, she even elaborates on her theory of writing and the literary scene of her day:
But the magazines of today do not know a good story when they see one. They would rather print trash. They say my article is too long and “discursive.” Nothing is too long or too short either if you have a true and interesting tale and what I call a “graphic” writing style combined with educational aims. I do not fool around with newspapers. They are always after me for historical write-ups but when the talk gets around to money the paper editors are most of them “cheap skates.” They think because I have a little money I will be happy to fill up their Sunday columns just to see my name in print like Lucille Biggers Langford and Florence Mabry Whiteside. As the little colored boy says, “Not none of me!” Lucille and Florence can do as they please. The paper editors are great ones for reaping where they have not sown. Another game they have is to send reporters out to talk to you and get your stories free. I know the young reporters are not paid well and I would not mind helping those boys out with their “scoops” if they could ever get anything straight.
Mattie’s “graphic” style is perfect for what is among other things an adventure novel. In this, she (and her author) join a tradition of Protestant plain style in the novel and memoir—unencumbered by “popish” filigree—that goes back to Daniel Defoe and emerges in American literature with such texts of the Puritan settlement as William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation and Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative of the Captivity. As other of her digressions reveal, Mattie is every inch the Puritan, with her Scots-Irish Presbyterianism based, as she affirms, on the Calvinist doctrine of “Election,” i.e., God’s predestination of who is saved and who is damned without respect to character or behavior:
I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it.
This doctrine runs contrary, too, to Mattie’s own willfulness and self-reliance in the pursuit of justice, as well as the stern (though usually correct) judgments she levels on others’ moral failings. Like the Puritans, she strives to reconcile predestination with the command that the individual do good in this world; and, again as with the Puritans, her own shrewd business sense allies economic success to evidence of election. Her embodiment of these contradictory strains in the American character—predestined and self-willed; godly and materialistic—make her a literary figure as archetypal as Hester Prynne, Captain Ahab, and Huckleberry Finn.
And as in the American character more generally, Mattie’s seemingly flinty Calvinist doctrines show an odd tendency to bend toward liberalism. Consider another of her asides, which begins in praising prohibition (her hatred of intoxication is a major motif in the novel) and ends with her statement of political fealty to Al Smith, a son of Irish and Italian immigrants and the first Catholic nominated to run for the U.S. Presidency:
Thank God for the Harrison Narcotics Law. Also the Volstead Act. I know Governor Smith is “wet” but that is because of his race and religion and he is not personally accountable for that. I think his first loyalty is to his country and not to “the infallible Pope of Rome.” I am not afraid of Al Smith for a minute. He is a good Democrat and when he is elected I believe he will do the right thing if he is not hamstrung by the Republican gang and bullied into an early grave as was done to Woodrow Wilson, the greatest Presbyterian gentleman of the age.
The Coen Brothers’ 2010 film adaptation of True Grit, though brilliant, necessarily neglects these thematically-crucial discursive elements and underemphasizes Mattie’s voice—the voice of an old woman reminiscing on her greatest youthful adventure—in favor of her adolescent precocity and Rooster’s tragicomic development. In contrast to the 1969 John Wayne version of the film, which cast a 22-year-old actress to play Mattie, the Coens cast an actual 14-year-old, Hailee Steinfeld, and if anything played up her youth and innocence. With this choice, they created an effect probably more familiar in manga and anime than American popular culture: they rendered a deeply serious character bearing a grave ideology cute.
Do the Coens have precedent in the novel? Doesn’t a hint of 1960s postmodern irony envelop the text and render Mattie’s character if not cute then at least archly comic? I thought so at first, but by the end of Portis’s command performance, I was convinced not only that Rooster Cogburn had the titular “grit” Mattie praises him for, but also that she was, as she implies in the end, a woman with “substance.”
The film is a winning achievement, but it loses the pathos of the novel’s backward glance, especially in its moving final pages, when Mattie just misses a dying Rooster at a bathetic early 20th-century Wild West show, the commercialization and sensationalization of the “true and interesting tale” that had been her life. In the novel’s poignant penultimate sentence, she reflects, “Time just gets away from us.”