National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
True Grit

True Grit

by Charles Portis

I have never been one to flinch or crawfish when faced with an unpleasant task.


Charles Portis. Image courtesy of Jonathan Portis.

Donna Tartt reads from True Grit

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 not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.
Here is what happened.

Reed: That’s author Donna Tartt reading True Grit by Charles Portis. Welcome to The Big Read, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts designed to unite communities through literature. I’m your host, Josephine Reed.

James Lee Burke: The author has pulled off what, to me, has always been one of the most difficult challenges for a male writer, which is to speak from a woman’s point of view.

Carter Burwell: Well, True Grit is written from the point of view of a woman, an older woman, who is looking back on experiences that happened to her when she was fourteen-years-old.

Jay Jennings: The girl is Mattie Ross. Her father has been shot by a hired man named Tom Chaney.

Katherine Powers: A man who had been working for her father, and the two had gone off to collect some ponies that her father had bought in Fort Smith. She goes with the farmhand to pick up the body.

Jennings: So she hires a down-at-heels federal Marshal named Rooster Cogburn…

Powers: An old one-eyed jasper, I believe she calls him.

Jennings: …to find her father’s killer, who’s escaped to the territory of Oklahoma.

Roy Blount, Jr.: She is determined to get justice for her father, and not any sort of abstract justice either. And she will have it so.

Tope Folarin: This novel in some ways reads like an Old Testament account of somebody who’s avenging someone else for something that’s happened to them. She’s the embodiment of eye for an eye, and that’s an Old Testament conceit, and she adheres to that quite strictly.

Reed: Like much of Charles Portis’ work, True Grit is difficult to characterize. On the face of it, the story has all the trappings of a Western; it has Marshals, outlaws, guns, horses, Indian territory, but as much as Portis seemingly embraces the genre, he also subtly subverts it – largely by putting 14-year-old Mattie Ross at the story’s center. Writer, Katherine A. Powers.

Powers: You can’t say that True Grit is really a parody of a Western. That’s too exaggerated. It has a strange, twisting torque that has put it somewhat off-kilter in a way that is a source of ineffable enjoyment to the reader.

Reed: Humorist, Roy Blount, Jr.

Blount: Charles Portis is the funniest writer I know. In his case, it has a lot to do with how straight a face he has, his narrators have, and he, standing behind the narrators, has.

Reed: Born in 1933 in El Dorado, Arkansas, Charles Portis grew up in a family of storytellers. That’s where he developed the sharp ear for dialogue and wry sense of humor that would become his signature. He began his writing career as a newspaperman – and there, added a keen sense of observation to his literary arsenal. Writer Jay Jennings edited the 2012 collection of Portis’ work called Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany.

Jennings: His career started as a journalist, and this was after he had served a stint in the Marines and served in Korea. He returned to Arkansas and entered the University of Arkansas, because he thought it might not be too hard, and compared it to barber college, although he did say that barbers probably perform a more useful service than journalists. After he got out of journalism school he got a job at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis as a general assignment reporter.

Reed: In time, Portis wound up at the legendary New York Herald-Tribune, a newspaper renowned for its excellent writing. Portis eventually found himself with Karl Marx’s old job in the paper’s London Office. Jay Jennings.

Jennings: He did about a year as the London bureau chief for the newspaper, and then one day just decided that—he decided to pack up his things, move back to Arkansas, and write novels. His first book was sort of whimsical, picaresque, and very brief novel called Norwood, and shortly after that, the Saturday Evening Post published, in two installments, what eventually became True Grit.

Reed: In 1968 True Grit was published to rave reviews, and eventually made into two hit movies. Not only were critics and readers captivated by Mattie and Rooster, they were also bowled over by Portis’ mastery of language and voice. Katherine Powers.

Powers: It’s not laugh-out-loud; it’s just a constant, undercurrent rivulet of joy that goes through me when I read his prose.

Blount: The language in True Grit is informed by the sorts of things that people read in that time…

Reed: Roy Blount, Jr.

Blount: …the Bible, and stilted newspaper language, and formal oratorical English.

Reed: A young Mattie Ross sets the action of the novel in motion, but she recounts this tale as an older woman with a distinctive voice: determined, assured, and without a trace of sentimentality. Editor and writer, Jay Jennings.

Jennings: Portis’s great accomplishment is in creating a voice for Mattie that seems utterly believable and yet is so complex. She’s somebody we can identify with, and yet she’s her own person.

Reed: Writer Tope Folarin.

Folarin: She has a matter-of-fact tone, and I think it’s the dissonance between her matter-of-fact tone that provides a lot of the humor in the novel.

Donna Tartt reads from True Grit

I have known some horses and a good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts. I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well that is superstitious “clap-trap.” My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.

Reed: Tope Folarin.

Folarin: Mattie is somebody who refuses to listen to her elders. She’s somebody who refuses to kind of adhere to convention. She’s somebody who does what she wants to do, and does whatever she needs to do in pursuit of her final goal.

Reed: Katherine Powers.

Powers: She’s beyond honest. Honest is not the right word for her. She’s just; and she’s punctilious; and she’s scrupulous; and she wants things right.

Reed: Roy Blount, Jr.

Blount: Calling Mattie spunky is like calling a bulldog spunky.

Reed: Composer, Carter Burwell.

Burwell: She’s precocious in many ways. Mattie did all the bookkeeping for her parents on the farm. She takes money very seriously, and she finds shortcoming with almost every grown-up she encounters.

Reed: Writer, James Lee Burke.

Burke: Mattie’s fourteen-years-old, and she obviously has a gift for both the law, dealing with finance, dealing with troublesome, problematic people.

Reed: Katherine Powers.

Powers: Justice and truth are the same pretty much to her, and revenge is a form of accounting for her. She’s setting the book straight–the big ledger book.

Reed: Writer, Amanda Coplin.

Amanda Coplin: She is an extremely capable young person. You know, she has a really sharp tongue; she likes to negotiate with adults.

Reed: We see Mattie’s capability at work when she decides she has no need for the ponies her father had bought right before his death.

Donna Tartt reads from True Grit

I said, "I would like to sell those ponies back to you that my father bought. We don’t want the ponies. We don’t need them."
"That hardly concerns me," he said. "Your father bought these ponies and paid for them and there is an end of it. I have the bill of sale."
I said, "I want three hundred dollars for Papa’s saddle horse that was stolen."
He said, "You will have to take that up with the man who has the horse."
"Tom Chaney stole it while it was in your care," said I. "You are responsible."
Stonehill laughed at that. He said, "I admire your sand, but I believe you will find I am not liable for such claims. Let me say too that your valuation of the horse is high by about two hundred dollars."
"I will take it to law," said I. "We will see if a widow and her three small children can get fair treatment in the courts of this city."
"You have no case."
"Lawyer J. Noble Daggett of Dardanelle, Arkansas, may think otherwise. Also a jury."…
"You are impudent."
"I do not wish to be, sir, but I will not be pushed about when I am in the right."

Reed: Roy Blount, Jr.

Blount: She is trading hard in a way that real people, no doubt, traded hard. She’s using every advantage she has, including playing the widow and orphan card. I mean, she’ll use what she has to. She would never cry; you would never see her resort to tears. But she will pull out every card she needs to play other than that.

Reed: Tope Folarin.

Folarin: She kind of bullies him into that position, and eventually he acquiesces and does what she wants him to do. And so for me it’s a pivotal scene in the book, because here is where we really get a full sense of Mattie’s persona, her character, the force of her will."

Reed: Carter Burwell wrote the music for the 2010 adaptation of True Grit, which was directed by the Coen brothers.

Burwell: Mattie’s in Fort Smith, Arkansas, which is where her father was killed, and she’s collecting information on the killer, and hoping to find that the law is doing something about it, but they are not. The law in Fort Smith—I suppose the sheriff—gives her a list of options in terms of who might be willing to go out into the Indian territory and find the murderer.

Reed: Katherine Powers.

Powers: She wants a Marshal, because only a Marshal can go into Indian territory, where Tom Chaney has apparently escaped, and a marshal who’s really going to get the work done.

Donna Tartt reads from True Grit

"Who is the best marshal they have?"
The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, "I would have to weigh that proposition. There’s near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He’s a half-breed Comanche and it’s something to see, watching him cut for sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now, L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes that even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He won’t plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is as straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have."
I said, "Where can I find this Rooster?"

Reed: Welcome back to The Big Read. Today, we’re talking about True Grit by Charles Portis. Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old determined to avenge her father’s death, has decided that Marshal Rooster Cogburn has the grit to do the job. Roy Blount, Jr.

Blount: Rooster Cogburn is a one-eyed fat man who drinks too much and tends to shoot too many of the people that he goes out to capture.

Reed: Tope Folarin.

Folarin: He’s a really kind of irascible, grumpy, domineering, and somewhat arrogant person, but I can see why somebody would place their trust in him, because he’s somebody who has a lot of confidence that he can do what he says he’s going to do.

Reed: Jay Jennings.

Jennings: Mattie chooses Cogburn over the recommendation of some other potential Marshals, or trackers, because the man that she consults about this tells her that Rooster is pitiless. She seems to know that once Rooster gets Tom Chaney cornered that he will show no mercy. It’s a bit strange coming from someone as proper as Mattie, but she has a strong moral code and wants someone to do the job that she wants done.

Reed: Writer, James Lee Burke.

James Lee Burke: I think she senses early on that Rooster is the real thing. And the only skill he really has is with his firearms and his ability to survive in the wilderness. And when it comes to dealing with bad guys, he’s completely amoral. He has one charge and one charge only: He goes out and brings these guys face-down over a saddle, and he doesn’t care how he gets them on the saddle. They’re going to be dead when Rooster’s on the case, and she knows this is the guy for her.

Reed: Carter Burwell.

Burwell: Well, it turns out that there is another lawman who’s already after Tom Chaney. His name is LaBoeuf, and he’s a Texas Ranger.

Reed: Tope Folarin.

Folarin: Because it turns out that Tom Chaney has been up to no good in Texas as well. He’s killed a senator. There’s a bounty on his head, and LaBoeuf has been chasing him for a very long time.

Reed: Carter Burwell.

Burwell: And again, there will be money to be made in terms of a reward if he can bring him back to Texas.

Reed: Roy Blount, Jr.

Blount: The two lawmen are into this chase for the money, and they don’t care what Tom Chaney gets arrested for; they just want to bring him and get the reward. But Mattie is determined that Tom Chaney be tried for the death of her father. There are lots of little triangular tensions among the three characters who are on the right side.

Reed: Carter Burwell.

Burwell: LaBoeuf and Rooster Cogburn have met without her knowledge and have agreed that they should join forces, and that makes perfect sense to anyone except Mattie.

Reed: Jay Jennings.

Jennings: They ride off and leave her behind.

Reed: But Mattie sets off after rooster and Leboeuf on her new pony, Little Blackie. She catches up with them at the river as they’re crossing by ferry to the Choctaw Nation.

Coplin: LaBoeuf tells the ferry operator, you know, "This kid is a runaway. There’s a reward for her. You should take her back to town."

Reed: Amanda Coplin.

Coplin: When the ferry operator and Mattie are going up the hill, she gets his attention, and when he leans towards her, she sort of beats him around the face with her hat, which is enough to distract him to let go of Little Blackie, and they take off tearing down the hill.

Donna Tartt reads from True Grit

About fifty yards below the ferry slip the river narrowed and I aimed for the place, going like blazes across a sandbar. I popped Blackie all the way with my hat as I was afraid he might shy at the water and I did not want to give him a chance to think about it. We hit the river running and Blackie snorted and arched his back against the icy water, but once he was in he swam as though he was raised to it. I drew up my legs behind me and held to the saddle horn and gave Blackie his head with loose reins. When we were up and free I reined in and Little Blackie gave himself a good shaking. Rooster and LaBoeuf and the ferryman were looking at us from the boat. We had beaten them across.

Reed: Jay Jennings.

Jennings: At that point Rooster has become convinced that Mattie has the grit to accompany them on this pursuit of Tom Chaney.

Reed: Katherine Powers.

Powers: She manages to tag along, and then becomes an essential part of their party, and along the way several misfortunes occur.

Reed: Because state law has no jurisdiction in the Choctaw Nation, and tribal law has no jurisdiction over white men, Indian territory is an obvious destination for outlaws. Once they cross the river only U.S. Marshals can apprehend these bandits. Carter Burwell.

Burwell: Cogburn, because he operates in the Choctaw Nation all the time, he’s pretty familiar with all the outlaws that are based there. Turns out there’s a rumor that Tom Chaney has taken up with the gang of Lucky Ned Pepper. That’s how they hope to find Chaney, is to try to find Lucky Ned Pepper, because as an established working outlaw, he’s going to be pulling jobs here and there, and so there will be some, hopefully some trail to follow.

Reed: Jay Jennings.

Jennings: At one point during their quest, Mattie is sent out to fetch water from a nearby river. When she comes to the river, she looks up to see Tom Chaney watering his horses in the river.

Donna Tartt reads from True Grit

You may readily imagine that I registered shock at the sight of that squat assassin…
He said, "Well, now, I know you. Your name is Mattie. You are little Mattie the bookkeeper. Isn’t this something."…
I said, "Yes, and I know you, Tom Chaney."…
I reached into the bucket and brought out my dragoon revolver. I dropped the bucket and held the revolver in both hands. I said, "I am here to take you back to Fort Smith."
Chaney laughed and said, "Well, I will not go. How do you like that?"…
I said, "If you refuse to go, I will have to shoot you."
He went on with his work and said, "Oh? Then you had better cock your piece."
I had forgotten about that. I pulled the hammer back with both thumbs.
"All the way back till it locks," said Chaney.
"I know how to do it," said I.…
I pointed the revolved at his belly and shot him down. The explosion kicked me backwards and caused me to lose my footing, and the pistol jumped from my hand. I lost no time in recovering it and getting to my feet. The ball had struck Chaney’s side and knocked him into a sitting position against a tree.…He was holding both hands down on his side. He said, "I did not think you would do it."
I said, "What do you think now?"

Reed: James Lee Burke.

Burke: And here’s this 14-year-old holding this hog-leg revolver, and he’s mocking her. And then before he knows it, he’s eating a chunk of lead as big as his thumb (laughter).

Reed: Although injured, Chaney still has the strength to grab Mattie and take her to Lucky Ned Pepper and his gang. Carter Burwell.

Burwell: Ned Pepper has his own business to attend to, so he leaves Mattie and Chaney alone together. Pepper tells Chaney not to harm her, but as soon as he’s gone, Chaney wants to get rid of her, and he’s about to slit her throat when he is conked on the head by LaBoeuf, who comes out of nowhere. Of course we know that he’s been tracking Chaney, but we didn’t know that he had been following this action. The next scene is one in which Ned Pepper’s gang, the remainder of Ned Pepper’s gang, is facing Rooster Cogburn.

Folarin: There’s four people on one side of the valley, and there’s Rooster on the other side.

Reed: Tope Folarin.

Folarin: And he comes charging with his horse, it seems impossible. And it’s one of these great visual sequences where you can see in your head as he’s approaching, and the folks that he’s facing are incredulous, like, "Is he actually going to do this?"

Reed: Carter Burwell.

Burwell: As absurd as it is for him to be facing off against four, this is actually what Rooster Cogburn lives for.

Donna Tartt reads from True Grit

The bandits checked up and faced him from some seventy or eighty yards’ distance…
Lucky Ned Pepper said, "Well, Rooster, will you give us the road? We have business elsewhere!"…
Rooster said, "I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience! Which will you have?"
Lucky Ned Pepper laughed. He said, "I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!"
Rooster said, "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" and he took the reins in his teeth and pulled the other saddle revolver, and drove his spurs into the flanks of his strong horse Bo and charged directly at the bandits.

Burwell: The scene stabilizes in a situation where Rooster is trapped under his horse…

Reed: Again, Carter Burwell

Burwell: …and Lucky Ned Pepper rides over to take Rooster Cogburn with him into the next world. And again we see all of this from the point of view of Mattie and La Boeuf who are up on this high point.

Reed: Ned Pepper’s luck finally runs out as Laboeuf—from his hilltop perch—shoots him dead in his saddle. But fortunes change almost immediately when a bleeding Tom Chaney blindsides Laboeuf with a rock and lunges for Mattie. But she’s got her father’s revolver at the ready.

Folarin: She shoots Tom Chaney, and the recoil on the gun is so powerful that she falls into a kind of crevice.

Reed: Tope Folarin.

Folarin: She turns around, she sees a skeleton, and it turns out that there’s a ball of snakes that are living inside the abdomen, inside the skeleton. And we see the snakes begin to approach her. At this point your heart’s racing and one snake bites her on the hand.

Reed: Carter Burwell.

Burwell: Mattie would seem to be completely alone. We don’t know what happened to LaBoeuf, how badly hurt he was. Last time we saw Rooster Cogburn he was caught under a dead horse.

Reed: Trapped in a pit with snakes writhing around her, Mattie is close to despair when she’s discovered by Rooster Cogburn. He lowers himself into the pit and, with the aid of a somewhat recovered Laboeuf, brings Mattie up by a rope fastened around Little Blackie. Tope Folarin.

Folarin: Rooster, who is now in full-on protect Mattie mode, gets on Little Blackie with Mattie and he rides Little Blackie, basically, to death trying to get medical care for Mattie.

Donna Tartt reads from True Grit

We galloped across the meadow where the smoky duel had lately occurred. My eyes were congested from nausea and through a tearful haze I saw the dead horses and the bodies of the bandits. The pain in my arm became intense and I commenced to cry and the tears were blown back in streams around my cheeks. Despite the load, Blackie held his head high and ran like the wind, perhaps sensing the urgency of the mission. Rooster spurred and whipped him without let. I soon passed away in a faint.

Coplin: Little Blackie saves her life…

Reed: Amanda Coplin.

Coplin: …and at the end when he’s, sort of, run into the ground, Mattie says “His heart burst and mine was broken.” You know, there’s that line, and I feel like the horse is so closely tied to her father, on a thematic level it just ties everything together. It’s not obvious but you feel it when you’re reading it which is so great.

Reed: Jay Jennings.

Jennings: There’s a bit of melancholy about the whole enterprise, and even though Mattie’s quest ended up as she wanted, there was a pretty severe price to pay for her, for Rooster, for LaBoeuf, and certainly for Little Blackie, her pony. It does create this sense of the consequences of our quests, even as noble as they may be.

Powers: I think there is a cost to making the ledger book straight.

Reed: Katherine Powers.

Powers: But that’s what she had to pay for having gone into Indian Territory, for having taken this on personally.

Reed: James Lee Burke.

Burke: But she would do it all over again. The price she paid was not for shooting Tom Chaney, or ensuring that eventually he was trapped by these circumstances that caused his death. She paid the price for her principles.

Reed: Some 25 Years Pass. Carter Burwell.

Burwell: Mattie goes to, as an adult, to find Rooster Cogburn because he’s participating in a wild west show. And she has gone to see him and had not seen him since that time when he carried her back from having been bitten by a snake.

Reed: Roy Blount Jr.

Blount: By the time Mattie is telling the story the Wild West is over, it’s become a wild west show.

Reed: Katherine Powers.

Powers: The Wild West Show shows how these great heroes of the west have come down, she says that herself. There’s one of the James brothers, one of the Younger brothers who had been famously involved with the Northfield, Minnesota bank robbery.

Reed: Carter Burwell.

Burwell: It is a commentary, I think, on the fact that there isn’t any wild west left. But that she and Rooster did share the real west. She’s the least sentimental person in the world, but we imagine that she feels a connection to Rooster that maybe she has never had to anyone else.

Reed: James Lee Burke.

Burke: Mattie realizes she saw the end of a very important historical era and one that would not come aborning again and she wanted to write it down.

Donna Tartt reads from True Grit

Time just gets away from us. This ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground.

Reed: Thanks for joining The Big Read. Today’s program was written and produced by Adam Kampe. Readings from True Grit were by Donna Tartt and used courtesy of Recorded Books. Excerpts of the following music used courtesy of Nonesuch Records: “The Wicked Flee,” “Your Headstrong Ways,” “The Hanging Man,” and “Ride to Death” composed and conducted by Carter Burwell, orchestrated by Carter Burwell with Sonny Kompanek. The hymn, “Leaning on the [Everlasting] Arms” performed by Iris Dement, all from the True Grit soundtrack. Excerpts of “Little Girl,” “Arkansas Part 2,” “Think,” “Natural Light,” “Lost, Night,” and “Pete Miller’s Discovery,” from the album Disfarmer, composed and performed by Bill Frisell.

Special thanks to our contributors: Roy Blount Jr., James Lee Burke, Amanda Coplin, Tope Folarin, Jay Jennings, Katherine A. Powers, and of course, Charles Portis.

To find out more about The Big Read, go to NEABigRead.org, that’s NEABigRead.org. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m your host and executive producer, Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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