In "Combinations of Jacksons" (1999), the one piece of autobiography he has published, Charles Portis describes a happy childhood roaming the rural landscape of south Arkansas, cooling watermelons in streams, devouring comic books, and listening to stories from relatives like his great Uncle Sat, "a strong and fluent talker with far-ranging opinions."
His father was a school superintendent and his mother a homemaker who was also a "good poet with a good ear," as he described her in a rare 2001 interview. After graduating from Hamburg High School in 1951, Portis enlisted in the Marine Corps and served overseas during the Korean War, as did Norwood Pratt, a character from his first novel, Norwood (1966).
The G.I. Bill allowed Portis to attend the University of Arkansas, where he majored in journalism which he chose because he "thought it would be fun and not very hard, something like barber college." After graduating, he worked for several newspapers, including the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, and the New York Herald Tribune, where he covered the civil rights movement, worked in the newsroom with Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin, and eventually became London bureau chief.
In 1964, he left that job and moved back to Arkansas to try his hand at fiction. His first novel, Norwood (1966), received glowing reviews, and his next one, True Grit (1968), became a bestseller and a star vehicle for John Wayne, whose 1969 portrayal of Rooster Cogburn earned him his only Oscar.
A private man who rarely grants interviews, Portis has since lived a quiet life in Little Rock, with occasional driving trips to Mexico and points west, while producing three more novels, The Dog of the South (1979), Masters of Atlantis (1985), and Gringos (1991). Wildly different from one another but consistently displaying deadpan comedy and empathetic satire, these novels were difficult to categorize (especially for readers who knew Portis only as working in the Western genre) and went out of print until the late 1990s, when fans like critic Ron Rosenbaum began championing them. All of Portis's novels are now available from The Overlook Press, and a collection of his journalism, short stories, travel writing, and drama, Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, was published in 2012 by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.
Portis's work has long attracted a cultish following, especially among fellow writers such as Calvin Trillin, Donna Tartt, George Pelacanos, Roy Blount Jr., and the late Nora Ephron, who recognize the mastery in making such a difficult thing as comedy appear so effortless.
In Charles Portis's third novel, The Dog of the South, narrator Ray Midge proclaims: "A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can't quite achieve escape velocity." This comment, both funny and surprisingly poignant, refers to the mysterious gravitational pull of the particular place called Arkansas. While wandering off and returning, a theme as old as the Odyssey and one of the themes of True Grit, isn't completely unique to this state, it certainly applies to Charles Portis.
When Portis has allowed an author biography on his book jackets (the first editions of The Dog of the South and Masters of Atlantis had none), they have sketched his career thusly: Born and educated in Arkansas, he served in Korea as a Marine and worked as a journalist in Memphis, Little Rock, New York City (often traveling South on the civil rights beat in 1963), and London, where he was bureau chief of the New York Herald Tribune. He moved back to Arkansas in 1964, and except for road-trip research in Mexico and elsewhere, he's remained there ever since, working as a freelance writer.
Novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe, his colleague at the Herald Tribune in the early 1960s, famously summed up Portis's return to Arkansas in the introduction to an influential collection called The New Journalism: "Portis quit cold one day…and moved into a fishing shack in Arkansas. In six months he wrote a beautiful little novel called Norwood. Then he wrote True Grit, which was a best seller. The reviews were terrific…He sold both books to the movies…He made a fortune…A fishing shack! In Arkansas!"
Despite Wolfe's astonished italics and exclamation points, Arkansas was a good place to go to work, far enough from both coasts as to be invisible to them. Without the distracting noise emanating from literary fashion in Manhattan or the movie world in Hollywood, a writer in Arkansas circa 1964 could go peacefully about the daily grind of making perfect novels. Portis produced five.
How perfect are they? As opposed to the output of a writer like Robert Penn Warren, who wrote one generally acknowledged great novel and many lesser works, Portis wrote at least one great novel, True Grit, and four maybe better ones. In an essay that appeared in the Believer magazine in 2003 (included in the recent collection Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany), novelist Ed Park sums it up this way: "He has written five remarkable, deeply entertaining novels (three of them masterpieces, though which three is up for debate)."
Curiously, Arkansas is not fundamental to the imaginative world of his novels in the way that Mississippi is for William Faulkner or Los Angeles for Raymond Chandler. Both Mattie Ross and Ray Midge, for instance, hail from Arkansas, but have their adventures far afield. If Arkansas has a claim on Portis, it is as the place where he learned to listen. His father's side of the family "were talkers rather than readers or writers. A lot of cigar smoke and laughing when my father and his brothers got together. Long anecdotes. The spoken word."
And in the one piece of direct memoir he has written so far, "Combinations of Jacksons," he describes how his great-uncle Sat discoursed at length on many topics from World War II to hunting and "may well have been the last man in America who without being facetious called food 'vittles' ('victuals,' a perfectly good word, and correctly pronounced 'vittles,' but for some reason thought to be countrified and comical)."
As far away as his imagination travels, Portis himself has stuck fast to Arkansas and writes with great affection, outside his fiction, for its people, its history, and its landscape. He can be said to share with Mattie Ross her opinion of its detractors, with its own exclamation point, "People who don't like Arkansas can go to the devil!"