I just finished reading the short novel, True Grit, and I think it’s most definitely an under-appreciated American classic. Yes, a classic: a novel that is both artistically compelling as well as fascinating for its exploration of post-Civil War America and the mythology of the frontier.
Many are familiar with True Grit via the films, starring John Wayne (1969) and Jeff Bridges (2010), but the novel does something that the films have not yet quite been able to capture, focused as they are on the rough-and-tumble male stars. Portis’ novel explores the life and world of Mattie, the tough, precocious young girl who is intent on avenging her father’s death — and is intent on taking charge of the task, personally, to make certain it gets done.
This is Mattie’s account of her pursuit of justice, and first and foremost, it’s Mattie’s unique voice that makes the writing sing. Portis caputres the dialect and the turns-of-phrase of the post-Civil War south, and in doing so he plunges us, whole hog, into a world that is now a century and a half gone.
Mattie’s first person account takes us to places that the films cannot quite go. The reader experiences a rich sense of the people as well as an authentic sense of place. I’m not at all suggesting that the medium of film is unable to do this, but the two Hollywood productions have (predictably) made films that are oriented around the masculine stars. The novel, by contrast, is less about the big gun fights than it is about Mattie’s grit, and by centering the narrative on Mattie, it brings to life her world, the post Civil War period, set in at the intersection of The South and the frontier.
Donna Tartt, the novelist, puts it this way:
“A great part of True Grit’s charm is in Mattie’s blasé view of frontier America. Shootings stabbings and public hanging are recounted frankly and flatly and often with rather less warmth than the political and personal opinions upon which Mattie digresses.”
True Grit acts to demythologize the frontier and the past
At various points, Mattie diverges from her story to lecture the reader on matters of morality or on various issues of church and politics that she feels strongly about. She doesn’t do it much, but it’s enough to further enhance the Mattie’s voice and to bring out the unique quirks of the period.
Mattie, “in her Old Testament morality, in her legalistic and exacting turn of mind..she is less Huck Finn’s little sister than Captain Ahab.” (Donna Tartt)
True Grit also acts to demythologize the frontier and the past. This is no sensationalized account of the frontier, of the American glorification of “cowboys and Indians,” True Grit does a service to American culture and history by exploring the mundane within the adventure narrative. On this count, it reminds me of Little Big Man (by Thomas Berger), probably one of the best examples of demythologizing the American frontier. Not that I don’t appreciate American mythology, but it’s rare to run across True Grit, written as it was in the 1960s.
I listened to the audiobook, read by Donna Tartt, yes, the Donna Tartt. She’s a novelist, friends, as well as quite a talented reader. (I listened to her reading of her first and imo best novel, The Secret History.) Tartt’s own southern accent made for an enriching reading experience. Included in the audiobook was an essay by Tartt (from which the above citations were taken.)
True Grit is an under-appreciated classic in American literature, up there with Moby Dick et al. Portis’ work has all the writing charm and distinctly American tone of Twain’s Huck Finn. So look here, pardner, if ya haven’t had the pleasure, give it a read.