Charles Portis Essay - Critical Essays


Portis is a regional writer whose works occupy an honored place in the line of descent from the “Old Southwestern” humorists of the 1840’s and 1850’s. He has been compared to Mark Twain and, even though any humorist emerging from the South or West is likely to be compared to Twain, in Portis’s case the comparison is appropriate. Like the best of the regional writers (Twain, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Larry McMurtry, for example), his work has a much broader than regional appeal, as the commercial success of his first two novels attests. Still, his home state of Arkansas is always his center of consciousness.

Portis takes the cliché of the Arkansas Traveler and stands it on its head. In the old folktale/song, the Traveler is an outsider, and the lazy Arkansawyer is content to sit and fiddle at his cabin door. Portis takes his Arkansas protagonists and sets them on the move, launching them into a bewildering, and sometimes dangerous, world. Norwood Pratt (technically a Texan but living only a few miles beyond the border city of Texarkana) sets off to collect a debt owed him. Ray Midge of Little Rock, Arkansas, is trailing his runaway wife and his stolen car. Mattie Ross, the most determined traveler of them all, is pursuing her father’s killer. Jimmy Burns, of Shreveport, Louisiana—a city quite near the Arkansas state line—is searching for two missing persons in the Mexican jungle.

Portis’s motif of the odyssey is well grounded in his home state’s past. In the Dust Bowl days of the 1930’s, many of the so-called Arkies went west, especially to California, seeking better economic opportunities. Many returned to Arkansas after having accumulated a little capital. Many others continued to regard their emigration, even after it had stretched into a period of many years, as temporary. Among Arkansas natives, it became proverbial that the wandering Arky would eventually return. Portis, who gave up an excellent job in eastern journalism to come home and write, always brings his peripatetic protagonists full circle, back to Arkansas. Rooster Cogburn, a central character in True Grit, roams for the last twenty years of his life, but he returns to die and be buried in Arkansas.

Arkansas, along with Texas and Louisiana, is westernmost among the states of the Old Confederacy. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the western border of Arkansas was the frontier where the West began. The frontier quality of Arkansas is treated explicitly in Portis’s “Western,” True Grit, but it is also treated implicitly elsewhere. Norwood Pratt and Ray Midge might seem unlikely frontiersmen at first glance, but they share several of the frontiersman’s traits. They are disposed to leave a settled life and see where the road will lead them. Neither is much attached to material possessions. Norwood is supposedly seeking repayment of a debt, but as soon as he gets his money he lends it right out again. Midge trails his stolen car through several countries, but when he finds that it has been destroyed he shrugs off the loss. The objects of these searches were merely calls to exploration and adventure. Both Norwood and Midge are uncomplicated and inner-directed. Both hold to a simple moral code that grows out of life experiences rather than religious or philosophical theory.

There is a kindliness and an affirmative quality in Portis’s novels that sets them apart from most comic fiction of the period. Norwood takes a pregnant woman, abandoned by another man, as his wife. Midge takes his errant wife back, only to have her desert him yet again. The first impulse of Norwood and Midge is to care for anyone who needs caring for. The fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross and the grizzled bounty hunter Cogburn develop a chaste love that is totally convincing, never cloying or contrived. The eccentrics who abound in Portis’s novels are not the southern gothic horrors encountered elsewhere; they are objects of gentle mockery. Although True Grit is a novel containing fine scenes of comedy and action, it is essentially a story of courage, honor, and fidelity.

Portis is not an experimenter in fiction. His narratives, though often loose, are constructed along traditional lines. He writes with precision and economy. His pacing is effective, even when his plots turn episodic and erratic. His finest achievement is his dialogue and his flawless representation of idiomatic language. He is a master of the dialects of Arkansas, Texas, and the Southwest. In fact, his dialogue rings so true when read aloud that huge chunks of it were used verbatim in the film version of True Grit.

Although he has so far elicited little interest from the scholarly community, Portis is a major comic writer. Indeed, the chief complaint that critics have made about his work is that he has chosen to publish so little of it over the years.


First published: 1966

Type of work: Novel

The title character undertakes a comic quest, encountering eccentrics and zany situations every step of the way.

Norwood contains the autobiographical elements so often found in a first novel. Norwood Pratt served in the Marine Corps, as did his creator. Norwood lives in Ralph, a little town in the northeastern corner of Texas, only a few miles from the Arkansas line. The protagonist travels to New York City, then returns home, completely unaltered by the many adventures he has had during his odyssey. The novel is set in the late 1950’s.

There are many suggestions of Voltaire’s Candide (1759) in the story line. Norwood is a lovable, optimistic innocent. He works at a gas station for which unpretentious would be the most charitable characterization. Like Candide with his Pangloss, Norwood lives in the same house as his mentor. His brother-in-law lives on disability checks from the Veterans Administration and spends his many hours of leisure spouting crack-brained philosophy. Norwood is a simple young man, both intellectually and in the sense that he is unaffected in the extreme. His ambitions are modest. He loves country music, and his life’s dream is to sing on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport—he does not even aspire to the Grand Ole Opry.

Norwood’s motivation for leaving Ralph is modest as well. A buddy from Marine Corps days owes him seventy dollars. He believes his friend to be living in New York City, and he heads east to collect his money. At this point, the novel becomes picaresque. As he meanders around the country on a Trailways bus, he has a series of encounters with grotesque characters. Foremost among them are Edmund B. Ratner, a “wonder hen,” and Rita Lee. Edmund B. Ratner is a midget with a philosophical turn of mind. When Norwood finally gets his money, he immediately lends it to the midget. The wonder hen is a version of the performing animal with amazing powers familiar from so many off-color jokes. Rita Lee is a hapless, jilted, and pregnant young woman, who will eventually become Norwood’s bride.

The part of the novel that Portis fleshes out the least is the New York segment. His former colleagues on the New York Herald Tribune recall that throughout his tenure there he remained the droll southerner, unchanged by the New York environment. Norwood is similarly unscathed by his big-city adventures. Ironically, the trail of the elusive seventy dollars leads finally to Old Carthage in southwestern Arkansas, only a few miles up the highway from Norwood’s hometown. There both Norwood and his creator seem most comfortable.

It is the tone of the novel which causes the analogy with Candide to break down. Whereas Voltaire’s satire is sharp and often bitter, Portis makes good-natured fun of virtually everyone and everything in the novel. The mood is genial. Portis seems to have no particular satirical target. Everyone’s character traits verge upon the ridiculous, he suggests—they are merely more pronounced and exaggerated in the novel’s eccentrics. This lack of focus has been criticized, but it does give the novel that buoyant comic tone which lifts it lightly over the rough spots in the episodic plot.

The author’s journalistic background can be seen in the crisp, straightforward prose and the sharply delineated characters and scenes. The real strength of Norwood, however, lies in its dialogue, in the authenticity of the characters’ vernacular speech, and—especially—in the portrayal of southern dialect.

True Grit

First published: 1968

Type of work: Novel

Two characters who appear to be opposites but are really kindred spirits undertake an exciting and hazardous mission.

True Grit is a first-person narrative that exploits the tradition of the “innocent eye”—a story seen through the eyes of an unsophisticated adolescent—a tradition going back at least to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The narrator-protagonist, Mattie Ross, is fourteen, the same age Huck was when he experienced his adventures on the mighty Mississippi. Mattie’s narration, however, strikes a very different tone from Huck’s for two reasons. First, Mattie is looking back over a period of fifty years on the events she recounts. Second, Mattie was much the same at fourteen as she is in her sixties—the kind of girl who is an adult from birth.

The setting is Arkansas and the Indian Territory in the late 1870’s. Mattie lives on a farm in Yell County, Arkansas, located near Dardanelle, an Old South settlement on the banks of the Arkansas River. Mattie’s father, Frank Ross, travels on business to Fort Smith—where the West begins—and there he is shot down and robbed by Tom Chaney, one of his farmhands. Chaney flees into the Indian Territory and joins a band of outlaws led by Lucky Ned Pepper. Mattie leaves her mother, sister, and brother at home and travels to Fort Smith, ostensibly to claim her father’s effects but in reality to bring Tom Chaney to justice.

Portis utilizes his Presbyterian background and the cultural geography of his home state to their fullest effect. Mattie is a girl of the Old South. She is self-confident and self-righteous in her flinty Protestantism, prim, proper, absolutely single-minded, and totally lacking in patience for the follies of others. She is also cool-headed, dogged, and courageous. She habitually speaks in the elevated prose of genteel Victorian literature. To her, Dardanelle and Yell County represent civilization, and she repeatedly threatens the frontier barbarians of Fort Smith with her family lawyer, J. Noble Daggett. These are the...

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