Charles Portis Biography


Charles McColl Portis was born in El Dorado, Arkansas, on December 28, 1933, the son of Samuel Palmer and Alice Waddell Portis. His father was a school superintendent, and his mother was a woman of strong literary inclinations. He grew up and went through public schools in Hamburg, Arkansas, located in the southeastern corner of the state. There the Old South plantation culture of neighboring Mississippi gradually gives way to the frontier culture which characterizes most of Arkansas. Portis graduated from high school in 1951. In 1952, he left Arkansas for the first time to join the United States Marine Corps. He served during the latter part of the Korean War and was discharged in 1955, having attained the rank of sergeant.

Portis returned to his home state and entered the University of Arkansas, where he studied journalism. He earned a B.A. in 1958. Upon graduation, he pursued a career in journalism. He had worked for the Northwest Arkansas Times and during 1958 was a reporter for the Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tennessee. The next year, he moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, as a reporter on the Arkansas Gazette. In 1960, he left Arkansas again, this time to take a reporting job with the New York Herald Tribune. He remained there until 1964, eventually becoming the newspaper’s London correspondent. In that year, he quit his job and began a career as a full-time writer. He returned to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he still resides.

Portis’s four-year sojourn at the New York Herald Tribune was very successful. He became a feature writer as well as a reporter, and his feature stories were so effective that at least one of them appeared in a college...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Without any exaggeration of his abilities, Portis can be compared to several literary masters. Like Mark Twain, he has perfected the fictional representation of the dialect of the Upper South and the Mississippi River Valley. Like Charles Dickens, he delights in the eccentric and the absurd and depicts them wonderfully well. Finally, like Geoffrey Chaucer, he portrays his fellow humans, no matter how outrageous their behavior, with sympathy and tolerance. His books are more than funny, but if they were only funny, they would still be valuable.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Charles McColl Portis is a master of the short novel and of the independent life. Indeed, it was because he asserted his independence when he abandoned a promising journalistic career to return to his home state and follow his own inclinations that he was able to turn to writing fiction. His parents were Samuel Palmer Portis, a lawyer’s son, who had moved from Alabama to become a school superintendent in Arkansas, and Alice (Waddell) Portis, an Arkansas native, the daughter of a Methodist clergyman, and a poet. Charles Portis grew up in the southern Arkansas towns of El Dorado, Mount Holly, and Hamburg. Between 1952 and 1955 he served in Korea as a rifleman and Browning automatic rifleman in the U.S. Marine Corps, finding himself on a fortified hill called Outpost Ginger when the white truce flares were fired on July 27, 1953. By the time of his discharge he had attained to the rank of sergeant. In the summer of 1955 he enrolled at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, graduating three years later as a journalism major. After working as a reporter for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis he returned to Arkansas to work for the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock. This return to his home state prefigured both his later return to Arkansas from London and the penchant of his fictional characters to return home.

In 1960 he obtained a position as general reporter for the Herald Tribune in New York, and during 1962 and 1963 he covered extensively the civil rights turmoil in Albany, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; and Jackson, Mississippi. In November, 1963, he won an assignment to London as bureau chief for the Herald Tribune. He resigned from that job after only one year, “to return home,” as he says, “on an apple-green ship called the Mauretania, and try my hand at writing fiction.”

His first attempt was Norwood, a critical and commercial success when it appeared in 1966. This novel set the pattern for three of the four novels that followed: An intelligent...

(The entire section is 832 words.)