“I am not paying for talk”: Charles Portis, True Grit


I said, “I have left off crying, and giggling as well. Now make up your mind. I don’t care anything for all this talk. You told me what your price for the job was and I have come up with it. Here is the money. I aim to get Tom Chaney and if you are not game I will find somebody who is game. All I have heard out of you so far is talk. I know you can drink whiskey and I have seen you kill a gray rat. All the rest has been talk. They told me you had grit and that is why I came to you. I am not paying for talk. I can get all the talk I need and more at the Monarch boarding house.”

When I tell you that the closest thing to a Western I’d read before True Grit was No Country for Old Men, you’ll understand how unprepared I was for Portis’s strange, surprising, action-packed yet character-driven novel. I don’t know the tropes it relies on, or revises; I don’t know the history it incorporates, or appropriates; I don’t know the landscape its story moves across; I don’t know what other literary characters, if any, keep company with Mattie Ross or Rooster Cogburn or Lucky Ned Pepper. I have thought a little about Westerns in the context of American crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction, which is often linked to a “frontier mentality” and the appeal of vigilante justice, and which is often written in a terse, demotic style appropriate for tough guys and cowboys with no words to waste. But True Grit is the first novel I’ve read that definitely qualifies as a classic of the genre.

I was interested in reading True Grit because I’m thinking about what to assign for Pulp Fiction next year. The calendar description for this course says that it “provides an entry point to the discussion of literature through ‘pulp’ genres such as romance, mystery/crime, the Western, sci-fi/fantasy, horror, sports literature, and comic books.” I can’t remember when we approved this description, but it strikes me now as an odd and somewhat elitist conflation of “pulp fiction” with genre fiction. While they certainly overlap, they aren’t necessarily the same, are they? Dictionary.com defines “pulp fiction” as “fiction dealing with lurid or sensational subjects, often printed on rough, low-quality paper manufactured from wood pulp,” which I think better reflects the connotations of the term, along with its historical origins. (Louis Menand’s New Yorker article on “The Birth of Pulp Fiction” gives a nice overview of that history in the context of reviewing Paula Rabinowitz’s American Pulp, which I’ve just taken out from the library.)

rabinowitzDefining my terms, which in turn will define my boundaries, is clearly one of the first thing I have to do. It’s inevitably going to be a somewhat arbitrary exercise, and the stakes aren’t that high given that the course is one of our first-year writing requirement classes and, as the calendar description implies, its main purpose is just to begin students’ training in literary studies. It doesn’t have to be an in-depth, theoretically complex, or even particularly thorough exploration of pulp fiction, whatever that is. It differs from the first-year class I usually teach (Introduction to Prose and Fiction) only in having what we hope is a sexier hook — it promises readings that at least sound more fun than what you might get in a standard literature class. Students in recent incarnations of the course, then, might have been surprised to find themselves reading Pride & PrejudiceJane Eyre, or Much Ado About Nothing, all of which I have seen in recent Pulp Fiction syllabi!

These versions of the course seem to have emphasized things like the way our current classics were the popular entertainment of their day, or differences and continuities between “high” and “low” forms of genre fiction. These are smart things to do, and they allow for a really broad historical range in the readings, but I’m leaning more towards a course that embraces the “lurid or sensational,” or that focuses on unapologetic examples of the different genres rather than on their most deliberately literary (or “literary”) versions. This is more or less the approach I’ve taken to the Mystery & Detective Fiction class: though I’ve occasionally included something like Paul Auster’s City of Glass, I have mostly tried to avoid the kind of crime fiction that overtly aims to “transcend the genre.” (How Ian Rankin hates that phrase! Cue up to 7:20 to get to that particular point.) So, no Austen in my Pulp Fiction class, and no Cormac McCarthy either!

I have plenty of ideas about romance and mystery novels that might work well for this course, but the other genres on the list in the official description are not at all my bailiwick. Luckily I don’t have to cover them all, and in a one-term writing requirement course I can only assign a few full-length novels anyway (three, maybe four, depending on their length) along with some short stories, so the question is: what else? And that brings me back (at last – sorry!) to True Grit. I put out a Twitter call for suggestions about classic Westerns to sample, and the ones that came up the most often were Elmore Leonard’s Valdez is Coming (and his story “3:10 to Yuma”), Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, Louis L’Amour’s Hondo, and True Grit. A helpful colleague dropped True Grit off at my office shortly after — and after puttering along with Emma for a while first, I burned through it in just a couple of hours last night.

True_Grit_(Charles_Portis_novel)-first-editionI’m not actually 100% sure True Grit is “pulpy”: does it transcend its genre? I think maybe it is to the general run of Westerns what Hammett or Chandler might be to crime fiction: still definitely of its kind, but the best, or most intense, version of it. Its story is simple and its pacing is relentless, but it’s the narrator that makes it particularly interesting. Mattie bristles with paradoxical qualities: she’s prim, abstemious, and insistently righteous, even as she’s razor-sharp and ruthless. She won’t touch a drop of whisky (“I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains”) but she doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger when she finally comes face to face with her father’s killer (“I pointed the revolver at his belly and shot him down”). She doesn’t much like the sight of hangings, but when she has to, she pulls the arm off a corpse and uses the long bone to save herself from falling into a pit of rattlesnakes (“I was grateful to the poor man for being tall”). Is she hilarious or heroic? Both and more, I think, and it’s her combination of naiveté and grit that wins over her jaded allies, who don’t want her along but then won’t leave her to die. And we hear all about it in the voice of aged Mattie, who still has no patience for people who waste time on pointless talk:

I never had the time to get married but it is nobody’s business if I am married or not married. I care nothing for what they say. I would marry an ugly baboon if I wanted to and make him cashier. I never had the time to fool with it. A woman with brains and a frank tongue and one sleeve pinned up and an invalid mother to care for is at some disadvantage, although I will say I could have had two or three old untidy men around here who had their eyes fastened on my bank. No, thank you!

True Grit recounts Mattie’s quest for justice, but she seeks it in a world where right and wrong overlap, where justice and the law often don’t coincide, and where, as Mattie often remarks, if you want a thing done, you’d best do it yourself, no matter the cost.

I liked True Grit a lot, especially but not just Mattie. I’d have a lot to learn before I could teach it, but I think I’d enjoy the process. Where my relationship with Westerns is concerned, this is significant — not to mention rapid — progress. It took me much longer to get the hang of reading romance novels! I think I’m going to hunt down Valdez is Coming next. It certainly sounds lurid and sensational: “They were still laughing when Valdez came back. And then they began to die.”

9 thoughts on ““I am not paying for talk”: Charles Portis, True Grit

  1. Bill from PA January 21, 2016 / 10:10 pm

    I tend to think of True Grit along with Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man as revisionist Westerns of the 1960s, where the author is self-consciously stretching or subverting the genre’s conventions to bring a new perspective to what had become hackneyed material. Being Canadian and of a younger generation, I don’t know if you’re aware how thoroughly the Western had saturated US popular culture by the early 60s; it was dominant on television and widely represented in movies, paperbacks, and comic books.


    • Rohan Maitzen January 22, 2016 / 10:51 am

      I like the idea of belonging to a “younger generation”! 🙂

      You’re right that I have only a dim sense of the place of the Western as a phenomenon, though that may be as much because we didn’t have a TV when I was growing up as because I’m Canadian. I remember watching Bonanza sometimes when we visited my grandmother, but though my parents were (and are) avid readers, their genre fiction was always crime fiction. I read all of the “Little House on the Prairie” books, of course — but I’m pretty sure they don’t count as Westerns.


  2. Zach January 22, 2016 / 3:56 am

    True Grit is certainly a revisionist Western, albeit a relatively subtle one. The key distinction is the ironic distance between the narrator and the reader: we, as readers, know that Mattie Ross, though extremely likable, is also faintly ridiculous. Her world view is that of a morally upright, uncompromising, hard-nosed Presbyterian, and so her reportage of events (not to mention her hilariously staccato reported dialogue) needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

    But Mattie herself has *no idea* that anything is the least bit absurd in her story. In other words, she’s a “traditional” Western dime-novel hero, but she’s telling her story to a cynical, post-dime-novel world.

    I think you’ll find that Valdez is Coming, despite being considerably darker and more violent, is actually a much more traditional sort of Western: the morality is clear as day, and the book is entirely free of meta-narrative hijinx. But I think you’ll love it anyway!


    • Rohan Maitzen January 22, 2016 / 10:54 am

      That’s a very helpful comment, especially about the distance between Mattie’s deadpan self-presentation and our own more skeptical (but appreciative) reception. I think the book’s being “revisionist” doesn’t rule it out for my class – I wouldn’t rule out The Big Sleep either, even though it is much more self-conscious than others I might choose. Sometimes, in fact, that knowingness is what makes a book really teachable, and I don’t think either one is trying not to be “genre fiction.”


      • Zach January 22, 2016 / 1:20 pm

        Oh, I completely agree. And I actually suspect that a layer of cynical irony makes a book more, rather than less, relatable to a room full of college students. Something as po-faced earnest as, say, “Riders of the Purple Sage” comes off as accidental comedy more than anything else.

        And “True Grit” certainly isn’t trying to undermine its genre just because it’s poking a little fun at it. On the contrary, the book is positively reveling in the wild plot twists and over-the-top dangers of Western adventures. The fact that it does so with a smirk is the mark of the mid-20th century. But it’s still gun slingers and bandits all the way.


  3. steve donoghue January 22, 2016 / 8:19 pm

    The conflation in the class description of “pulp” and “genre” strikes me as running too deep to fix – I’d advocate junking the description completely and just calling the class genre fiction! And naturally, the implication that the only kind of genre fiction that’s any good is the kind that “transcends” its genre bugs me too – especially since it only serves to further blur the key characteristic of true pulp fiction: it’s BAD. It STINKS. It has NO LITERARY MERIT. “True Grit” isn’t pulp fiction – it’s just a very good Western. A modern-day pulp Western would be the latest William Johnstone or Ralph Compton, something written at speed on deadline for money. But that’s the paradox here, I guess: real pulp fiction might be worth studying as a phenomenon, but it’s not worth reading (hence the guilty pleasure appeal!)


    • Rohan Maitzen January 22, 2016 / 8:26 pm

      The Oxford Dictionary online also defines “pulp fiction” as “sensational, lurid, or popular fiction” — and I think it’s that association of that term with “popular fiction” that leads to the blurring with genre fiction. So it’s not completely unreasonable to conflate the two, though it is a bit hasty. If you accept the label “pulp fiction” on those terms, though, I don’t think it has to mean only books that completely stink: not all lurid, sensational, or popular books lack all literary merit, right? I routinely assignLady Audley’s Secret, for instance — which is all of those things!


    • Zach January 22, 2016 / 8:29 pm

      “…real pulp fiction might be worth studying as a phenomenon, but it’s not worth reading (hence the guilty pleasure appeal!)”

      Unless, however, the point of the exercise is to see how plot devices and narrative techniques developed in crummy, borderline-unreadable pulp stories are used, varied, and (yes) transcended by better and more attentive authors. McMurtry’s “Anything For Billy” is light years more sophisticated than any of the semi-literate dime novels actually pumped out about Billy the Kid. But it’s genuinely impossible to appreciate the former without at least being familiar with the latter.


  4. holly hunt January 25, 2016 / 6:44 pm

    Do not hesitate to teach True Grit. Your students, your readers will help you. More importantly, they will be completely absorbed by a very good book set in a barbaric time. It will look a lot like the time we are living in. Portis wrote other excellent novels. I have always loved Norwood and think it is wonderful and funny. But for an unpretentious, straightforward quest-seeker, who is going after justice and ends up in a very dark and poisonous place, you will find her in True Grit. Courage is a good place to begin.


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