Charles Portis, 1933–2020
The elusive author who found unwanted fame with True Grit
To a small band of critics and fans, Charles Portis was America’s greatest unknown author. Equipped with a deadpan sense of humor and an appetite for the absurd, Portis wrote five novels populated with oddballs, kooks, and con artists. He set the tone with his 1966 debut Norwood, a road-trip tale featuring a circus midget and a tic-tac-toe–playing chicken, and found his greatest success with 1968’s True Grit. A Western, it revolves around Marshal Rooster Cogburn, “an old one-eyed jasper that was built along the lines of Grover Cleveland.” True Grit was made into a 1969 blockbuster starring John Wayne. But Portis shunned the fame it brought him, refusing to be interviewed and living a quiet life in Little Rock, Ark. Portis had “the old-fashioned notion that he said what he had to say on the page,” said journalist and acquaintance Carlo Rotella.
Portis was born in El Dorado, Ark., to a teacher father and journalist mother. After graduating high school, Portis “signed up to the Marines and fought in the Korean War,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). He became a reporter on his return to the U.S., covering the civil rights movement for the New York Herald Tribune and serving as the paper’s London bureau chief for a year. But in 1964, he quit journalism, moved to a fishing shack in Arkansas, and wrote Norwood.
His reluctance to talk to the media may have been traceable to his reporting days, “when intruding on people’s lives was part of the job description,” said The New York Times. Portis likely used Mattie Ross, the narrator of True Grit, to voice his own feelings on the press. “I do not fool around with newspapers,” Mattie says. “The paper editors are great ones for reaping where they have not sown.”