Shared from the 2/23/2020 Philadelphia Inquirer - Philly Edition eEdition


Charles Portis; wrote ‘True Grit’

Charles Portis, 86, the celebrated Southern novelist who wrote Norwood and True Grit, died Monday in Little Rock, Ark., according to the Associated Press.

His brother Jonathan Portis told the Arkansas Post-Gazette that the cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, which was diagnosed in 2012.

Though the Arkansas native published only five novels throughout his career, he came to be known as something of a cult writer who was adored by other authors; Esquire dubbed Mr. Portis “our least-known great novelist” in 1998.

His fans included Tom Wolfe, Roy Blount Jr. and Larry Mc-Murtry, and he was often compared to Mark Twain for his plainspoken humor and wry perspective.

Mr. Portis’ most well-known book is True Grit, a western told from the perspective of an elderly woman named Mattie Ross. She recounts a harrowing story from when she was 14 years old and sought revenge on her father’s killer.

The book originally appeared as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post in 1968. Since then, it has been made into two movies: a 1969 version starring John Wayne and Glen Campbell and a 2010 one directed by the Coen brothers and starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin.

True Grit is often cited by fiction writers as an inspiration. Crime novelist and television writer George Pelecanos called it “one of the very best American novels,” telling NPR that “Mattie’s voice, wry and sure, is one of the great creations of modern American fiction. I put it up there with Huck Finn’s, and that is not hyperbole.”

Mr. Portis was born in the small oil town of El Dorado, Ark., in 1933.

In a brief memoir written for the Atlantic Monthly, he recalled growing up in a community where the ratio was about “two Baptist churches or one Methodist church per gin. It usually took about three gins to support a Presbyterian church, and a community with, say, four before you found enough tepid idolators to form an Episcopal congregation.”

Mr. Portis served as a Marine in the Korean War before working as a reporter and columnist. He wrote for various newspapers such as the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, and the New York Herald Tribune (alongside such writers as Tom Wolfe and Nora Ephron).

His interview subjects included Malcolm X and J.D. Salinger, whom Mr. Portis encountered on an airplane. He was also a firsthand observer of the civil rights movement. In 1963, he covered a riot and the police beating of black people in Birmingham, Alabama. Around the same time, he reported on a Ku Klux Klan meeting, a dullish occasion after which “the grand dragon of Mississippi disappeared grandly into the Southern night, his car engine hitting on about three cylinders.”

About a year after being promoted to chief of the Herald Tribune’s London bureau while in his 30s, Mr. Portis quit to return to Arkansas to focus on fiction. He published his first novel, Norwood, in 1966, which was adapted into a movie starring Glen Campbell and Joe Namath.

His final three novels — The Dog of the South (1979), Masters of Atlantis (1985), and Gringos (1991) — included the same sly, offbeat humor, outlandish characters, and shocking bouts of melodrama that defined his first two books, though they did not achieve the same level of commercial success.

In the 1998 Esquire profile, Ron Rosenbaum called Mr. Portis “a maddeningly underappreciated American writer” who, “if there’s any justice in literary history — as opposed to literary celebrity — will come to be regarded as the author of classics on the order of a twentieth-century Mark Twain, a writer who captures the soul of America.”

Even as his success grew, however, Mr. Portis remained generally elusive, rarely giving interviews and taking strides to remain out of the spotlight. As Ephron tellingly shared with the New York Times in 1990 about her former colleague, “he was a newspaper reporter who didn’t have a phone. The Trib had to make him get one.”

“Talking about himself is something that would feel false and strange to him,” William Whitworth, a former editor of the Atlantic and a longtime friend of Mr. Portis’, said in the same piece. “It would be like asking him to stand up and sing like Frank Sinatra, or be on Dancing with the Stars.”

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

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