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Friday, March 17, 2023

March 17, 2023: Wild West Stories: True Grit

[175 years ago this coming weekend, Wyatt Earp was born in Illinois. Earp would go on to become one of the most iconic Wild West figures, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy stories of that complex and mythic region and history. Leading up to a birthday post on engaging Earp!]

On how a classic Wild West story both uses and challenges elements of the myth.

I think it’s fair to say that most audiences still know the story of True Grit through the 1969 film starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn (a performance for which he would win his one Oscar and which he reprised six years later in a film sequel named for the character). Many others (like this AmericanStudier, who has a lifelong aversion to all things John Wayne) have come to the story through the Coen Brothers’ 2010 version. But after greatly enjoying that 2010 film, and with the recommendation of my favorite fellow reader Ilene Railton, I picked up the original source material, Charles Portis’ 1968 novel (originally published in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post!). While much of the story and characters are very similar between all three versions, I’m focused here on Portis’ novel; not only because it was the original, but also and especially because I think it represents a particularly interesting engagement with Wild West tropes, one written not at all coincidentally right toward the tail end of the Golden Age of Westerns.

The character of Rooster Cogburn became popular enough to warrant a sequel not just because he was played in that first film adaptation (and played well, even I will admit having watched lots of clips to write this post) by John Wayne. No, I would argue that in his novel Portis clearly and purposefully creates Rooster as a living (if of course aging) embodiment of Wild West myths, and indeed of those myths at their most idealized—of that titular characteristic of “true grit.” Idealized doesn’t mean he’s without his flaws, and indeed Rooster is a profoundly flawed man; but even those flaws fit well into Wild West stereotypes of the ornery lone gunfighter, a man who has great difficulty getting along with others or even living his day-to-day life, but who can absolutely be counted on for both his talents and his tenacity in a shootout. Moreover, the way he genuinely comes to care about and for the novel’s youthful protagonist and narrator Mattie Ross, his eventual role as a father-figure to a young woman whose own father has been murdered, makes him a powerfully appealing such gunfighter, one whose true grit is in service of protecting those who need it most.

As I wrote about Walt Longmire earlier this week, there’s nothing wrong with using and adapting such familiar and even mythic character tropes, especially not as well as Portis does with Rooster. But I don’t think True Grit would be nearly as interesting if it weren’t for that other main character, Mattie—a protagonist who, both as the story’s youthful character and as its much older narrator, significantly challenges Wild West myths. It’s not just that Mattie is a 14 year old girl who can more than hold her own with men like Rooster (and the novel’s other main characters, all of whom are likewise hardened Wild West types of one kind or another). It’s that in her perspective, even at that young age and doubly so in her narration, she directly questions the stories and myths themselves, refusing to settle for accepted visions of anything (from gender and age to fundamental themes of right and wrong). There are all sorts of ways to create a revisionist Western, a genre that features two of my all-time favorite films, Thunderheart (1992) and Lone Star (1996). But I’m not sure anyone has done it better than did Charles Portis with Mattie Ross.

Wyatt Earp birthday post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Wild West stories or histories you’d highlight?

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