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Diary: Ian Frazier, Favorite Book
True Grit is one of my favorite books of all time, and I’m among many who have read it and re-read it and who know parts of it by heart. The charm—the sorcerer’s charm—of the words “true grit” I’ve contemplated and wondered about. I was reading an old anthology of American poetry not long ago, and I came across the work of James Russell Lowell, a poet not much read today. James Russell Lowell lived from 1819 to 1891, and the poem of his I liked is a protest poem, written in dialect, in 1846. He was outraged by the Mexican War, and the poem is about the false patriotism of it and the wrong of attacking these unoffending people. It’s a passionate poem, done in a comic rural voice, and it’s part of Lowell’s “The Bigelow Papers.” At the beginning of the poem, the father of the speaker, this hayseed character, says he showed the poem to his preacher, and the preacher said it “wuz True grit.” Outside of Portis’s novel I had never come across the phrase “true grit” before. I had heard of “grit,” and of people who had grit, but never “true grit.” But the phrase goes way back, evidently, if it’s in this poem from 1846.
Today when we think of the words “true grit” we think of Portis, and of his book, and of the movies that were made from the book. It’s a story about a quest for justice, but it’s also about a quest of faith—a spiritual quest. Mattie Ross—and I’m assuming I don’t have to say who Mattie is, and I’ll also assume that when I talk about the ending of the book I won’t be spoiling it for anybody—Mattie is a person of strong Christian faith, as she tells you. A conversation that she has at the beginning of the book prefigures the whole book. Mattie has outsmarted a horse trader named Colonel Stonehill and got him to pay her $325 because of various problems that he has. Stonehill was holding her father’s horse when Tom Chaney, her father’s murderer, stole it, and Stonehill has some liability, and he just wants to get rid of her, so he pays her $325. With that money she hires Marshal Rooster Cogburn to take her to the Indian Territory in search of Chaney. Before she leaves on that journey, she comes by Stonehill’s horse barn to finish some final details. When she walks in, Stonehill is not happy to see her, and he says, “I just received word that a young girl fell head first into a fifty-foot well on the Towson Road. I thought perhaps it was you.”
Mattie says, “No, it was not I.” Then she tells him of her plans—she’s going up to the Choctaw Nation with Marshal Rooster Cogburn.
Colonel Stonehill says, “Cogburn? How did you light on that greasy vagabond?” (And the character actor who plays Stonehill in the John Wayne True Grit is Strother Martin, one of the all-time greatest character actors in Western movies. He’s in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he’s in many movies, and he does the line to perfection: “How did you light on that greasy vagabond?”) Then Stonehill goes on to tell Mattie that Rooster Cogburn is a bad guy. He says that people say that Cogburn robbed a bank, and rode with Quantrill. Riding with Quantrill was a pretty grim thing. LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger who is also looking for Cheney, and who joins up with Mattie and Cogburn, later will hold Cogburn to account for riding with Quantrill and imply that he participated in Quantrill’s atrocities (which Cogburn strongly denies). In any event, Colonel Stonehill tells Mattie that Rooster Cogburn is not so good, and Mattie says, “They say he has grit,” and that she’s going with him.
Stonehill says, “It may prove to be a hard journey.”
Mattie says, “The good Christian does not flinch from difficulties.”
Stonehill replies, “Neither does he rashly court them.”
As theology goes, that’s right up there. You don’t “rashly court” difficulties. It’s a wise catechism, and most of the rest of the story will consist of Mattie “rashly courting” one difficulty after the next, until she does, in fact, fall down a hole in the earth, and descend to a horrible underworld, as Stonehill has suggested at the beginning of this conversation. And at the point where she has done what one does on spiritual quests, where you descend into hell and perdition and “what next?,” God’s grace saves her, in the unlikely person of that “greasy vagabond,” Rooster Cogburn, with the help of LaBoeuf.
Mattie is a Presbyterian, and not only a Presbyterian but a strict Calvinist Presbyterian. Not a Cumberland Presbyterian, like her late father. She says the Cumberland Presbyterians “are not sound on Election.” (That’s “Election,” with a capital “e.”) Now, Election is a complicated thing. It’s the idea of Predestination, that you are chosen by God; that from the very beginning of your life God has chosen you for salvation. And not only that, but many other people have not been chosen. Mattie herself says, “I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play.” That is for sure. The doctrine of Election is difficult to explain and easy to argue about. The arguments about it were at the center of countless schisms of the nineteenth-century Protestant churches in America, especially on the frontier, because if you disagreed with somebody about Election you went elsewhere and set up your own church and maybe even your own town. The Methodists made quite a few converts by being flexible about Election, asserting that God’s grace is free to all and salvation attainable by all. The Methodists were far more welcoming than the strict Calvinist Presbyterians.
This was the kind of subject that people were thinking about in the nineteenth century, especially on the frontier. They were mulling over these doctrinal differences and locating themselves among them—in the way that some people today are frantically trying to brand themselves on-line—trying to figure out, “Who am I?” Worrying about who we are as individuals, and as a country, has always preoccupied us in the United States.
That Portis could write such a funny novel with apt references to this abstruse and complicated religious subject is an amazing feat. The book takes a hard look at Election and seems to conclude that if you’re not one of the Elect having “true grit” might be almost as good. The book also constitutes a by-the-way biography of Rooster Cogburn, who tells his life story to Mattie as they’re waiting for the robbers to show up at the horse thieves’ lair in the Choctaw Nation. Before the bad guys get there, Rooster and LaBoeuf smoke out two other thieves who are themselves waiting in the sod cabin, and as they’re smoking them out, Rooster yells, “Who all is in there?” The thieves yell back, “a Methodist and a son of a bitch!”
I love lists, and I think that’s one of the greatest American lists you could find. I also think that sums up frontier America as well as you could do it—“a Methodist and a son-of-a-bitch!” On the frontier, you were probably one or the other. As Rooster Cogburn describes his feckless autobiography, he has been a buffalo hunter, a cowboy, and a failed restaurant owner, and he actually did rob a bank in New Mexico. He’s been a freight-wagon driver, and now he’s a U.S. Marshall for the court of Judge Isaac Parker, with a reputation for shooting too many people. We know he “likes “to pull a cork,” he’s a heavy drinker sometimes. His has indeed been a shady, even a “greasy vagabond” life.
But when Mattie, on her rash quest, finally does fall into a hole, Cogburn rescues her and heroically brings her back to safety. And in that act, he is grace, he is enacting God’s grace, and it’s the greatest thing he does in his life. Nothing else in his life even comes close. Many years later, after he dies, Mattie buries him on her property—not only buries him on her property but has him dug up from where he was buried originally, in Memphis, and has him reburied on her farm near Dardanelle, Arkansas, and on the grave she puts a headstone carved with his name, his years of birth and death, and the words, “A Resolute Officer of Parker’s Court.” And in this way, she redeems him.
Ian Frazier’s Paradise Bronx, an exploration of Bronx geography, history, and artistic invention, will be published in August, 2024.
Read Ian Frazier on lists in Book Post.
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