Though the Arkansas native published just five novels throughout his career, he came to be known as something of a cult writer who was adored by other authors; Esquire dubbed Portis “our least-known great novelist” in 1998.
Portis’s 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’s been remade 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.”
Portis, who was born in the small oil town of El Dorado, Ark., in 1933, focused on fiction after serving as a Marine in the Korean War before working as a reporter and columnist. He wrote for various newspapers, such as the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock and the New York Herald Tribune (alongside such writers as Tom Wolfe and Nora Ephron), where he covered the civil rights movements in the South.
About a year after being promoted to chief of the Herald Tribune’s London bureau while in his 30s, Portis quit to return to Arkansas to focus on fiction. He published his first novel “Norwood” in 1966.
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 never quite achieved the same level of commercial success.
In the 1998 Esquire profile, Ron Rosenbaum called 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, 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, the former editor of the Atlantic and a longtime friend of 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.’ ”
Several prominent writers, including David Simon, Ace Atkins and Hari Kunzru, took to Twitter to offer praise to the late novelist.
Charles Portis was the best.— Ken Jennings (@KenJennings) February 17, 2020