“PEOPLE DO not give credence that a 14-year-old-girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood, but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it didn’t happen every day.” It’s been 50 years, but those opening lines of Charles Portis’ True Grit—spoken by the inimitable Mattie Ross—don’t feel as though they’ve aged a day.
That might explain, as the years have worn on, with the El Dorado native’s fame rising, lifting him first slowly, then exponentially, from cult status into the mainstream, why so many generations of readers have come to the book and found something that speaks to them. It might also explain why the folks at Oxford American decided to throw a 50th-anniversary bash to commemorate the book—and why they’ve had no trouble drawing a star-studded lineup for the occasion.
For some insight on the matter, we turned to one of the foremost local authorities on Portis, and one of the key organizers of the events, Oxford American senior editor Jay Jennings. On a Tuesday afternoon, just about a month before the event, he took a short break from his work wrangling folks for the event to answer the question: “What does this book mean after 50 years?”
“YOU KNOW, it’s an interesting question. I think Portis came up with a good story, found a topic that interested him, found a voice that he tried to fashion into a compelling voice and ran with it. I don’t think he had much thought other than wanting to tell a good story and get the place right. And you do that, and if you do it well enough, people respond, even after 50 years. I mean, obviously, there are good reasons it has endured that long. It’s partly because of the films that people keep going back to the books. There are a lot of great books that end up slipping into obscurity. Donna Tartt, in her afterword to True Grit, says there was a period of time, long after the first film and before the Coen brothers, when the book was hard to find. It wasn’t on a lot of reading lists, and it never went out of print like his other four novels did at one time, but it wasn’t on a lot of syllabi either. Mainly because of a fervent group of fans who read the book and loved it, it’s never quite fallen completely off the radar, and I think that’s a testament to his storytelling ability, the uniqueness of his vision, the wonderful character of Mattie Ross, that people can read it as if it were published yesterday.”
The Nitty Gritty
FRIDAY, APRIL 20
10:30 a.m. | “True Grit, the American Frontier, and the Indian Territory: Historical Context” with Dr. Daniel Littlefield and Larry Foley at the Ron Robinson Theater
12:30 p.m. | “Translating Charles Portis to Film” with Graham Gordy, Dr. Kristi McKim and Katrina Whalen at the Ron Robinson Theater
6 p.m. | True Grit (1969) screening, followed by a presentation from author Scott Eyman at the Ron Robinson Theater
10 p.m. | Music by Wussy and The Paranoid Style, and comedy by Eddie Pepitone at The White Water Tavern
SATURDAY, APRIL 21
10 a.m. | “Writers Panel: The Literary Genius of Charles Portis,” featuring Roy Blount Jr., Calvin Trillin and Katherine A. Powers, at the Ron Robinson Theater
11:30 a.m. | “True Grit: Fact & Fiction” with Michael Groomer and Cody Faber at the Historic Arkansas Museum
1:30 p.m. | True Grit (2010) screening, followed by a discussion with chief film critic of The Washington Post, Ann Hornaday, at the Ron Robinson Theater
8 p.m. | “Music, Voices & Double-Rectified Busthead: A True Grit Variety Show” featuring Iris DeMent, readings from True Grit and tributes from Roy Blount Jr., Calvin Trillin, Harrison Scott Key and others at the Ron Robinson Theater
10 p.m. | An after-party in the Arcade Room at the Ron Robinson Theater
For more information, including info about tickets, visit oxfordamerican.org/events.