Study Guide

True Grit

By Charles Portis

True Grit Introduction

Turn off Red Dead Redemption, pry your bottom off the couch, and dust the cheetle off your fingers: we've got some real Wild West Action for you. We're talking train-robbing, shoot-outs, and dastardly outlaws; we're talking wide open frontiers, gunslingers, and morally ambiguous lawmen.

We're talking True Grit.

Charles McColl Portis's True Grit was first published in 1968, in installments in big-time American weekly magazine The Saturday Evening Post. It hit the big screen almost immediately, in a 1969 Oscar-award winning adaptation with the Duke himself, John Wayne. (In fact, one of the only pictures we can find of the elusive Portis shows him hanging out on the red carpet with Wayne.)

The novel is Mattie Ross's "true account of how [she] avenged Frank Ross' blood over in Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground" (7.337). Frank Ross, of course, is Mattie's dad, murdered by a servant in 1875—when she's all of 14 years old. In True Grit, Mattie looks back on her quest for vengeance in 1923, fifty years later. The novel is set in Arkansas, a region Portis knew well: he grew up there before leaving Arkansas to serve as a Marine in the Korean War (1950-1953).

True Grit is full of wacky characters like Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn, Mattie's one-eyed, gun-toting, saddle-blazing US Marshal of a sidekick—and side-kick #2, the Texan Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced "LaBeef").

Filmmakers can't get enough of this cinematic novel, even though some of its goofball humor is lost in translation. The novel catapulted back into the limelight with the enormous success of the 2010 Coen brother adaptation, which was nominated for ten Oscars.

What is True Grit About and Why Should I Care?

Get out a sheet of paper, Shmoopers, because it's time for a pop quiz.

(1) You fail an algebra test. Do you:

(A) Drown your sorrows in a bowl of Ben & Jerry's
(B) Write nasty graffiti about your teacher in the high school bathroom
(C) Buckle down, hire a tutor, and rock your next exam

(2) The boy you like asks some other girl to Homecoming. Do you:

(A) Drown your sorrows in a bowl of Ben & Jerry's
(B) Write nasty graffiti about that other girl in the high school bathroom
(C) Put on a fancy dress, grab your best friend, and rock that Homecoming anyway

(3) Your father is murdered by a cold-blooded killer. Do you:

(A) Wait patiently for the police to catch the killer while comforting your mother
(B) Get all emo and neglect basic hygiene while letting your mom deal with your younger sibs all by herself
(C) Hop on a train, hire a vicious marshal, and bring that killer to justice yourself

If you answered A, you're … a lot like most of us. If you answered mostly B, you've probably got a stint in juvie ahead of you.

And if you answered C—congratulations, you've got true grit. Okay, okay, in real life, you're definitely going to want to choose (A) for question 3. But for True Grit's Mattie Ross, true grit means taking matters into her own hands; it means dictating to life rather than letting life dictate to you; and it means never, ever losing sight of her goals.

We hope you have different goals than Mattie. Still, whatever they are, we're pretty sure true grit will get you there.

True Grit Resources

Websites

Unauthorized, Unofficial, and Uncensored: The Charles Portis Website
Want to talk Portis with other Portis lovers? This is the place to do it.

State Bird: Northern Mockingbird
If you want to know more about Arkansas, start here.

Many Voices
Did you notice a conspicuous near-absence of Native American voices in True Grit? You can find out more about Native American storytelling and art at this PBS website.

Video

True HTML
Watch the trailer and more at this flashy (LOL) website for the 2010 film adaptation.

Trailer for the 1969 Movie
The trailer quotes Time magazine: "True Grit is good enough for me; it is good enough for you, and if it isn't good enough for some movie company, then the free enterprise system is really going to hell." Yeah, we got nothing to add to that.

Hi-Def
This trailer to the 2010 movie is a lot sleeker, but is it better?

Movie or TV Productions

They Like Him, They Really Like Him
This 1969 film earned John Wayne his only Oscar.

Second Time's a Charm
This 1975 film Rooster Cogburn has Wayne reprising his role as Rooster alongside Katharine Hepburn.

It Wuz Robbed
Some say that the 2010 movie adaptation—nominated for 10 Oscars and awarded zero—preserves the spirit of the novel better than the 1969 film. Watch them both, and then drop us a line and tell us what you think.

Documents

Whet Your Appetite
Check out this preview of the novel, then pick up your very own copy.

The Interview
We italicize the The because, no joke, this is the only interview with Charles Portis we could find.

4.5 Stars!
Roger Ebert's review of the 2010 film adaptation of True Grit.

"I Don't Talk Service No More"
A short story by Charles Portis in The Atlantic Monthly.

"Combinations of Jacksons"
Interested in Charles Portis' war experience? If so, check out this autobiographical piece.

"The Guy Who Wrote True Grit"
The title says it all: some interesting history on True Grit and its author from the ever-classy New Yorker.

"True Grit: Trading the Dude for the Duke"
A review of the 2010 movie

Original? What Original?
Joel and Ethan share their experience adapting the novel to screen.

"One-Eyed Legends of the Silver Screen"
Fascinated by Rooster's eyelessness? Read on.

Audio

We Hear You
Rest your weary eyes and check out this excerpt from the audio version of the novel.

Images

Parental Advisory
What can we say? Sometimes the truly gritty smoke.

Being Rooster Cogburn
The 1969 Time magazine cover featuring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn

A Book Cover
This isn't exactly how we picture Mattie—she never uses a shotgun and doesn't wear a dress, but good old blue jeans. But we'll let it slide.