Authors: Charles Portis

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Norwood, 1966

True Grit, 1968

The Dog of the South, 1979

Masters of Atlantis, 1985

Gringos, 1991


Charles McColl Portis is a master of the short novel and of the independent life. Indeed, it was because he asserted his independence when he abandoned a promising journalistic career to return to his home state and follow his own inclinations that he was able to turn to writing fiction. His parents were Samuel Palmer Portis, a lawyer’s son, who had moved from Alabama to become a school superintendent in Arkansas, and Alice (Waddell) Portis, an Arkansas native, the daughter of a Methodist clergyman, and a poet. Charles Portis grew up in the southern Arkansas towns of El Dorado, Mount Holly, and Hamburg. Between 1952 and 1955 he served in Korea as a rifleman and Browning automatic rifleman in the U.S. Marine Corps, finding himself on a fortified hill called Outpost Ginger when the white truce flares were fired on July 27, 1953. By the time of his discharge he had attained to the rank of sergeant. In the summer of 1955 he enrolled at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, graduating three years later as a journalism major. After working as a reporter for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis he returned to Arkansas to work for the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock. This return to his home state prefigured both his later return to Arkansas from London and the penchant of his fictional characters to return home.{$I[AN]9810001620}{$I[A]Portis, Charles}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Portis, Charles}{$I[tim]1933;Portis, Charles}

In 1960 he obtained a position as general reporter for the Herald Tribune in New York, and during 1962 and 1963 he covered extensively the civil rights turmoil in Albany, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; and Jackson, Mississippi. In November, 1963, he won an assignment to London as bureau chief for the Herald Tribune. He resigned from that job after only one year, “to return home,” as he says, “on an apple-green ship called the Mauretania, and try my hand at writing fiction.”

His first attempt was Norwood, a critical and commercial success when it appeared in 1966. This novel set the pattern for three of the four novels that followed: An intelligent but fallible young person sets out with unflagging determination to right a wrong or complete a personal mission, meets challenging obstacles with optimism and dogged persistence, aids persons met along the way, and learns enough from experience to return home or to a homelike base. In Norwood the title character, having just left the Marines, travels from Ralph, Texas, to New York City to collect the seventy dollars a buddy owes him. He is beset by a con man and struggles against various vicissitudes. He helps Rita Lee, whom he eventually wishes to marry; Edmund B. Ratner, the world’s smallest perfect fat man; and Joann the Wonder Hen. With his successes outnumbering his failures, he returns home to Ralph, Texas.

The wanderer in True Grit is fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, who enlists the aid of deputy U.S. marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn and Texas Ranger sergeant LaBoeuf in bringing to justice her father’s murderer. Each of her assistants benefits from her quixotic nature. She succeeds in her mission at the cost of an arm and, still fostering an unadmitted love for the much older Cogburn, returns home to a celibate and financially successful life.

In Portis’s next novel, “The Dog of the South” is the name of a broken-down bus, which actually figures only slightly in the action. The bus has been abandoned by a nonpracticing physician, Reo Symes, who is the recipient of Ray Midge’s beneficence during Ray’s pursuit of his wife and his blue Torino. Ray brings his wife home to Arkansas from a plantation in British Honduras, only to have her desert him again. The novel nudges the reader to ponder its learned epigraph about animal restlessness (from Sir Thomas Browne’s The Garden of Cyrus, 1658) and the relationship of its title, which refers to the immobile bus, to Sirius, the star in the southern constellation of Canis Major.

With Masters of Atlantis Portis departs from the quixotic-quest pattern of the previous novels. This work, a broad satire on occultism, has wacky but irresistibly likable characters–Lamar Jimmerson, Sir Sydney Hen, and Austin Popper–who represent, respectively, the passive, transitive, and active modes of optative delusion in their propagation of the pseudoscience and quasi religion of gnomonism. Jimmerson, the true believer, and Popper, the fanatic opportunist, are reflective of a society whose essentially sensible people have lost sight of their ethical lodestar.

Gringos, which mingles humor with straight-faced belief in extraterrestrialism, deepens the dimensions of Portis’s gentle satire. The titular characters include hippies, some of them vicious; archaeologists who are professional and amateur students of Mayan culture; workers; and tourists. One of them, Jimmy Burns, combines his amateur archaeological research with work trucking goods for locals and tourists. On his quest for a missing amateur archaeologist named Rudy he incidentally saves two children from captivity by a mad hippie cult leader. These characters belong to Portis’s gallery of authentic losers and limited winners, who represent a special segment of American culture.

BibliographyConnaughton, Michael E. “Charles Portis.” In American Novelists Since World War II, edited by Kames E. Kibler, Jr. Vol. 6 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1980. Offers an account of the author’s journalistic pieces and an appraisal of his first three novels, noting that Portis’s best characters are “misfits, dropouts, and near lunatics on the fringe of society.”Idol, John L., Jr. “Charles Portis.” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. An appreciative summary.Rosenbaum, Ron. “Our Least-Known Great Novelist.” Esquire 129 (January, 1998): 30-32. An admiring profile of Portis that discusses his stature in modern American literture, as well as some of his books. Useful as an introduction to Portis’s work.Shuman, R. Baird. “Portis’ True Grit: An Adventure or Entwicklungsroman?English Journal 59 (1970): 367-370. Identifies the novel as “an Entwicklungsroman presented in the format of a Western.”
Categories: Authors