Charles Portis: Incarnation of State's Storytelling Tradition

Arkansas writing in the 20th century, not surprisingly, reflected the culture and traditions of earlier times while breaking out in new directions. Writers like Donald Harington and Shirley Abbott, still working in the 21st century, use the material and language of their home state to engage readers from throughout the country. Western writer Cynthia Haseloff mines traditional — but not necessarily local — material for the genre market, as do romance writer Velda Brotherton and crime writer Charlayne Harris.

An enduring part of our literary tradition, however, is humorous writing, both fiction and otherwise, what academics call Old Southwest Humor. James R. Masterson in “Tall Tales of Arkansas” (1943) defines Arkansas humor. It is largely oral in origin and transmission, and printed forms of Arkansas humor have been mostly ephemeral — newspapers, magazines and pulp books. Arkansas humor, Masterson says, is characterized by boisterous wit, heavy satire or the improbable. Storytelling, writing and publishing have developed together throughout the history of the state. Many of the best and best-known Arkansas writers — humorists or otherwise — got their first writing experience as newspapermen or even as newspaperwomen.

Charles Portis, sometimes called America’s least-known great writer, represents a particularly brilliant Arkansas incarnation of Old Southwest Humor. That puts him in a line with Mark Twain, another comic genius who started as a newspaperman, and the Big Bear storytellers of the 19th century. These writers made a high art of telling outrageous tales with a perfectly straight face. Portis’ five novels have enjoyed modest success and more than modest, even enthusiastic, critical acclaim in certain quarters. Everyone has heard of “True Grit.” Portis’ first novel, “Norwood,” has appeared on lists of the best novels of the 20th century. He has been praised in print by the likes of Tom Wolfe in The New Journalism and Ron Rosenbaum in Esquire. Now a new publisher, Overlook Books, has reprinted his work, and every Arkansas reader should buy them and find out why they have garnered such acclaim.

Charles McColl Portis was born in Mount Holly, near El Dorado, in 1933 and grew up in Norphlet, El Dorado, Mount Holly and Hamburg — all towns along the Louisiana border. In “Combinations of Jacksons,” a 1999 article in The Atlantic, he wrote of his boyhood in the 1940s in these towns. He recounts his aged relatives’ stories about the Civil War and World War II, along with his own youthful fantasies about killing or escaping Japanese and Germans in his own back yard. The appetite for storytelling is deeply embedded in his character.

Historically, newspapers have been immensely important to the development of an Arkansas literary tradition, and indeed an Arkansas identity. C.F.M. Noland moved to Batesville in 1826 and became editor of the Batesville Eagle. For the Spirit of the Times, a New York weekly, he wrote 45 letters published over the signature of Col. Pete Whetstone, in which he created a family, an entire neighborhood, the Devil’s Fork, and a culture that became the background of his stories.

The Arkansas stories of transplanted New Englander Thomas Bangs Thorpe were nationally and internationally popular. They were collected in two volumes, “The Mysteries of the Backwoods; Or, Sketches of the Southwest” (1846) and “Colonel Thorpe’s Scenes in Arkansaw” (1858). Thorpe’s crude characters glory in the Arkansas swamps and the wildlife they found there. Arkansas’ defensive posture is in part a reaction against so many jokes in these early newspapers and books.

The natural evolution from Noland and Thorpe was toward publication for readers within the state. The scattered population could not support a book-publishing culture, but rather encouraged the development of newspapers. The Arkansas Gazette was first published at Arkansas Post, the territorial capital, on Nov. 20, 1819, the day of the first election in the territory. The Gazette’s founder, William Woodruff, is himself one of Arkansas’ icons; the wildly inaccurate picture of him poling two pirogues lashed together bearing his printing press is impressed on the imagination of every school child. Within the first month of its history, the Gazette was publishing the opinionated letters that were such a part of its influence and popularity.

When Little Rock became the capital, it had a population of 600 and three newspapers, including the Gazette, which was a statewide influence until its takeover in 1991 by the Arkansas Democrat. Between 1819 and 1993, more than 2,500 papers were published in Arkansas, and in the beginning they were almost the only reading material available. Moreover, they were often the only outlet for publishing political argument, opinion, poetry, fiction or any other written expression.

Many Arkansas writers honed their skills and acquired their readership at the Gazette, the Democrat and other papers in the state. Opie Read was a reporter for the Carlisle Prairie Flower, the Gazette and other papers, but his reputation is due to The Arkansas Traveler, which first appeared in 1882. A paper purporting to expose the backwoods hicks for the amusement of Little Rock readers, it quickly achieved a circulation of 85,000. His work drew local resentment, but even after he moved to Chicago it was a national institution. Bernie Babcock, one of the first Arkansas women to support herself by writing, started as a society writer for the Democrat and then published more than 40 novels, including temperance stories and treatments of Lincoln and Lee, as well as “The Man Who Lied on Arkansas and What Got Him.”

Arkansans appear to prefer stories to any other kinds of writing, perhaps because that is what they read in the paper. Memoir and autobiography make up the most impressive body of Arkansas literature. Authors are black and white, male and female, rich and poor, celebrated and obscure. Wayman Hogue, in “Back Yonder,” combines reminiscence with a systematic treatment of the hill culture. Hogue’s daughter, Charlie May Simon, wrote two memoirs, “Straw in the Sun” about her life in backwoods Arkansas and “Johnswood,” the story of her life with the poet John Gould Fletcher, himself the author of “Life Is My Song.” Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” tells of her childhood in the general store in Stamps. Brooks Hays’ memoir, “A Hotbed of Tranquility,” describes his careers as a Southern Baptist and an Arkansas Democrat. The Little Rock desegregation crisis spawned a host of memoirs, notably those of Daisy Bates and Orval Faubus, both one-time newspaper writers. Shirley Abbott wrote “Womenfolks” and “The Bookmaker’s Daughter” about her family in Hot Springs. Margaret Jones Bolsterli, a professor at the University of Arkansas, wrote “Born in the Delta: Reflections on the Making of a Southern White Sensibility.” “Looking for Hogeye” recounts the return of Gazette and New York Times reporter Roy Reed to his home state.

Up to now, many Arkansas writers have left home, at first for New York and later for graduate school, to make their reputations. Some used elements of Southern and Arkansas life in their writing. Ruth McEnery Stuart invented “Simpkinsville” to tell her local color stories about Washington (Hempstead County) in New York magazines. Thyra Samter Winslow published many pieces in The Smart Set, Redbook, Cosmopolitan and The New Yorker depicting details from her life in Fort Smith.

More recently, Douglas Jones and Dee Brown both retired back to Arkansas to take up writing. Jones created a notable body of work about the American West, including “Elkhorn Tavern” and “Weedy Rough,” set in northwest Arkansas. Brown wrote historical nonfiction, including “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” as well as the novels “Creek Mary’s Blood” and “They Went Thataway.” Charles Portis’ “True Grit” (1968) is set athwart the Arkansas boundary with what was then Indian Territory and makes splendid comic use of the casualties of Fort Smith’s “Hanging Judge” Parker. Some of Donald Harington’s work — even that written when he was living outside of the state — bears the Southwest-humor stamp of his artistic forebears. He has created his own place, Stay More, home of the Stay Morons. Some of his novels, particularly “The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks,” use elements of the tall tale, the travel narrative and the bawdy joke.

Charles Portis is a worthy member of this tradition. He started his writing life as a journalist, working for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, the Arkansas Gazette and the New York Herald Tribune before returning to Arkansas to write novels. His characters generally wander far from Arkansas, but his books are full of elements that have been in Arkansas writing from the beginning — exaggerated characters and situations, utterly dead-pan narration, glib and eccentric language and a sense that the story is being told just for the fun of it.

His first novel, “Norwood,” although not set in Arkansas, is full of the same kind of small-town people, businesses and stories we find here. Norwood Pratt, the hero, travels from East Texas to New York and back, via stolen cars and a Trailways bus, to collect a debt of $70. En route he encounters, among others, Grady Fring the Kredit King; Rita Lee Chipman, the love of his life; Edmund B. Ratner, once the world’s smallest perfect man; and Joann the Wonder Hen. Norwood reports all the details of his journey with a literal-minded style worthy of Huck Finn himself.

“True Grit,” Portis’ second novel, is probably his best-known book — probably even better known as a movie. It is another journey story, a Western tale of crime and punishment. The narrator is Mattie Ross, an old lady in Yell County, who relates the great adventure of her youth, when she hired one of Judge Parker’s marshals, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, to avenge her father’s murder. Mattie tells her story in the same deadpan voice Portis uses over and over. She passes judgment on everyone and everything, often backing up her pronouncements with citations from Scripture. There could be no more unlikely pair than Mattie and the shambling, over-the-hill lawman. But with the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, they get their man.

Humorist Roy Blount Jr. has written that no one should die without having read Portis’ third novel, “The Dog of the South.” The book is set mainly in Mexico, though it begins and ends in the same place, like Norwood. This time the place is Little Rock. The narrator, Ray Midge, says, “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.”

Midge is a 26-year-old former copy editor who has lost his wife and his Ford Torino to another copy editor. He follows them to Mexico to bring back his car, though he brings back his wife instead, and en route encounters the usual Portisian flock of eccentrics and misfits. Some readers have complained that the novel doesn’t really go anywhere, but they miss the point. Midge’s dead-pan self-characterization, his restlessness and his responses to everything on the trip are what the book is about.

Portis’ next novel, “Masters of Atlantis,” was published in 1985. It is a satire of secret societies and the New Age, embellished with more of Portis’ travel sequences and weird characters. “Gringos,” like “Dog of the South,” is set in Mexico and narrated by Jimmy Burns, an expatriate from north Louisiana. He hangs out with a gringo community in the Yucatan, including a fallen-away doctor, a couple who are investigating flying saucers and the Mayan ruins, hippies, runaways and a failed archeological expedition. Burns is a much more attractive character than Midge or Norwood, yet in the end, Burns doesn’t go anywhere either. In fact, unlike Midge and Norwood, he doesn’t even go home, but winds up getting married and thinking of settling down.

Since “Gringos,” Portis has published several pieces in magazines. The Atlantic Monthly published a story in May 1996 titled “I Don’t Talk Service No More,” grim and yet darkly humorous about an institutionalized veteran of the Korean War who breaks into the hospital offices to telephone his war buddies and talk about their shared experiences.

Another piece appeared in the Oxford American in 2003, titled “Motel Life, Lower Reaches.” Portis has traveled considerably along the Mexican border, and his description of four cheap lodgings is finely detailed, including chemicals in the swimming pool, the quality of the beds, the motel aura that haunts the corners, the reading lamps and, especially, the lodgers and proprietors he meets.

Whatever Portis writes, language is one of his preoccupations. He explains obscure words like ‘souse’ or ‘tripe,’ and comments on grammar or usage, “like the difference between in hospital” and in the hospital. In “Masters of Atlantis” he invents a whole lexicon of Gnomonism. He strings together lists of comic-book heroes or the cowboys in the movies he saw in El Dorado. He includes the make, model and specifications of dozens of cars. He has perfect pitch describing what Southerners eat — Vienna sausage, mannaze, cola with salted peanuts dropped in, biscuits and gravy. The reader can get so carried away by the sweep of his language that even when nothing appears to be happening, it doesn’t matter. Portis has a unique voice, playing in his flowing narrative stream like a kid in an Arkansas creek, mainly for the fun of it.