P, my Paris correspondent, asks me how we are holding up, I tell him we as a society will be fine if we stay true to our own selves and our customs. I approve giving his students Hawthorne to read and mention less internationally famous Western and Southern writers. Edgar Allan Poe he knows because the Marylander fascinated such French poets as Baudelaire and is taught in their schools, or was.
In “The Mask of the Red Death,” the prince and his courtiers think they are untouchable, hide behind walls and costumes, and revel until they fall.
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True Grit, by contrast, is about taking the initiative to get the job done (as I’ve said before in this space). The narrator is a prim spinster from Arkansas who recalls her determination to bring her father’s murderer to justice, when she was 14.
She hires a federal marshal, Rooster Cogburn, who rode, rumor has it, with William Quantrill in the late war. She disapproves of his ways, but she knows the mission’s the point, and stays with him.
Charles Portis writes with such sensitivity to the idiom that it sometimes takes a moment to realize how funny the dialogue is as Mattie bats down Rooster’s condescension with Calvinist severity. And both must beware of the intrusive LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger who wants in on the chase.
By the end of the mission all three are devoted to each other but scarcely know it, for they remain stern frontier people and pioneers, duty bound and glory bound.
Mattie Ross is like Huck Finn and Augie March, and her embrace of life is uniquely hers, as is theirs. Consider the last lines of their memoirs. Here’s Huck Finn:
But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
Americans, always at the edge, knowing they’ve been there before. Now Augie March:
Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.
These lines are engraved in the heart — or at least the brain — of every red-blooded American. Mattie’s are, as well. She recounts on the last page how she brought Rooster’s remains to her family plot, and then reflects on the other rascal:
I heard nothing more of the Texas officer, LaBoeuf. If he is yet alive and should happen to read these pages, I will be pleased to hear from him. I judge he is in his seventies now, and nearer eighty than seventy. I expect some of the starch has gone out of that “cowlick.” Time just gets away from us. This ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground.
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