Arkansan novelist Charles Portis, author of ‘True Grit’ honored by Boozman on Senate floor

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Boozman Honors Literary Icon Charles Portis

WASHINGTON- U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR) spoke on the Senate floor to honor the life of Arkansan Charles Portis, author of “True Grit,” who passed away last week. 

“I want to take this opportunity to say how proud we are of Charles Portis and his legacy as an acclaimed writer and story-teller. My thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family as they remember and reflect on his life. I hope they find comfort in the fact that Mr. Portis has left a profound, lasting mark on Arkansas, as well as within our nation’s cultural and literary traditions,” Boozman said in his speech.

You can watch the speech below:

Mr. President, I want to pay tribute to an Arkansas veteran who was one of the state’s most famous sons, literary icon Charles Portis. Mr. Portis, the author best known for his 1968 Western novel “True Grit,” passed away on February 17, 2020.

Born in December 1933 in El Dorado, Arkansas, Portis spent his childhood in southern Arkansas. He enlisted in the Marine Corps, serving as an infantryman and reaching the rank of sergeant during the Korean War before his discharge in 1955. Following his military service he attended the University of Arkansas and wrote for the student newspaper, the Arkansas Traveler. He graduated from the university in 1958 with a degree in journalism.

After graduating, Portis began his career as a reporter, working first for the Arkansas Gazette and then at the New York Herald Tribune. Though he voluntarily ended his journalism career in 1964, he used the skills and tools he’d acquired as a reporter when he returned home to Arkansas and began writing fiction.

His most celebrated work is the Western classic “True Grit.” This book chronicles the efforts of a Yell County teenager, Mattie Ross, along with U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn to avenge the death of Mattie’s father at the hands of a drifter.

The novel incorporates distinct references familiar to many Arkansans and depicts life on the frontier in the what was then the “wild west.” It was later adapted into films in 1969 and 2010.

While it’s his most well-known work, Mr. Portis also wrote four other novels and several shorter works of fiction and nonfiction.

During his career, Portis was honored with the Oxford American’s first Lifetime Achievement in Southern Literature award and was presented with the Porter Prize’s 30th Anniversary Lifetime Achievement Award. “True Grit”has been praised as “one of the great American novels.”

I want to take this opportunity to say how proud we are of Charles Portis and his legacy as an acclaimed writer and story-teller. My thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family as they remember and reflect on his life. I hope they find comfort in the fact that Mr. Portis has left a profound, lasting mark on Arkansas, as well as within our nation’s cultural and literary traditions.

Charles Portis had a remarkable career that will be remembered for a long time to come. Today, I wish to honor him and his loved ones and help celebrate his life. On behalf of all Arkansans, we celebrate Charles Portis and his notable contributions to our state.

Boozeman’s Speech

Original Story:

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Arkansas Times) — Charles Portis, the Arkansas novelist best known for his enduring best-seller True Grit, died this morning after several years of failing health. He was 86.

His death was confirmed to me by his brother, Jonathan, who is going to supply me shortly with an obituary prepared by the family. Here, too, is the entry on Portis in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

He was born in El Dorado and grew up in South Arkansas, including in Hamburg. After a stint in the Marines during the Korean War, he studied journalism at the University of Arkansas, became a newspaper writer and then turned to fiction. True Grit, the western novel set in Arkansas, was his biggest  claim to fame and twice made into a movie. But his other comic fiction had many fans — NorwoodThe Dog of the SouthMasters of Atlantis, and Gringos

Escape Velocity, a collection of Portis’ shorter work, included an exploration of the Ouachita River that he wrote for the Arkansas Times.

Portis lived for years in a Riverdale apartment until the advance of Alzheimer’s moved him to a care facility.

Here’s the obituary the family prepared for Ruebel Funeral Home.

Charles McColl Portis, 86, of Little Rock, died Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. He was the son of the late Samuel Palmer Portis and Alice Waddell Portis. His beloved sister, Aliece Portis Sawyer, died in 1958.

Charles, known as “Buddy” and “Charlie” to his family and friends, was born Dec. 28, 1933, in El Dorado. He grew up in El Dorado, Norphlet, Mount Holly and Hamburg, all in south Arkansas.

After graduating from Hamburg High School, Charles enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and fought in the Korean War, serving with H Company, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, 1st Marine Division, to battle the invading Chinese Communist and North Korean forces. He was promoted to sergeant and received several commendations for his service.

He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas in 1958. He was a reporter at the Northwest Arkansas Times in Fayetteville and the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. He was a reporter and columnist for the Arkansas Gazette, a writer for Newsweek magazine and was the London bureau chief for the New York Herald-Tribune.

Charles published five novels, numerous magazine articles and short stories and one stage play. He was perhaps best known for his 1968 novel, True Grit, which was a New York Times best-seller, and was made into two acclaimed motion pictures, though neither film measured up to Charles’s masterwork. The novel also became a television program and inspired a film sequel called Rooster Cogburn. His first novel, Norwood, published in 1966, was made into a movie in 1970.

His articles, short stories and memoirs were published in such magazines as The Saturday Evening PostThe New YorkerThe Atlantic Monthly and The Oxford American. Much of this work was collected in Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, edited by Jay Jennings and published by the Central Arkansas Library System.

Buddy was a devoted son, a generous brother, a doting uncle and a steadfast friend. He shunned the spotlight, social events and self-promotion while quietly mentoring other writers who somehow managed to find him. He loved dogs and cats, having no preference for one species over another. As a teenager he worked as an apprentice mechanic at a Chevrolet dealership, setting off a lifelong passion for working on used cars and trucks in his spare time. He was a voracious reader, a habit he acquired while serving in the Marine Corps.

He was a really funny guy with an uncanny gift for observing human behavior and capturing it in a sui generis style of writing that captivated fans and critics. “Charlie thinks things no one else thinks,” his friend, the late Nora Ephron, once said.

Charles is survived by his brothers, Dr. Richard P. Portis (Leah) and Jonathan W. Portis; nephews Samuel Portis Sawyer, Robert Paul Sawyer (Nathania), Charles J. Portis, Cameron Aviles (Samantha) and Palmer Aviles; nieces Dr. Susan Portis-Ferguson (Michael), Jane Portis and Toni Portis King (Rob); grandnieces and grandnephews Laura Davis, Walter Ferguson, Cora Ferguson, Allison King and Timothy King.

Funeral will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Feb., 25, at Second Presbyterian Church in Little Rock. Graveside service with military honors will be at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at Hamburg Cemetery, Hamburg, Ark.

Charles’s family is grateful to the staff of the Parkway Shell Alzheimer’s Center, the McClellan Veterans Hospital, Hospice Home Care, and the owners, staff and friends at Rivercliff Apartments and at the Faded Rose Restaurant.

The best way to honor Charles’s memory is to make a generous donation to the Humane Society of Pulaski County, Ark.

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