"True Grit" -- the great, unsung novel of the American frontier -- celebrates its 40th anniversary

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The 40th anniversary reissue of Charles Portis' "True Grit" is the third go-around for the novel since its publication and simultaneous serialization in the Saturday Evening Post. In a saner world, it wouldn't have to be reissued, it would have always remained in print.

Why it hasn't is one of the unsolved mysteries of modern American literature. Conventional wisdom blames the hugely successful 1969 film with John Wayne (for which he won his only Oscar). Potential readers, it has been argued, felt they'd already gotten the story from the film and didn't need to read the book. I don't know that I agree; I'm not at all certain that most of John Wayne's fans read very much. "True Grit's" going in and out of print over the last four decades probably has more to do with a reluctance to take the western seriously as literature. "True Grit" is merely one of many American books in the last half century -- I'd toss Thomas Berger's "Little Big Man," Michael Ondaatje's "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" and Ron Hansen's "Desperadoes" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" into this mix -- that were undervalued because they seemed to bear the faint taint of genre fiction.

"True Grit," like Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," might have overcome this stigma if Portis had been prolific. But Portis, while not exactly a J.D. Salinger-like recluse, has, except for appearances in some Little Rock-area bars, kept to himself down in Arkansas, never caring to establish a public persona by allowing profiles and interviews. (Good for him.) He took more than a decade after the success of "True Grit," his second novel (his first, "Norwood," was published in 1966), to produce "Masters of Atlantis," and there has not been another from him since "Gringos" in 1991.

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