Chesterton (and the rest)
Phronesis and the Happy Ending
by Max Arnott
“. . . Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!”
Sometime after the Civil War, likely in 1875, an Arkansas girl of 14 hires a US Marshal to pursue one Tom Chaney, the man who murdered her father, into the Oklahoma Indian territory. She narrates the story in the first person from the year 1928. Her mission is successful but at the cost of seven lives and she is maimed in the process.
This is the essence of True Grit, a novel by Charles Portis published in 1968, and filmed twice. Over the forty-five years since, this novel has joined a small list of novels that could be called the popular American canon. Not the literary canon as found, for example in the New York Review of Books, but that which includes works such as Gone with the Wind, Catcher in the Rye, Catch 22, perhaps The Color Purple, and certainly To Kill a Mockingbird.
When something lasts that long and is held to the hearts of so many people, it is worth a little thinking on.
Let us not here debate how the famous movie from 1969 (the one with John Wayne) compares to the 2010 version (with Jeff Bridges), although that is a very pleasant thing to chew over. Actually, both films were about equally faithful to the book, and, although on most points (acting, photography, moral gravity) the later film is superior, it did not have John Wayne, so call it a draw.
Rather, let’s stick to the book and ask why it has been so popular so long.
The accidents of the story are clean and solid: the plot is lively, the painting of Fort Smith vivid:
They have that big wide street there called Garrison Avenue like places out in the west. The buildings are made of fieldstone and all the windows need washing.
There are charming incidents of daily life in Fort Smith:
Two white men and an Indian were standing up there on the platform with their hands tied behind them and the three nooses hanging loose beside their heads.
and pungent dialogue:
“Colonel Stonehill said you were a road agent before you got to be a marshal.”
“I wondered who was spreading that talk. That old gentleman would do better minding his own business.”
“Then it is just talk.”
“It is very little more than that. I found myself one pretty spring day in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in need of a road stake and I robbed one of them little high-interest banks there. Thought I was doing a good service . . . .”
“It is all stealing,” said I.
“That was the position they taken in New Mexico,” said he.
That is good, and it is not easily accomplished. On a deeper note, the chief characters act with courage throughout and it is hard to tell a bad story about realistic courage.
So the novel has that too. But this being VoegelinView, let us ask a Voegelinian question:
Does Mattie Ross, the heroine (the Kim Darby/Hailee Steinfeld character) display phronesis?
Walk that down your stoa for awhile.