Under cross-examination, Rooster Cogburn is asked about his use of excessive force under oath in a Little Rock, Arkansas courthouse. We are learning about the Federal Marshal’s toughness as our heroine Mattie Ross seeks out his services at the outset of her quest to bring her father’s killer to justice. But, the fact that he’s killed twenty-three men in less than four years on the job is hard to read as a plus for the good guys from the vantage point of late August 2020 with indiscriminate police shootings and unaccountable deployments of Federal forces against peaceful protesters.
How much truth is in Portis’ fictional portrayal of the 1878 U.S. Marshal Service? And how much of that truth has been carried forward in traditions through generations of Marshals? How much of the myth-making in fictional cops and robbers and western outlaw tales have present day police internalized since childhood?
Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing, traces the origins of American policing in part to the early days of Southern and Western frontier justice. Southern slave patrols and the Texas Rangers protected the interests of wealthy white landowners and terrorized Black, Mexican and Indigenous resistance. This story, taking place in Arkansas and “Indian Territory” — between the geographic jurisdictions of those two traditions — already borrows from both.
Rooster Cogburn is cross-examined by defense counsel for Odus Wharton, who Mattie Ross sees this way:
”If ever there was a man with black murder in his countenance it was Odus Wharton. He was a half-breed…. Creeks are good Indians, they say, but a Creek-white like him or a Creek-Negro is something else again.”
So, we have a Federal Marshal who shoots first in a culture biased against people of color.
True Grit debuted in 1968, a year that has come up again and again in this 100-day series of mine. It was first published in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post. Hard to imagine Portis’ writing is not informed in part by the Civil Rights movement. Little Rock became synonymous with segregation ten years earlier as the site of the Little Rock Nine — Black students who were prevented from attending Little Rock Central High School by the Arkansas National Guard under the orders of segregationist Governor Orval Faubus.
Portis writing is sharp and often funny despite the heavy themes I’m pulling out here. Hard to put down between chapters. I will learn more about Portis — who died in February in Little Rock — and what he does with these loaded building blocks of character and story as I (and those reading along at #APStogether led by author Ed Park) work through the novel in the next couple of weeks. I expect we’re being set up for a few surprises in this exploration of revenge and justice.