I am forever asking writers, “Who are the writers who make you want to write.” For me, the first and best answer to that question is Charles Portis, the novelist best known for True Grit. I don’t suppose I could ever do what he did as a storyteller, but he has always made me want to try. I am sorry to say that Mr. Portis died yesterday, at the age of 86, in Little Rock, Arkansas.
In 1998, Ron Rosenbaum published a paean to Charles Portis in Esquiremagazine, praising him as “our least-known great writer”:
Perhaps the most original, indescribable sui generis talent overlooked by literary culture in America. A writer who—if there’s any justice in literary history as opposed to literary celebrity—will come to be regarded as the author of classics on the order of a twentieth-century Mark Twain, a writer who captures the soul of America, the true timbre of the dream-intoxicated voices of this country, in a way that no writers’-workshop fictionalist has done or is likely to do…
Tom Wolfe once spoke about the way city-born creative-writing types go directly from East Coast hothouse venues to places like Iowa City, where “they rent a house out in the countryside, and after about their fifth conversation with a plumber named Lud, they feel that they know the rural psyche.”
Charles Portis is the real thing to which these grad-school simulacra can only aspire in their wildest dreams. He is a wild dreamer of a writer.