What True Grit has to say about American communities
Americans have a particular relationship to their home. Based more on an idea than on blood, creed, or soil, Americanness is at once less stationary but more deeply felt than other national identities. We cannot claim the same felt sense of permanence that our ancestors in the Old Country did, but we nevertheless (or for that reason?) dearly love our hard-won civilization. Central to this sustaining tension is Americans' shared idea of mobility, both geographic and socio-economic.
But Americans' mobility is not simply expansionist—not merely movement for the sake of movement. It is constructive. We stumble onto wilderness and, slowly and with great sacrifice, build civilization. This proclivity to constructive wandering constitutes a central theme of that most American of movie genres, Westerns. In confronting the great Western frontier, Americans had to grapple with fundamental questions about progress, tradition, and the ends of a political order. They had to ask themselves why they were leaving their old homes, what sort of homes they sought to establish, and even what makes a home in the first place. The best Westerns dramatize these struggles and give voice to the American story, which is at heart one of making home in a strange world.
True Grit, the 1968 novel by Charles Portis twice adapted for the silver screen, follows a precocious fourteen-year-old girl in her quest to avenge her father's murder. Maddie Ross' journey brings her from her sleepy backwater of Dardanelle, Arkansas, to Fort Smith, Texas, and into the heart of the Choctaw Nation. Maddie is conspicuously young—forced by circumstance to take up her mission because of the lack of courage, will, or ability (i.e., the lack of "grit") in the adults around her. "Mama was never any good at sums," Maddie explains, "and she could hardly spell ‘cat.'" This is not meant to disparage; Maddie says of her mother that she "had a serene and loving heart … like Mary."
But precisely because of her Marian virtue, Maddie's mama cannot take up this mission; she cannot forge ahead. Maddie, on the other hand, is clear-eyed in realizing the need for justice, and is willing to act in pursuance of it. Importantly, Maddie turns to the law for balance. She doesn't just want to see her father's murderer dead; she wants to see him convicted and punished for the crime of killing her father. As she tells the eccentric Texas Ranger Laboeuf, who is also after the same criminal for a different crime: "I did not want him brought to Texas, to have a Texas punishment administered for a Texas crime." A constant theme of Western film and literature is the balance between barbarism and law—in Maddie's unironic insistence on legal recourse for her father's death, she stands as a sort of exemplar of civilizational progress, an overcoming of the lex talionis. But this progress is meant to preserve a certain stable order of the home that her father's death has upset. For Maddie the nexus between law, home, and justice is a tight one. Paradoxically, this quest uproots her from her home, bringing her deep into a dangerous wilderness where she almost dies.
In the climactic scene, Maddie is captured by a band of criminals, including the man who killed her father, and must look to the shady one-eyed U.S. Marshall she's enlisted for help, Rooster Cogburn, to rescue her. Rooster (played memorably by John Wayne in the 1969 film but even more ably by Jeff Bridges in the 2010 version) has a different conception of justice than Maddie—one not tied to the soil or the law. But this conception does not undermine his intuitive sense of right and wrong. For this reason Rooster lies somewhat outside of the bounds of civilized society, despite his role as an enforcer of its boundaries. Disgraced (Rooster fought for the infamous Confederate marauder William Quantrill and robbed a federal bank before becoming a Marshall), divorced (Rooster's wife left him for a clerk at a hardware store), and often drunk, Rooster is not fettered by the same bonds of home, family, or duty that Maddie is. So when Rooster finds himself hopelessly outnumbered by the criminal gang, he does not turn and run—instead, he "took the reins in his teeth" and charges ahead, firing from both hands. This sends a number of the gang flying, and Rooster's good aim dispatches the rest.
Explaining this tactic earlier in the book, Rooster ventures to "guess they was all married men who loved their families as they scattered and run for home." That is, the strong ties of home are what keep most men from risking their lives, preventing them from daring to great or noble deeds; likewise Rooster's uprooted existence lends him a degree of freedom, and it is a great act of heroism that he – eventually – commits this freedom to a just cause. Maddie's quest for justice, rooted in familial loyalty, becomes Rooster's quest for salvation, made possible precisely by his lack of loyalties. The fact that Rooster owes Maddie nothing by convention or by blood, but nevertheless chooses to make her cause his own (not only saving Maddie from the criminals but carrying her on foot through the night to a doctor after she is bitten by a viper) shows how the bonds of civilization form and expand beyond clan or tribe. Maddie repays Rooster's sacrifice by laying his body to rest on her land, assimilating him into a family he never had.
Maddie's sense of injustice, which might have never risen above the level of base revenge, is elevated by the constraints and tutelage of law; and Rooster's will, which has proven violent and destructive in the past, is elevated by an act of love. Thus True Grit suggests that to conquer the frontier and build a society worth living in, a citizenry must be capable of both order and caritas.
It is noteworthy also that, after her adventures with Rooster, Maddie never marries. She becomes wealthy and assiduously pious in a Presbyterian sort of way, and her neighbors come to think of her as a "cranky old maid." She spurns such judgment, saying she "never had the time to get married" and that it's "nobody's business" anyways. What of this sternness? The "grit" that propelled Maddie through her trials in the Choctaw Nation seems also to have overridden whatever natural inclinations she may have had to quiet domesticity. Maddie sacrificed part of herself (literally—the viper bite costs her an arm) in her search for justice, and she now stands somehow beyond the bounds of conventional society. But rather than discrediting her, Maddie's aloofness highlights how normalcy tends to depend on certain great individuals who cannot participate in it themselves. Maddie took up her mission when her loving mother couldn't, and it is upon Maddie that, in some sense, her family's respectability depends, even if she doesn't expand the family herself.
These tensions – between order and barbarism, justice and revenge, charity and duty – sustain the American quest for community. They animated the restive frontier spirit, out of which so much life and goodness has sprung. And they make clear the degree to which sacrifice is central to the enterprise of building culture. The great American director John Ford grasped this same insight—when Tom Doniphan (John Wayne) shoots and kills the vicious outlaw Liberty Valence (Lee Marvin) but lets Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) take the credit, winning the hand of a woman they both love and rising to the rank of senator, he is sacrificing his own humanity for the sake of the future. "You taught her how to read and write," Doniphan reminds a hesitant Stoddard, "now give her something to read and write about!" And in Ford's masterpiece, The Searchers, Ethan (John Wayne once again), a stranger or even antagonist to his extended family's domesticity, enters into the depths of Indian territory to reclaim his kidnapped niece before walking off to "wander forever between the winds."
Our culture was built by men and women of extraordinary grit, who took up the unenviable task of setting up a civilization they themselves would not live to fully enjoy. In this way the American West, and the films that depict it, shed some light on what it means to make home: Not a Rockwell-esque scene of glowing tranquility, but a self-emptying process of construction. It is this spirit that has and ought to still define our American approach to community.
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