December 3, 2012

"NOT TO OFFEND BARBERS":

Charles Portis, a Journalist With True Grit : The novelist Charles Portis, best known for his novels Norwood and True Grit, was also a brilliant reporter, and with the likes of Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin, helped introduce New Journalism. Jay Jennings, the editor of the new collection Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, on the legacy of Portis's reporting on the civil rights movement. (Jay Jennings, 9/25/12, Daily Beast)

In his fiction and magazine pieces over more than a half-century, the novelist Charles Portis, most celebrated for True Grit and much admired by fellow writers like Roy Blount Jr., Donna Tartt, and Wells Tower, has made relentless fun of journalists of all stripes. Ray Midge, the copy editor who tracks his errant wife to Mexico in The Dog of the South, comments about the fellow copy editor who stole her away: "His dress was sloppy even by newspaper standards." In Masters of Atlantis, newspaper people "treat as pests those who walk in off the street with inquiries, or even news." In a New Yorker humor piece, he describes the "journalist ants" of Burma, "scurrying about on the forest floor and gathering tiny facts." And in a long travel story about a river in Arkansas--included in the upcoming collection of his work I edited, Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany--he offers an opinion on both the climate debate and himself as a journalist: "Knowing nothing about changing weather patterns, but, being a journalist and thus having no scruples about commenting on the matter, I think they may well have changed."

These various put-downs, especially of himself, are a dodge, because although Portis the novelist is press-shy and publicity-averse, in his early career he was a skilled, diligent, and sometimes brilliant journalist, which the selection of his best newspaper work in Escape Velocity will demonstrate. After serving in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, he studied journalism at the University of Arkansas. (Looking back at those years in an interview with fellow newspaperman Roy Reed, he said, "I must have thought it would be fun and not very hard, something like barber college. Not to offend the barbers. They probably provide a more useful service.")

After graduating, he worked briefly at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, moved to the Arkansas Gazette in 1959 (a year after the paper had won two Pulitzer Prizes for covering the integration crisis at Little Rock Central High), and then began a four-year stint (1960-64) with The New York Herald Tribune, ending as London bureau chief before he quit to write novels. At the latter, he shared a newsroom with Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, and other reporters who were stretching their craft into what came to be known as New Journalism. In fact, in a 1972 piece in New York magazine excavating that "movement," Wolfe cites Portis as one of the preeminent feature writers in the city who followed the philosophy that "it just might be possible to write journalism that would ... read like a novel." Wolfe's own flamboyant style bears little resemblance to Portis's straightforward one, but in their reporting both showed--and eventually brought back to their respective novels--expertise in conveying "scene" and an eye for the telling detail. These qualities and other examples of Portis's extraordinary abilities as a journalist are best seen in his brief, overlooked tenure on the civil-rights beat, particularly during a busy spring and summer in the South in 1963.


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Posted by at December 3, 2012 5:04 AM
  
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