Portis has been described as "one of the most inventively comic writers of western fiction".
Charles Portis was born in 1933 to Samuel Palmer and Alice Waddell Portis in El Dorado, Arkansas. He was raised and educated in various towns in southern Arkansas, including Hamburg and Mount Holly.
During the Korean War, Portis enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and reached the rank of sergeant. After receiving his discharge in 1955, he enrolled in the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He graduated with a degree in journalism in 1958.
Portis began writing in college, for both the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville student newspaper, Arkansas Traveler, and the Northwest Arkansas Times. One of his tasks was to redact the colorful reporting of "lady stringers" in the Ozarks, a task credited as a source for the vivid voice which he created years later for his character Mattie Ross in True Grit. After Portis graduated, he worked for various newspapers as a reporter, including almost two years at the Arkansas Gazette, for which he wrote the "Our Town" column.
He moved to New York, where he worked for four years at the New York Herald Tribune. His work led him to return to the South frequently to cover civil rights–related stories during the early 1960s. After serving as the London bureau chief of the New York Herald Tribune, he left journalism in 1964.
Portis returned to Arkansas and began writing fiction full-time. In his first novel, Norwood (1966), he showed his preference for travel narratives with deadpan dialogue, combined with amusing observations on American culture. Set sometime from 1959 through 1961, the novel revolves around Norwood Pratt, a young, naïve ex-Marine living in Ralph, Texas. He is persuaded by con-man Grady Fring (the first of several such characters created by Portis) to transport a pair of automobiles to New York City. Norwood encounters a variety of people on the way to New York and back, including ex-circus midget Edmund Ratner ("the world’s smallest perfect fat man"), Joann ("the college educated chicken"), and Rita Lee, a girl Norwood woos and wins on the bus ride back to the South. Norwood was adapted as a movie in 1970, starring Glen Campbell as the title character, with Kim Darby and the football star Joe Namath.
Like Norwood, his novel True Grit (1968) was first serialized in condensed form in The Saturday Evening Post. The story is told in first person from the perspective of Yell County native Mattie Ross. At the time of the novel's events, she is a prim, shrewd, strong-willed, Bible-quoting 14-year-old girl. When her father is murdered in Fort Smith by Tom Chaney, a hired hand, she sets out to bring the killer to justice. She recruits Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn — in whom Mattie sees one possessed of "grit" — to help her hunt down Chaney (who has joined an outlaw band) to "avenge her father’s blood". Both satirical of Westerns and realistic, the novel succeeded through its taut story line, Mattie’s believable narrative voice, sharp dialogue, and a journalistic attention to details.
Both Norwood and True Grit were adapted as movies starring fellow Arkansan Glen Campbell and Kim Darby, and were commercially successful. John Wayne won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his performance as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, one of the top box office hits of 1969. True Grit was released on June 11, 1969, earning USD$14.25 million at the box office. A second film version, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, debuted in December 2010.
Portis published several short pieces in The Atlantic Monthly, including the memoir "Combinations of Jacksons" and the story "I Don't Talk Service No More".
As of 2010, Portis lived in Little Rock, Arkansas.
1968: True Grit
1979: The Dog of the South
1985: Masters of Atlantis
Nonfiction2012: Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany
Short fiction, articles, etc."The New Sound from Nashville," The Saturday Evening Post, 239 (12 February 1966): 30–38.
"Traveling Light," The Saturday Evening Post, 239 (18 June 1966): 54–77 ; 239 (2 July 1966): 48–75. (The revised, serialized version of Norwood).
"True Grit," The Saturday Evening Post, 241 (18 May 1968): 68–85; 241 (1 June 1968): 46–61; 241 (15 June 1968): 44–57. (The condensed, serialized version of True Grit).
"Your Action Line", The New Yorker Archive, 53 (12 December 1977): 42–43. Faulkner Wells, Dean, ed. The Great American Writers' Cookbook. Oxford: Yoknapatawpha Press (1981).
"Nights Can Turn Cool in Viborra", The Atlantic Monthly, 270 (Dec. 1992): 101–106.
"I Don't Talk Service No More." The Atlantic Monthly, May, 1996, Vol. 277, No. 5, pp. 90–92.
"Combinations of Jacksons." The Atlantic Monthly, May, 1999, Vol. 283, No. 5, pp. 81–92. (A Memoir).