My take on Mattie is a bit different than Peter’s, but the main difference is that I work more with the Coen brothers’ film—it really is an adaptation, nearly different from the original Portis as a classic poet’s adaptation of Homer might be. They add and subtract quite a bit.
So here’s a tid-bit from the paper, “Cowboys and Corpses: The Moral Perils of the State of Nature in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit ” I’ll be delivering tomorrow at WPSA. You can find the stuff I say about corpses in by search FT for “True Grit Studies”:
We can see that Mattie Ross nurtures three tendencies characteristic of or at least treasured by Americans: 1) commercial/legal acumen, 2) Protestant Christianity, and 3) western heroic manliness. Obviously, she is more suited to the first of these than the latter two, and her story illustrates the tensions between the three. However, the story does not set-up a major tragic clash or choice between these. Mattie never has to directly choose between horse or horse-flesh, book-keeping or the Good Book, Calvin or Achilles. Indeed, her ignorance of these tragic tensions is the essence of her childishness, we might say of her peculiarly 19th-century and American-Southern sort of childishness, that she arguably carries on into adulthood. Rather, her story enacts a tragic conflict between the state of nature and the 2) Christian and 3) heroic tendencies: entering the wild west eventually sends her into a hell-pit, and the enabler and emblem of her heroic desires, Blackie, must die to get her out from it. If the American can only cultivate the heroic qualities if America has a zone of lawlessness that he (or she) can periodically enter, then this zones being poisonous to the souls salvation and to virtue generally really is a tragic situation.
But notice, the story presents no tragic conflict between American commercial/legal acumen and the state of nature. If in Ft. Smith we are struck by the unseemliness of everyone always deal-negotiating, perhaps most notably when the mistress of the boarding house tells Mattie she will give her a used sugar-sack to carry her fathers gun in for a nickel, it is even more prominent and unseemly in the state of nature, where corpses, parts of them, and human lives themselves become objects of trade. The state of nature can be inconvenient to commerce, as the owners and riders of the Katy Flyer find when robbed by Ned Peppers gang, but can readily accommodate it. Indeed, when captured by Peppers gang, Mattie seems to expect that she can cut bargains with the outlaws, offering the services of her lawyer as exchange . . . if one could find a Mattie unconcerned about Biblical right and heroic virtue, she would prove a valuable member for any band of robbers.
Let us say by cowboy we simply mean the person who can survive and thrive in the wild west, who can ride the trail and defend themselves in gunplay; if so, we can see that the Christian cowboy and the heroic cowboy are combinations difficult to achieve. In True Grit, both combinations prove impossible for Mattie, and the Coens version makes us wonder whether they may be inherently impossible. But a Hobbesian cowboy, a Scrooge-ish, mercenary, lawyering-up cowboy, that is a combination entirely possible. And indeed, if one has Matties skills, Ned-Pepper-like Hobbesian practices can be employed in civilization itself, via litigation and predatory business practices. This is why being in the state of nature poses such a moral danger to her: she is both young and already inclined to the civilized versions of state-of-nature ruthlessness. Interestingly, it does not pose such a danger, or poses much less of one, to Rooster. Since in Mattie we have such a striking combination of key American tendencies, what her poisoning represents is the danger the state of nature, as an idea and an actual experience, poses to America. . . .
Civilization has three or four locales in the film: Ft. Smith, Memphis, and the Ross family graveyard in Yell County. The fourth is the Indian settlement Rooster carries Mattie to . . . Obviously, little action is set in any of these locales except Ft. Smith. It comes off very poorly. A widows child and wayfarer is not cared for, but must arrange to sleep amid the dead. And while there may be a lot of talk of justice and such at the Monarch Boarding House, its king is money and self-preservation. If there is any other monarch in Ft. Smith, it is Law, represented by the goings on of Parkers court and gallows, but if we can judge by the (fairly transient) residents of Ft. Smith, it does not seem to be the sort of law that is educating them in virtue. The occupants of the Monarch Boarding House pay their bills, obey the laws, and refuse to take any risk to themselves upon Chaneys crime. Nor, prior to it, do they seek, unlike Frank Ross, to redirect Chaney from his drunken crime-tending ragerather, they mind their own business. Family and community seem absent in Ft. Smith, and what we see is instead is boarding, haggling, lawyering, and hanging, . . . We also see cowboys . . . So, state-of-nature thinking, bound of course by the rules of the social contract, governs all in Ft. Smith, despite weaker Christian tendencies brought to it by characters like Mattie (and in the novel, by Stonehill and Parker also) or the weaker heroic/Southern ones brought to it by characters like Cogburn and LaBoeuf, and Mattie also. Ft. Smith represents a civilization that will turn its gaze away from a good man shot down, and that because it will treat animals as horse-flesh, will ultimately accept that the logic of economic calculation leads to what Péguy called a world universally prostituted because universally interchangeable.
Another facet of American civilization, however, is its rural life, represented by Yell County. It is the place where dignified burial can happen, and where a natural aristocrat, Frank Ross, the combiner of virtues mercantile, Christian, and Southern, could thrive and raise his remarkable daughter. . . . But obviously, the problem with Mattie is that the hard Hobbesian side of the commercial and legal practices, practices presumably necessary for the Ross family to secure their thriving Yell County life, seems to be taking over, eclipsing the familial, Christian, and the Southern virtues she was also raised in. Frank Rosss balancing of the American tendencies seems to be becoming undermined by the civilized application of state-of-nature thinking. . . . we can say that Ft. Smith, the product of Americas commerce and frontier, proves fatal to him . . .
Portis does not permit us to put things as starkly, to imply that the American virtues represented by Frank Ross, Yell County, and Rooster Cogburn, are doomed before the Juggernaut of Modernity, of state-of-nature thinking fully applied, even if he does present those virtues as diminishing and endangered. We should note, for one, that his wild west zone has subtler degrees than that of the Coens: there is a semi-civilized area around the Indian settlements, and the truly wild area beyond Bagbys store. His Ft. Smith and his Mattie likewise contain subtler degrees: Stonehill and Mattie have a brief conversation about true Christian virtue at one point, and there is curious moment when Mattie notes to herself that she was less thrilled than she thought she would be when she got the money for the pony sale. Both she and Stonehill are more Christian, and potentially more reflective about their love of money, than meets the eye. Likewise America.
. . . contrary to what the Coens ambiguous portrayal of him might suggest, Rooster limits his own killing to what he calculates is necessary to help the U.S. enforce justice, i.e., to what Locke would call the second part of the law of nature, to aid in the preservation of others, insofar this does not come into stark competition with his first obligation to preserve his own life. To speak again with some crudebut very American—contrasting of Locke and Hobbes at the latters expense, Rooster is a good Lockean, but what is more, he risks his life in self-sacrificial ways that go beyond what Locke would demand, ways that point towards heroic virtues more Southern (and Christ-like) than the putatively Yankee ones. Portis holds that America needed, and will continue to need, those virtues to protect it from its tendencies most starkly revealed by the wild west situation, a situation that can never entirely disappear given the way crime, murder, and war will always be with us. For Portis, the moral poison Mattie Ross is subjected to has mainly to do with her approach to justice, and to whatever extent it is also a function of the state of nature, her succumbing to it must be contrasted with the fact that Rueben Cogburn does not.
The advantage of the Coens approach is . . . [that] . . . it drives us towards a more radical consideration of the elements that make up the American character. Students of political philosophy can thus learn more readily from it . . . .
The disadvantage, however, is that it makes the American situation more tragic than it may really be. If it takes a man like Rooster, one on the edge-point of criminality himself, to protect American civilization from its frontier and (especially later on) its in-civilization criminality, and if the intrusions into the state of nature by more civilized folks like Mattie Ross, via their passions for justice and heroics, can only morally poison them, and finally if the traits of the outlaw and the sharp trader will tend to be combined, then America is ultimately defenseless against its state-of-nature tendencies, and will eventually be overcome by them, at the hands of ruthless criminals on one hand, and ruthless agents of commerce on the other. The distinction, always tenuous, between Americas state-of-nature and its civilization will disappear entirely, even as the frontier is closed. Because the foundation of the American regime rests upon state-of-nature thinking, Americas wild west will colonize and take over its civilization. The way Mattie is poisoned by it reflects the way America will be also.
So say the Coens.