The best books that capture a 19th century American voice

The Books I Picked & Why

True Grit

By Charles Portis

Book cover of True Grit

Why this book?

I chose all the books on this list because they helped me create a voice for Cathy alive with the intelligence, strength, humor, and resilience that allowed her both to make her heroic decision and to survive the harshest duty the Army could dish out. That voice also had to feel 19th Century and be far more Western than Southern.

There was no better place to start than, True Grit by the writer’s writer, Charles Portis. Renowned as an exemplar of voice, True Grit gives us two indelible characters, fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, who is hunting the hired hand who murdered her father and “Rooster” Cogburn, the drunken U.S. Marshal Mattie hires to track the murderer into Indian Territory.

I love every word Portis has ever written. And so, apparently, does Hollywood as not one, but two, adaptations of True Grit have made it to the screen with more dialogue borrowed directly from the source than any other book to film translation I can think of.

Like the lucky screenwriters who had the good sense not to rewrite perfection, I was utterly taken with and found my own inspiration in Mattie’s distinctively deadpan, forthright voice with its solemnly funny, frontier stoicism.


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Little Big Man

By Thomas Berger

Book cover of Little Big Man

Why this book?

If I were allowed a tie in my rankings, I’d put Little Big Man and True Grit side-by-side if, for no other reason than, IMHO, Thomas Berger is underappreciated. He starts his larger-than-life saga with his protagonist, the 111-year-old Jack Crabbe, stating, “I am a white man and never forget it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten.”

Berger saturated himself in diaries, memoirs, and letters of the 19th Century American West and it shows in the authenticity of Crabbe’s first-person narration as he details his purportedly true adventures that range from cheating Wild Bill Hickok at cards to being the lone white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.

I admit that I cribbed from Crabbe, borrowing juicy sayings of the time that Berger had borrowed before me, like “had the sulks,” “blew out his spark,” and “ain’t got all his buttons.” The captivating language adds immeasurably to a novel that is a delight to read and whips along “twenty mile at the trot.”


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Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay: The Enlisted Soldier Fighting the Indian Wars

By Don Rickey

Book cover of Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay: The Enlisted Soldier Fighting the Indian Wars

Why this book?

I was delighted to discover this compilation of personal accounts by enlisted men who’d served in the U.S. Army during the settling of the American West. Though the educated class of officers left extensive documentation of their lives on the frontier, the illiterate rank and file was unable to chronicle their experiences. Rickey filled this void in the early sixties by interviewing over three hundred troopers, both black and white, still alive at that time.

The wealth of detail about the daily life of a grunt I found in Forty Miles was invaluable to me in creating both Cathy’s voice and the world she passed in as a man.


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Cryin' for Daylight: A Ranching Culture in the Texas Coastal Bend (Texas Coastal Bend Series, No. 1)

By Louise S. O'Connor

Book cover of Cryin' for Daylight: A Ranching Culture in the Texas Coastal Bend (Texas Coastal Bend Series, No. 1)

Why this book?

Louise S. O'Connor, a fifth-generation descendant of an early settler of Texas has always loved the stories of the "old timers,” the cowboys and hands who worked the ranch where she grew up. O’Connor spent seventeen years collecting oral histories about ranch life on the Coastal Bend and compiled those stories into Cryin' for Daylight. Though published in 1989, the language of O’Connor’s isolated, rural, mostly elderly subjects rings with 19th Century authenticity.

I treasure O’Connor’s labor of love for its emphasis on the tragically neglected black cowboys. One such cowboy supplied the title by swearing, “We loved to work cattle so much, we’d just be sittin’ around cryin’ for daylight to come.”


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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

By Mark Twain

Book cover of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Why this book?

Did you think I’d end an examination of the 19th Century American voice without a mention of Twain? Well, think again. Twain was the first to capture colloquial speech in the U.S. and nowhere does he do it better than in Huckleberry Finn.

Though a truly authentic 19th Century voice with its “warn’ts” and “haints” and people who “clumb” trees would be too distracting for a modern reader, Twain was my infallible guide to the spirit that animated the speech of the day. There is nothing I can say to add to Twain’s luster except that, to this day, he remains unsurpassed.


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