(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

True Grit is a study of the indomitable spirit of three representative Americans: a hard-living, heavy-drinking lawman, Rooster Cogburn; young Mattie Ross, who hires Cogburn because of his reputation for grit and who proves herself to possess the same quality; and Sergeant LaBoeuf, a disciplined, clean-living lawman who is mercenary enough to contemplate maximum reward money. In varying degrees, all the characters in the novel, including the outlaws, either have “true grit” or show respect for it.

In seven unnumbered chapters, this short novel re-creates the idiom, melodrama, and morality of nineteenth century adventure fiction, particularly the dime-novel Western adventure stories. The events are related by Mattie Ross, who, in her late fifties or early sixties, looks back from her current situation as an unmarried, one-armed banker caring for her invalid mother, to the second year of the Rutherford B. Hayes Administration. Back then, her father, Frank Ross, had ridden from his home near Dardanelle in Yell County, Arkansas, to Fort Smith to purchase horses and had been shot to death and robbed by his companion, Tom Chaney. She recalls the details of her determined and ultimately successful mission, as a fourteen-year-old, to make Chaney pay for his crime.

She is first accompanied, traveling from her home to Fort Smith, by Yarnell Poindexter, a freeborn black man from Illinois, whom her father had hired to look after the Ross family and farm until his return from Fort Smith. Mattie shows her spunk early by winning a battle of wills with Colonel Stonehill, the fort’s auctioneer: He is intimidated by her threat of legal action and repurchases horses he had sold to her father. As she sets out in pursuit of Chaney, her companions are the fortyish Cogburn, for whose services she has agreed to pay one hundred dollars, and a thirtyish Texas Ranger sergeant with the gender-bent name of LaBoeuf who, intent upon both justice and a large reward, is pursuing Chaney for a murder that Chaney had committed in Texas.

Cogburn and LaBoeuf constitute an odd couple. Although they are separated in age by only a decade, LaBoeuf is of...

(The entire section is 884 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

True Grit is a first-person narrative that exploits the tradition of the “innocent eye”—a story seen through the eyes of an unsophisticated adolescent—a tradition going back at least to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The narrator-protagonist, Mattie Ross, is fourteen, the same age Huck was when he experienced his adventures on the mighty Mississippi. Mattie’s narration, however, strikes a very different tone from Huck’s for two reasons. First, Mattie is looking back over a period of fifty years on the events she recounts. Second, Mattie was much the same at fourteen as she is in her sixties—the kind of girl who is an adult from birth.

The setting is Arkansas and the Indian Territory in the late 1870’s. Mattie lives on a farm in Yell County, Arkansas, located near Dardanelle, an Old South settlement on the banks of the Arkansas River. Mattie’s father, Frank Ross, travels on business to Fort Smith—where the West begins—and there he is shot down and robbed by Tom Chaney, one of his farmhands. Chaney flees into the Indian Territory and joins a band of outlaws led by Lucky Ned Pepper. Mattie leaves her mother, sister, and brother at home and travels to Fort Smith, ostensibly to claim her father’s effects but in reality to bring Tom Chaney to justice.

Portis utilizes his Presbyterian background and the cultural geography of his home state to their fullest effect. Mattie is a girl of the Old South. She is self-confident and self-righteous in her flinty Protestantism, prim, proper, absolutely single-minded, and totally lacking in patience for the follies of others. She is also cool-headed, dogged, and courageous. She habitually speaks in the elevated prose of genteel Victorian literature. To her, Dardanelle and Yell County represent civilization, and she repeatedly threatens the frontier barbarians of Fort Smith with her family lawyer, J. Noble Daggett. These are the days of Judge Isaac Parker, the notorious “hanging judge,” and Mattie witnesses the public hanging of three outlaws on her first day in Fort Smith.

To bring in Chaney, Mattie turns to Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, U.S. deputy marshal for the Western District of Arkansas. Cogburn is approaching middle age, has lost an eye, is growing fat, and drinks too much. Mattie is looking for someone with grit, however, and Cogburn has killed twenty-three men in the past four years; he appears to possess the desired commodity. Rooster is unwilling to accept the commission without some payment in advance, and Mattie’s machinations in...

(The entire section is 1055 words.)