Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

That True Grit is Portis’s masterpiece is the result at least in part of its celebratory scope and its thematic depth. It surpassed his exceptionally well-received first novel, Norwood (1966), in critical praise, which continues to identify it as a classic. None of his later novels—The Dog of the South (1979), Masters of Atlantis (1985), and Gringos (1991)—matched his second novel in reception and acclaim. Initial comparisons of Mattie Ross to Huckleberry Finn came to be recognized as superficial and strained. What invites True Grit into the company of American regionalist classics is not coincidental and partial resemblances, but the genuine regionalist’s deeply subjective identification of self with his or her regional roots in a stylistic objectification of that identity.

The style of Portis, a career journalist, is understandably journalistic, but only in that it effects a translation of the merits of good journalism—brevity, concision, lucid exposition, and rapid pace—into fictional narrative. The journalistic element does not account for Portis’s humor, which informs each of his novels from Norwood through Gringos and which neither veers toward the bitter or the sardonic, as Mark Twain’s can, nor intimates social protest, as Erskine Caldwell’s often does. Portis’s humor is usually an appeal, not against injustice, but in favor of the good sense and pragmatic morality that promote justice.