Themes and Meanings
Employing humor and impeccably crisp and credible dialogue to preclude any trace of sentimentality, Portis celebrates in his setting and characters his native Arkansas and the values and virtues of an America resilient enough to continue to live by the mythic dream of integrity and independence from which it is constantly awakened. Portis affirms a noble and heroic America even as he exposes the base accoutrements of nobility and heroism. The noble LaBoeuf is merely an efficient and somewhat narrow-minded policeman. The heroic Cogburn is something of a stubborn vigilante. Nevertheless, LaBoeuf’s noble actions save Cogburn’s life and complement Cogburn’s heroic actions in saving Mattie’s.
Nobility and heroism are tested in a crucible of transition during the two decades that follow the Civil War, and Portis shows them to undergo change without suffering annihilation. The old century moves toward the new century, and Mattie, as an encapsulation of pragmatic and God-fearing America, is as much at home in the new as she had been in the old. The Old South and the Old West, which meet in Arkansas, refashion their ways of living but not their indomitable spirit. Reconstruction will end in 1877 by order of the narrowly elected Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes, in keeping his pledge to the insistent South; the mission of strong-willed and self-confident Mattie begins in the wake of this event.
Moreover, Mattie, with her resoluteness and her facility for moving men into her field of purpose, anticipates the women’s suffrage movement that will culminate in the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, well within her own lifetime. Yarnell Poindexter, standing firm in his freedom and in his work, likewise anticipates the Civil Rights movement, which will begin in the 1940’s and will progress in tandem with a new feminist movement in the 1960’s.
As a celebration of America, with all of its faults and all of its promise, True Grit offers a tentative corrective to Herman Melville’s brilliantly cynical The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857). The book also provides a contrast to negativistic countercultural movements of the 1960’s that often sought to disparage the American archetypes that True Grit embraces.