[Yarnell] was born of free parents in Illinois but a man named Bloodworth kidnapped him in Missouri and brought him down to Arkansas just before the war. Yarnell was a good man, thrifty and industrious, and he later became a famous housepainter in Memphis, Tennessee. (1.7)
Mattie doesn't spend a lot of time holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome," but we get the sense that, in the 1950s, she would have been facing down the firehoses and riot police with the other civil rights activists. For her time, seeing a black man as a man—not to mention a good man—was practically radical talk.
When the conductor came through he said, "Get that trunk out of the aisle, n*****."
I replied to him in this way, "We will move the trunk but there is no reason to be so hateful about it.
[…] He saw that I had brought to all the darkies attention how little he was. (2.3-5)
Slavery has legally been over for about ten years, but there's still a long way to go—obviously, since Mattie frowns on the n-word but substitutes "darkies" as an acceptable alternative. But, again, this is totally progressive for the time.
The Irishman said, "If ye would loike to kiss him it will be all roight."
I said, "No, put the lid on." (2.19-20)
LOL, silly accents. Here, Mattie is giving us the Irish undertaker's accent to (1) make us laugh, and (2) suggest that Fort Smith is a multicultural metropolis. In the nineteenth century, Irish immigrants got just as much bad press as undocumented immigrants from Mexico today—if not more.
He was a half-breed with eyes that were mean and close-set and that stayed open all the time like snake eyes. I was a face hardened in sin. Creeks are good Indians, they say, but a Creek-white like him or a Creek-N**** is something else again. (3.257)
Mattie may be open-minded when it comes to Indians and black people, but she's not so generous when it comes to mixed-race people. But why? Is this Portis giving her character depth, or is it suggesting something about American attitudes towards intermarriage?
LaBoeuf said he was not accustomed to such a big fire, that in Texas they frequently had little more than a fire of twigs and buffalo chips with which to warm up their beans. (6.57)
Okay, we threw this one in just for laughs. Mattie just will not stop with the Texas versus Arkansas rivalry thing; she's as bad as a Hogs fan.
He reminded me of some of those Slovak people that came in here a few years ago to cut barrel staves. The ones that stayed usually made good citizens. People from those countries are usually Catholic if they are anything. They love candles and beads. (6.94)
Mattie isn't exactly saying anything bad here, but she is making some pretty sweeping generalizations, and her tone is judgmental and condescending. At the same time, if we read past Mattie's tone we can see America as a multicultural nation of immigrants—which is exactly what it was. Even Mattie's family was from somewhere else.
"I lost it in the fight at Lone Jack outside of Kansas City. My horse was down too and I was all but blind. Cole Younger crawled out under a hail of fire and pulled me back." (6.247)
Here, Rooster reveals to Mattie that he lost his eye in a Civil War battle. This is a subtle reminder that America as we know it almost wasn't—just ten years before the story takes place, there was a huge, destructive, bloody war about whose vision of America was going to dominate.
"Rooster" Cogburn will amaze you with his skill and dash with the six-shooter and repeating rifle! Don't leave the ladies and little ones behind! Spectators can watch this unique exhibition in perfect safety. (7.326)
Rooster's final job was performing in Wild West Shows, popular in the late nineteenth century. Talk about a vision of America: these shows gave cushy East Coasters a look at the rough-and-tumble world on the other side of the Mississippi River without ever having to set foot in Indian Territory.