Old Yeller


Fred Gipson

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Old Yeller Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Fred Gipson's Old Yeller. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Fred Gipson

Fred Gipson was born on a farm in the rural Texas Hill Country—a place that would serve as the setting for many of his novels. After studying at the University of Texas at Austin, Gipson became a journalist and wrote short stories on the side. His stories and early novels were set in Texas, and they often told stories of men and young boys navigating the hostile natural environment of the Wild West. Gipson’s novels had already been widely printed and adapted for the screen prior to the 1956 publication of Old Yeller—but the story of a young boy, Travis Coates, and his faithful “yeller” dog became a runaway hit when Walt Disney Studios adapted it into a film in 1957. Old Yeller, the recipient of the 1957 Newbery Medal and the 1959 William Allen White Children’s Book Award, has become a staple of children’s literature over the years. Gipson went on to write several more books, including two more about the Coates family.
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Historical Context of Old Yeller

Old Yeller is set in the late 1860s, soon after the end of the Civil War in 1865. During the events of the book, Travis Coates’s Texas is in a period of Reconstruction. Though Travis and his family live in a rural community and are largely insulated from the politics of the time, the mid-to-late 1860s saw great unrest throughout the state of Texas. The newly elected Eleventh Texas Legislature refused to ratify either the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, or the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to Black Americans. Only in 1870 would the Texas legislature ratify the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments; then, at last, President Ulysses S. Grant proclaimed Reconstruction in Texas over and readmitted Texas into the United States. While there is no official record of the hydrophobia (rabies) outbreak that happens in the book, the first reports of rabies in Texas did come from cattle drivers (like Burn Sanderson in Old Yeller) who reported being attacked by “phoby cats” in the middle of the night during long drives through the desert in the mid-1800s. By 1884, French scientist Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine to aid in the prevention of rabies. 

Other Books Related to Old Yeller

Old Yeller was inspired heavily by Fred Gipson’s own boyhood in the Texas Hill Country. Gipson likely drew inspiration from popular Western novels of the time, such as Alan Le May’s The Searchers (1954) and Jack Schaefer’s Shane (1949), the latter of which concerns a grown man’s recollections about his boyhood fascination with a mysterious ranch hand. In Old Yeller, Travis’s idolization of both his Papa and Burn Sanderson mirrors Shaefer’s narrator’s ideas about masculinity and cowboy culture. Additionally, like Old Yeller, Jack London’s 1903 classic The Call of the Wild centers around a brave, intrepid dog’s adventures. Old Yeller has, in turn, inspired many novels about the friendships that can form between humans and animals—for example, Wilson Rawls’s 1961 children’s novel Where the Red Fern Grows also depicts an intense friendship between a young boy and his hunting dogs. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Shiloh (1991) tells the coming-of-age story of a boy who adopts a beagle who is being abused by its current owner. And Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie (2000) shows how a scruffy stray, just like Old Yeller, helps a young girl learn more about herself and form deeper relationships with those around her. Gipson also wrote two sequels to Old Yeller: Savage Sam (1962) tells the story of the bluetick hound fathered by Old Yeller, while Little Arliss (1978) follows Arliss as he grows from a boy into a young man. 
Key Facts about Old Yeller
  • Full Title: Old Yeller
  • When Written: 1950s
  • Where Written: Texas
  • When Published: 1956
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Children’s Novel
  • Setting: Texas Hill Country in the 1860s
  • Climax: After rabid wolves bite Old Yeller, Travis Coates realizes that he must shoot and kill his beloved dog to protect his family.
  • Antagonist: Hydrophobia (Rabies)
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Old Yeller

Real-life Roots. The character of Old Yeller was based on anecdotes about a dog that Gipson’s mother’s family had in the mid-1800s. The family dog was a Border Collie, not a yellow mutt, and its name was Rattler.