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Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was first published in the November 18, 1865, edition of The New York Saturday Press. It was under the title of “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.” The story was also published as “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” is set in a gold-mining camp in Calaveras County, California. It originated out of the folklore of the Gold Rush era. It was one of Twain’s earliest writings, and helped him establish his reputation as a humorist.
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The adventure of Jim Smiley’s jumping frog continues to be a basis of Mark Twain’s legacy as a humorist. Twain’s real name is Samuel L. Clemens. He lived from 1835-1910. He composed the account in 1865 while working as a journalist in San Francisco. By his own testimony, he had heard an adaptation of the adventure in 1865 during a trip to the mining camps of Jackass Hill and Angel’s Camp in northern California with Jim and William Gillis-brothers of Steve Gillis, an acquaintance and newspaperman from Twain’s days on the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. While at Angels Camp, Twain heard a number of tales that, as his notebook entries from the time make clear, provided inspiration for later writings. Among these was one recorded in his notebook as follows: “Coleman with his jumping frog-bet drifter $50-stranger had no frog, & C got him one-in the concurrently drifter abounding C’s frog abounding of attempt & he couldn’t jump-the stranger’s frog won” (Mark Twain’s Notebooks and Journals, p. 80). The actual teller of the tale is often identified as Ben Coon, whom Twain mentions in his notebook: “Met Ben Coon, Ill river pilot here” (p. 75), but Twain did not make the connection explicit.
He eventually included it as the title adventure in his collection of tales. “The Jumping Frog” was originally told in epistolary form-that is, as a letter-though some reprints of the account omitted this letter-frame convention. In the story, Twain recounts his visit, fabricated at the appeal of a acquaintance back East, to an old man called Simon Wheeler in a California mining camp. Wheeler tells Mark Twain a bright adventure about a miner, Jim Smiley. According to Wheeler, Smiley loved to make bets; he would bet on about anything. Wheeler relates some of Smiley’s gambling escapades, one of which includes a pet frog. Critics frequently cite this adventure as an example of a tall tale and make note of Twain’s use of humor and exaggeration.
They additionally emphasize the tale’s satirical focus on storytelling and cultural differences among the western and eastern regions of the United States. Jim Smiley, who would bet on about anything, trained a frog to jump so good that Smiley wagered his frog would exhaust any other. A drifter takes Jim’s bet, admitting he confesses to having no frog of his own and banishment Jim back to the marsh to catch one for him. In Smiley’s absence, the drifter takes authority of Smiley’s frog, pries open its mouth and pours a bellyful of buckshot down its throat. When Smiley pits his frog against the stranger’s frog, frog is stuck to the ground. Unable to jump, the frog loses the contest, and Smiley loses his wager. What makes the story so effective is Twain’s handling of the obvious tall tale. While telling the adventure to the narrator in dialect, Wheeler prolongs the contest of the account by bringing in accidental material, red herrings that circle and bathe about but resemble little relevance to the action. Yet the reader is aware that Wheeler knows what he is doing. His dead commitment is part of the hoax; the cheat played on the narrator while telling the story to the narrator in dialect, Wheeler prolongs the events of the tale by bringing in extraneous material, red herrings that circle and swim about but bear little relevance to the main action. Yet the reader is aware that Wheeler knows what he is doing. His dead commitment is part of the hoax; part of the trickery played on the narrator whose style of literary formality contrasts humorously with Wheeler’s colloquial freedom. The plot of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” starts out with the narrator visiting Simon Wheeler. Simon Wheeler inquires about Leonidas W. Smiley. Wheeler does not remember Leonidas, but he remembers Jim Smiley quite well. The narrator’s story about meeting Wheeler frames Simon Wheeler’s recollection of Jim Smiley. (Bloom 14)
Multiple themes are in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” These include gambling, cunning and cleverness, competition, and lies and deceit just to name a few.
Jim Smiley is a gambler. He will bet on about anything and most of the time he wins. He takes advantage of tendency for other people to underestimate things based on appearances. He leads people on by assuming to be oblivious about the bet, but he never deceives them outright. When he loses the bet on the frog, it’s easy to feel sorry for him, because he’s not a sore loser. When he finds out he’s been cheated, his anger is absolutely understandable. Dan’l Webster is named after Daniel Webster the statesman. Dan’l Webster is the frog that Jim Smiley used in his bets. He beats all the competition until the day the drifter fills him with quail shot, immobilizing him. Then he burps out some of the quail shot, which clues Smiley in to what happened. Following Dan’l’s final, unsuccessful, jumping contest, Smiley is utterly baffled by the loss. He is unaware that his challenger–“the stranger,” an alien reality who “collides” with Calaveras County–has fully filled Dan’l Webster with quail-shot, preventing the animal from moving: “The new frog hopped off lively, but Dan’l didn’t give a heave, and hysted up his shoulders–so–like a Frenchman, but it warn’t no use–he couldn’t budge; he was planted as solid as a church …” (Venturino 593) Dan’l is defined by movement –he is, after all, the notorious jumping frog of Calaveras County: we would expect his negative “different reality” would arise from immobility and a paralysis that both contains Dan’l and comprises him.
The successful mixture of dialect, delay, deadpan tone, and absurd detail makes this story a fine example of the tall-tale tradition in American literature. Twain himself later told his wife he thought it “the best humorous sketch America has produced yet,” and the “Jumping Frog” has lived in the anthologies since. Writing in his autobiography, Twain recalled that his story “certainly had a wide celebrity . . . but I was aware that it was only the frog that was celebrated. It wasn’t I. I was still an obscurity.”
Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers Mark Twain. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1999. 75. Print.
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County: Introduction.” Short Stories for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 8 April 2011.
Twain, Mark. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Magill Book Reviews. Salem Press, 1995. eNotes.com. 2006. 8 Apr, 2011
Venturino, Steven J. “The Notorious Jumping Reader of Calaveras County: Twain, Blanchot, and a Dialectic of Storytelling.” The Midwest Quarterly 49.4 (2008): 374+. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 8 Apr. 2011.
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Novel Guide. Thomson Gale, 2006. Web. 8 Apr 2011.
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