Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Mark Twain, who had made his living as a Mississippi steamboat pilot before the Civil War and had gone on to be a printer, a journalist, and a sometime prospector, could hardly have imagined that his comic tale “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which appeared originally under the more modest title “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” was to change his life forever and establish him in a career which was to lead to him becoming one of America’s greatest writers.
Certainly the tale is moderately amusing, but it seemed to catch the imagination of the American reader, and Twain was to follow it up with equally artful stories and lecture tours which were to make him well known some time before the artistic success of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Part of the reason for the success of the story lies in its moderation, its seeming lack of artfulness. Good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler tells the story to the unsuspecting Mark Twain, who is, in fact, trying to find out about an entirely different man, the Reverend Leonidas W. Smiley. What he gets is a rambling, disjointed, ungrammatical tale of Jim Smiley, who sometime back in 1849 or 1850 had provided the locals with entertainment with his antics as a gambler.
Style is a strong element in the power of the tale. Twain sets himself up as the straight man for the dead-panned raconteur, who, once he gets started, is impossible to stop. Twain (the character) provides part of the amusement in his indignation. His letter to A. Ward (which is the exterior framing device for the story) is a complaint to the effect that Ward (probably Artemus Ward, who was himself a popular humorist) had deliberately misled Twain, knowing that the surname “Smiley” would trigger the long reminiscence in Wheeler. The...
(The entire section is 754 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The narrator, urged by a friend from the East, decides to call on Simon Wheeler, a good-natured and garrulous old fellow who resides at Angel’s Camp, a northern California mining settlement. His errand is to inquire about a certain Reverend Leonidas W. Smiley, but he, the narrator, is already half persuaded that Leonidas W. Smiley never existed. Asking about him will only result in releasing a torrent of Simon Wheeler’s boring reminiscences about Jim Smiley.
Simon Wheeler, a genial man, fat and bald-headed, wears a look of perpetual simplicity and tranquillity. As the narrator suspects, Wheeler cannot place Leonidas W. Smiley, but he does recall the presence of a fellow by the name of Jim Smiley who, some years previously, had been an Angel’s Camp inhabitant. Wheeler’s tone never changes, his voice never wavers from a pattern of earnestness and sincerity as he launches into his tale. He never registers anything but the utmost respect and admiration for the two heroes whose adventures he relates.
Jim Smiley, according to Simon Wheeler, was “always betting on anything that turned up.” He would lay odds on either side of a bet, and if he could not find a taker for the other side, he would simply change sides. He bet on horse races, dog fights, and chicken fights. If he had had the opportunity, he would have bet on how long a straddle bug’s flight was between one destination and another—then he would have followed the bug all the way to Mexico, if he had needed to, in order to win a bet. Smiley would bet on anything.
Smiley loved to employ animals in his betting schemes. He had a mare, an old nag really, but he used to win money on her, for all that she was slow and prey to myriad diseases such as asthma, distemper, and consumption. He also had a bull-pup, named Andrew Jackson, that he had taught...
(The entire section is 754 words.)