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 style of the first paragraph of the letter has a kind of prim formality about it and the sophisticated facility of an educated writer barely able to suppress his grudging suspicion that he has been made the fool.
This style of fastidious restraint continues, but when Wheeler begins to speak, the prose relaxes into a homey, genial vulgarity and sly wit which immediately establishes the old man as a master teller of tall tales. Whether the story is true hardly matters; its real power lies in the telling. The way in which the “fifteen-minute nag” fumbles her way to the finish line and the look that Andrew Jackson, the bull-pup, gives to Smiley after the defeat by a dog without hind legs are examples of how skilled Twain was in writing cleverly without seeming to be writing at all.
Twain shows equal skill in the dialogue between Smiley and his supposed victim. The repetitions, the grammatical errors, the misspellings to indicate accent, and the wary rejoinders have a seamlessness about them which gives them an air of authenticity, of improvisational vivacity, which is part of Twain’s charm as a comic writer. The story’s success lies in Twain’s ability to make it sound like the real thing: the loose-tongued babble of an old man who has caught another innocent fellow by the ear. Twain, the victim, twice-bitten (once by Ward and once by Smiley’s narrator, Simon Wheeler), can only get away, if good-naturedly, by running for cover. The story’s secret is not the trick it describes but the structure and use of style.
Beyond its technical cleverness, however, the popularity of the story lay in large part in the fact that Twain refrains from patronizing his unlettered inhabitants of Calaveras County. Smiley may have been fooled this time, but he is usually the victor and is likely to rebound. His proposed victim is to be congratulated on his quickness of mind; Simon Wheeler may be a bit long-winded, but he tells a good story. If anyone is made to look the fool, it is Twain, the aggrieved letter writer, whose proper way with grammar has not made him any less susceptible to a harmless practical joke. The story’s tone, in fact, is one of generosity and good nature. The joke is ultimately on Twain, and he takes it well.
It was this kind of happy tomfoolery in the early stories, with the acceptance of rural America as a place not without its own kind of bucolic silliness and occasional quick wit, which readers and audiences liked about the young writer and performer. The tougher, sharper Twain was yet to come.