The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County Mark Twain
"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" Mark Twain
The following entry presents criticism of Twain's short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." See also, The Mysterious Stranger Criticism.
One of Twain's earliest literary successes and most accomplished early sketches, this 2,600-word narrative was written following a three-month stay at Jackass Hill and Angel's Camp in California's Calaveras County in late 1864 and early 1865. Twain first heard the tale of the jumping frog from Ben Coon, a fixture at the Angel's Camp Hotel bar. He liked the story, jotting down its details in a notebook, but was especially taken with Coon's masterful oral delivery of the anecdote: like other mining camp raconteurs, Coon recounted the episode with utter seriousness for dramatic and humorous effect. This particular brand of deadpan humor told in rich vernacular proved to be most influential on Twain's development as a writer and humorist.
Upon returning to San Francisco from Calaveras County, Twain received a letter from his friend and literary mentor, the writer Artemus Ward, requesting that he send a piece of writing to be included in a work Ward was editing about Nevada Territory travels. Twain thereupon began writing his own version of the frog story, but it took six months and several failed attempts to produce something to his satisfaction. In October 1865 he sent the manuscript of the sketch to New York for inclusion in the Ward collection, but it was turned down, probably because the book was about to go to press. The publisher sent the story to the Saturday Press, where it appeared in November, 1865 as "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog." The tale was an overnight sensation, and was reprinted in magazines and newspapers all over the country. In December 1865 Twain published a revised version of the story in the Californian, and a further revised version was used as the title story in his 1867 collection, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras Country, and Other Sketches. The story has also been published under the title "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," and is often referred to by scholars simply as "The jumping frog story."The tale is told using the structure of a traditional Southwestern frame story, wherein a genteel, educated narrator recounts a story he has heard from an unsophisticated teller, and gives a secondhand account of a career gambler who gets taken by a stranger passing through town. In the earliest published version of the story, Twain himself narrates the frame in the form of a letter to his friend Ward about a visit to the mining camp Noomerang where he hears the story of Jim Greeley's frog. Later versions of the story drop the epistolary structure, use an anonymous narrator, change the name "Noomerang" to "Angel's Camp," and substitute the name "Smiley" for "Greeley."
Plot and Major Characters
The narrator, a mannered Easterner, describes his visit to a mining camp where, on behalf of a friend, he is searching for one Leonidas W. Smiley. He stops in an old tavern, where he meets "goodnatured, garrulous" old Simon Wheeler, who cannot recall a Leonidas Smiley, but does remember a Jim Smiley who lived in the camp around 1849 or 1850. Without prompting, Wheeler launches into an extended narrative about the gambler Smiley and his exploits. Smiley, he says, was "uncommon lucky," and had a reputation for betting on anything he could: horse races, dog fights, and even which of two birds sitting on a fence would fly first. His broken-down old nag somehow always managed to win races when Smiley bet on her. His bullpup, Andrew Jackson, also won all its fights. Smiley also owned rat terriers, chicken cocks, and tom-cats, and wagered on all of them—and won.
Smiley, Wheeler goes on, once caught a frog, which he named Dan'l Webster, and trained him to jump. And that frog was a remarkable jumper, beating out any frog brought from near and far to challenge him. One day a stranger came to the mining camp and, on seeing Smiley's frog, remarked he didn't see anything unusual about it. Smiley wagered $40 that his frog could outjump any other in Calaveras County. Since the stranger had no frog, Smiley went out to find him one. In Smiley's absence, the stranger pried open Dan'l Webster's mouth and filled it with quail-shot. When Smiley brought the new frog to challenge Dan'l, it hopped off, but Dan'l couldn't budge. The stranger took his $40 in winnings and remarked again that he really could not see any special points about Smiley's frog. When Smiley examined his frog and realized what had happened, he took off after the stranger, but never caught him.
At this point in the narrative, Wheeler is called outside. When he returns, he begins a new anecdote about Smiley's tail-less, one-eyed cow, but the narrator, sure he will not learn anything about Leonidas W. Smiley from another "interminable narrative," does not have the patience to listen to it, and departs.
With its complexity of characterization, sophisticated narrative structure, and controlled style, "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" was the best work Twain had written to date, and marks a turning point in his development as an artist. While the sketch has its stylistic roots in the classical Southwestern frame story, there are touches in the tale that are purely Twain's, and which mark his later writing. Some major themes in the story that are found in other Southwestern folktales include that of shrewdness outwitted, as the wily old gambler finally meets his match in the person of the stranger; the confrontation between East and West, between the green Easterner and the slick Westerner, represented by the narrator and Wheeler; and the fantastic, as Wheeler's account of Smiley's assortment of animals and their talents becomes more and more improbable. However, as noted by several scholars, Twain overturns the traditional use of these themes as they are found in conventional Southwestern burlesques. Wheeler's innocence and self-absorbed frankness is a departure from the bragging style of the typical frontiersman. The genteel narrator's tale is not told at the expense of the yokel whose story he recounts, as is typical, but rather the joke is on himself, since his quest for the elusive Leonidas W. Smiley is in vain. Twain elevates the typical Southwestern humorous tale to new heights of sophistication with the creation of memorable characters and events and with his subtle use of shifting points of view and believably wrought narrative voices. The use of satire lurking beneath the surface of a supposedly simple, straightforward tale and the seriousness of voice betraying no recognition of the humor in the situations described are elements found in Twain's later works.
The immediate response to Twain's story was almost entirely positive, and the story was reprinted more than ten times in the decade following its appearance in the Saturday Press. However, Twain was at first uncomfortable with the immediate reputation as a "western humorist" that the story conferred upon him, and dismissed it in an 1866 letter to his mother as a "villainous backwoods sketch." But his estimation of the story grew when he eventually cast off the bohemian sophistication he had hoped to achieve and recognized that public acceptance of this particular brand of writing and the persona of a "wild man of the West" could be a literary asset. Ten years after its initial publication, he wrote and published an elaboration of the story, called "The Jumping Frog in English, Then in French, Then Clawed Back into Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil," in response to a poor French translation of the tale and its accompanying unflattering assessment of his place in American letters. A further indication of the importance he attributed to the story is that almost twenty years later, Twain published "The Private History of the Jumping Frog Story," in which he considers a contemporary scholar's (unbeknownst to him, erroneous) claim that the frog story had a prototype in Greek literature.
Critical analysis of the story has focused on many issues, but all recognize that the story marks a transition in Twain's development as a writer, and agree that the seeds of his later genius are clearly found in the sketch. Early discussions tended to stress the story's origins in Southwestern folklore and its relationship to the work of other Westerners writing in the same genre. The first sustained critical commentary dealing with the content of the sketch was presented in 1950 by Edgar M. Branch, who pointed out the relationship between the storytellers Mark Twain and Simon Wheeler as representations of Eastern and Western sensibilities. Modern critics have taken up this point and have examined the related contrast between the narrative methods and structures of the two men's tales, which, they consider, tell us something about their attitudes. Some scholars have pointed out that there are actually several layers of stories within the framed story, and each successive tale in turn reveals the attitudes of characters toward each other: the genteel narrator's attitude toward Wheeler, Wheeler's attitude toward Smiley, Smiley's attitude toward the stranger, etc. Other critical analyses reveal the circumstances in Twain's life that occasioned the writing of the tale; examine Twain's use of satire; discuss humorous techniques found in the story that are developed in later works; understand the story as an assertion of true American values; and show how Twain's genius unfolds in this early work.
SOURCE: "Private History of the 'Jumping Frog' Story," in How to Tell a Story and Other Essays, Harper & Brothers, 1897, pp. 149-63.
[In the following essay, originally published in the North American Review in 1894, Twain compares his story to a similar frog story that a scholar had claimed was of ancient Greek origins. In doing so, Twain reveals something of his attitude toward the narrator from whom he first heard the story. He then goes on to "retranslate " in humorous manner a bad French version of the story back into English.]
Five or six years ago a lady from Finland asked me to tell her a story in our negro dialect, so that she could get an idea of what that variety of speech was like. I told her one of Hopkinson Smith's negro stories, and gave her a copy of Harper's Monthly containing it. She translated it for a Swedish newspaper, but by an oversight named me as the author of it instead of Smith. I was very sorry for that, because I got a good lashing in the Swedish press, which would have fallen to his share but for that mistake; for it was shown that Boccaccio had told that very story, in his curt and meagre fashion, five hundred years before Smith took hold of it and made a good and tellable thing out of it.
I have always been sorry for Smith. But my own turn has come now. A few weeks ago Professor Van Dyke, of Princeton, asked this question:
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SOURCE: "The Ancestor of the 'Jumping Frog'," in The Bookman, Vol. 53, No. 1, April, 1921, pp. 143-45.
[In the following essay, Morrissey recounts a Virginia tale about a man and a trained grasshopper, claiming it to be a prototype of Twain's jumping frog story.]
Occasionally it is given to lesser mortals not only to read the fiction of the gifted ones, but also to glimpse the skeleton of truth upon which the wordy flesh has been grown. For some such an experience holds no more of romance than watching a play from the wings; for other, more blessed, souls the insight serves to arouse further admiration at the deft touches that have made fancy far more pleasant than fact.
In those golden days in Virginia City of which Mark Twain writes so vividly in Roughing It there were four men whose names were linked like a Mexican puzzle ring—Mackay, Fair, Flood, and O'Brien, the euphony of the chain, by singular chance, following the order of their importance in "The Bonanza Four". Mackay was the dominating personality, by reason of his shrewdness, his prescience, his indomitable courage, and those other intangible qualities that make a man a leader. Yet for all this there was still something of the boy about him that drove him often to play, even when weighty affairs rested upon him.
Among the employees at the "Con. Virginia" mine was a man whose name is unimportant now,...
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SOURCE: "The Californian: The Jumping Frog," in The Literary Apprenticeship of Mark Twain, with Selections from His Apprentice Writing, University of Illinois Press, 1950, pp. 120-29.
[In the first important scholarly discussion of the jumping frog story, Branch examines Simon Wheeler's narrative method and asserts that there are three levels of reality in the story—the commonsense world, the realm of oddity, and the realm of the fantastic—as represented by the figures of the genteel narrator, Simon Wheeler, and Jim Smiley.]
In the thirteen years between "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter" and "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog"10 Mark Twain came full circle, for the major difference between these two tales is quality of workmanship. Each is a short narrative using a native theme. Each tells an anecdote in the tall tale tradition of the early Southwestern humorists.11 Each is rooted in American folklore and came to written expression through oral transmission. But what "The Dandy" merely promised, "The Jumping Frog" completed. In reality of character, in humorous appeal, and in techniques of structure and dramatization, Simon Wheeler's yarn surpasses anything Mark Twain had written earlier.
The inevitability of "The Jumping Frog" is far from apparent. Nothing Mark Twain wrote for several years afterward equaled its excellence. Had he stopped...
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SOURCE: "Mark Twain's Use of California Folklore in his Jumping Frog Story," in Journal of American Folklore, Vol. LXV, 1952, pp. 155-58.
[In the following essay, Cuff discusses similarities between Twain's jumping frog story and earlier published versions with roots in California folklore, and asserts that while there are parallels in terms of content and phrasing among the various renditions, the imaginative, dramatic, and realistic detail in "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" are clearly Twain's own contribution.]
A few accounts of a jumping contest between frogs had appeared in print before Mark Twain wrote the story, "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,"1 later usually entitled, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." These earlier accounts may have served Twain as sources. His story echoes some of their phrases. The chief treasury from which he drew, however, must have been his own mind and personality—his stock of impressions of life and his ability to create original phrases.
The widely held idea that a Greek fable was one of his sources is erroneous. The mistaken notion probably sprang from Arthur Sidgwick's publishing in his textbook, Greek Prose Composition, a brief tale, "The Athenian and the Frog," containing in highly condensed form the leading details of Twain's "Celebrated Jumping Frog." Henry Van Dyke furnished Twain a copy of the Sidgwick...
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SOURCE: "The Deadpan on Simon Wheeler," in Southwest Review, Vol. 4, No. 3, Summer, 1956, pp. 270-77.
[In the following essay, Schmidt investigates Twain's use of comic gravity in Simon Wheeler's narration of the frog story.]
In the encounter between Mark Twain and Simon Wheeler which frames the story of "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" we are, apparently, expected to agree with the narrator, Mark Twain, that the "good natured, garrulous" miner is a comic butt. Wheeler tells his story, according to Mark Twain, like a simpleton:
He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned his initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm; but all through the interminable narrative there ran a vein of impressive earnestness and sincerity . . .
His blank seriousness, his vernacular language, and the seeming naïveté with which his story personifies the frog, the asthmatic mare, and the bull pup would appear at first glance to be ample specification of provincial idiocy. Actually, of course, none of us is misled by this characterization, for we sense the play involved. The westerner, Wheeler, is engaged in his traditional role of taking in the pompous easterner. We are, indeed, so familiar with the devices of American humor that we are likely to...
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SOURCE: "An American Image," in Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor, Little, Brown and Company, 1959, pp. 140-73.
[In the following excerpt, Lynn argues that in Twain's telling of the jumping frog story, the author stands the tradition of the conventional Southwestern folktale on its head. Lynn then goes on to discuss Twain's narrative technique and use of political humor.]
In search of new forms to express a new idea of himself, Twain experimented in his Western period with a variety of humorous devices. Caricatures, puns, burlesques, hoaxes, and editorial bandinage were the stock-in-trade of Washoe journalism at the time, and Mark Twain of the Enterprise tried them all. In one of his most significant experiments, he produced a sort of literary ventriloquist's act, wherein the writer debated various questions with an uninhibited alter ego named "The Unreliable." By putting words in the mouth of this stooge, Twain was able to float out newly-thought-up opinions like so many trial balloons, without being held responsible for them. The fascination of a lifetime with the literary possibilities of twins may be said to date from these early pieces. (A couple of years later, in a series of travel letters to the Alta California, "The Unreliable" reappeared as Mark Twain's fictitious traveling companion, the antisocial Mr. Brown. Although these letters, with their distasteful joking about the...
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SOURCE: "Twain's Jumping Frog: Folktale to Literature to Folktale," in Western Folklore, Vol. 22, January, 1963, pp. 17-18.
[In the following essay, Cohen claims that despite its clear origins in folklore, Twain's frog story achieved such a widespread reputation and was so clearly associated with his name that later folk versions of the tale were assumed to have used his tale as their source.]
Sometime in February, 1865, when Mark Twain was at Angel's Camp, California, trying his luck at pocket mining, he made an entry in his notebook as follows:
Coleman with his jumping frog—bet a stranger $50.—Stranger had no frog and C. got him one:—In the meantime stranger filled C's frog full of shot and he couldn't jump. The stranger's frog won.
He had heard the jumping frog story from Ben Coon, a solemn, old river pilot who spun yarns in a run-down tavern that Twain frequented.
The notebook entry suggests that Twain had been impressed by Coon's story and sensed its potential usefulness. As is well known, he worked it into "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog," published in the New York Saturday Press of December 16, 1865, and thereafter widely reprinted. In 1867, as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," it became the title story of Twain's first book (cover adorned with a sketch of a frog, its belly...
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SOURCE: "The 'Jumping Frog' as a Comedian's First Virtue," in Modern Philology, Vol. 40, No. 3, February, 1963, pp. 192-200.
[In the following essay, Baender argues that although Twain's jumping frog story borrows conventions of the Southwestern frame story, the sketch is a creative departure from that traditional form. Baender points out that the tale includes many anecdotes that are clearly the author's own invention, and that it has national rather than regional appeal.]
Mark Twain criticism is still violent and unsettled. Ever since the 1860's people have fought as to whether he was more than a humorist or only a humorist, civilized man or frontiersman, and more recently, conscious or unconscious artist. These issues have not been decided, and by the nature of their customary formulation they cannot be. No matter how refined the psychological, aesthetic, or ideological arguments, they have failed to produce their intended empirical settlement because they have been tied to terms which continuously require a contest with their opposites—civilization versus frontier, conscious versus unconscious—and thus the opposite terms keep just enough territory to carry on the war. The terms are gross, and their contests over so long a time must seem rather foolish to such outsiders as the sophisticated Jamesians, whose works by comparison amount to a smoothly developing organism. But Twain's career was also...
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SOURCE: "The Art and Satire of Twain's 'Jumping Frog' Story," in American Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4, Winter, 1964, pp. 562-76.
[In the following essay, Krause claims that Twain 's jumping frog story combines Eastern political satire and traditional folk humor.]
Recent analyses of Mark Twain's "Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" tend to stress its projection of the traditional conflict between eastern and western values—or, more precisely, between the values of a gentle, civilized class and those of the frontier.1 Taking in its broadest potential reference, Paul Schmidt has seen the "Jumping Frog" as dramatizing those assumptions which, as he has it, "Make up the complicated Enlightenment case of Civilization versus the West." Moreover, construing the tale as "An attack on the genteel tradition," Schmidt holds that it "ultimately asserts the superiority of vernacular brotherhood over the competitive individualism which animates genteel attitudes"; while in Wheeler's story, the tale within the tale, he sees an attack on Rousseau-esque romanticism.2
Schmidt's analysis seems to involve some high-powered assumptions for a fairly unsophisticated brand of fiction. Yet at least two reasons why the "Jumping Frog" rises above its genre are that its simplicity—like Simon Wheeler's—is ironic and its social symbolism—like Wheeler's story—implies more than it...
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SOURCE: "The Infernal Reminiscence: Mythic Patterns in Mark Twain's 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County'," in Satire Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring, 1964, pp. 41-4.
[In the following essay, Smith offers a fantastic reading of Twain's jumping frog sketch in the poker-faced manner of Simon Wheeler, leading other critics to observe that Smith's article is in part a humorous jibe at the state of literary scholarship.]
Much critical effort has been spent on fixing the original date of Mark Twain's darker view of humanity; and as the years have progressed, inevitably, the terminus ad quem of his pessimism has regressed, ineluctably: first it was placed in the early 1900's, later in the 1880's with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, still later (or rather earlier) with The Gilded Age and the 1870's when the age was, indeed, gilded. However valid some of this critical work has been, to this writer's mind, it has overlooked the true turning point in Mark Twain's conception of man, one that rests in the hitherto misread and misunderstood tale, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," first published in November of 1865.
In this dark and nearly tragic story, most frequently dismissed as a folk-tale with a dash of Western humor, Mark Twain seems to have first become aware of the archetypal and mythic, the deeply autochthonic qualities of his fictional...
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SOURCE: Introduction to "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," in The American West, No. 4, Fall, 1965, pp. 73-6.
[In the following essay, Taylor contends that the significance of Twain's jumping frog story lies in the manner in which Twain elevates a humorous regional tale into a fable that provides insight into universal traits of human nature.]
"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" is one of the most widely acclaimed pieces of Western Americana, and it has now delighted millions of readers all over the world for exactly a century. Such fame is somewhat of a phenomenon considering that Mark Twain at first apparently had in mind no such life span for this humorous "squib," as he called it, which was written to please Artemus Ward. But the Jumping Frog is something more than a burst of superficial funniness. It has, what Mark Twain knew the best humorous writing so often has, an ironically scintillating surface story flowing with a deep undercurrent of some serious human concern. Twain's understanding of humor is borne out in practice in his masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn, as it is in his 1906 autobiographical dictation wherein he said: "Humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever. By forever, I mean thirty years."
The literary significance of the Jumping Frog lies in the authenticity...
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SOURCE: "'My Voice is Still for Setchell': A Background Study of 'Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog'," in PMLA, Vol. 82, No. 7, December, 1967, pp. 591-601.
[Below, Branch discusses the influence of Twain 's personal life on his composition of the jumping frog story.]
For the past fifteen years scholars have examined many facets of Mark Twain's "Jumping Frog": its narrative techniques and some of its textual history, its relation to folklore, American humor, and Clemens' theory of humorous gravity, and its political, regional, and cultural bearings.1 This article, by focussing on the personal background to the tale, tries to cast light on the imagination that created the famous yarn. It first relates some of the tale's narrative elements—episodes, characters, names—to Clemens' prior experience, especially to some activities reflected in newly discovered examples of his San Francisco journalism of 1864 and 1865. Then it relates the tale to strong emotional currents in his life during the fall of 1865. Finally the article proposes a date of composition for the "Jumping Frog" and a reading of the tale that emphasizes the level of personal meaning.
Clemens left Nevada for San Francisco 29 May 1864, almost eighteen months before the first printing of the "Jumping Frog" on 18 November 1865, and for fifteen of those months he lived in the city. Soon...
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SOURCE: "Artemus Ward and Mark Twain's 'Jumping Frog'," in Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 28, December, 1973, pp. 273-86.
[In the following essay, Rodgers surveys some of the notable scholarly interpretations of Twain's jumping frog story before arguing that the sketch can be best understood in the context of Twain 's relationship to the man to whom it was addressed: Artemus Ward.]
Over the last four decades, students of Twain's "Jumping Frog" sketch of 1865 have made their chief advances by working outward from the dramatic center of the tale, shifting their attention from Jim Smiley and his fateful frog to the ambiguous figure of Simon Wheeler, Smiley's garrulous memorialist, and finally to Mark Twain himself, the frame narrator, who introduces Wheeler's monologue.1 As the purview broadened, wheels within wheels came to light: unsuspected structural complexity, "unreliable" narration, rhetorical finesse of the first order, paradox and irony, the possibility of parabolic authorial self-scrutiny, even satire. For better or worse, if we still get a chuckle out of this old story, we chuckle now for new reasons.
Back in the 1930's, Bernard De Voto and Walter Blair were content to cite the sketch as a superb latter-day example of the traditional Southwestern frame story. As Blair noted, "The technique—in its use of various types of incongruity, in its revelation—was in...
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SOURCE: "Mark Twain's 'Jumping Frog': Toward an American Heroic Ideal," in Mark Twain Journal, Vol. XIX, No. 2, pp. 15-18.
[In the following essay, Smith contends that Twain's purpose in the story is "To define and explore what is true and valuable about Simon Wheeler" and the particularly American qualities he represents.]
Mark Twain's "Jumping Frog"1 has been at the center of a critical controversy in recent years. This controversy focuses on one major question. Is the story satiric, with Simon Wheeler as a deadpan trickster making fun of the narrator, or is it simply a wild yarn told by a mindless yokel? Interpretations and claims for the story have varied widely. Some have argued that the "Jumping Frog" is the summation of Twain's faith in frontier democracy,2 while others have held that it is no more than an amusing story, told in an "exquisitely absurd" manner.3 A close examination of the structure and the component parts of the story itself, rather than argumentation in the abstract realms of cultural history and philosophy, indicates that the "Jumping Frog" is a great deal more than a yarn well told. Furthermore, it is more than a simple celebration of "vernacular" heroes and frontier democracy. Twain not only transcends the tradition of the Southwestern humorous frame story, from which the "Jumping Frog" is derived, he also passes beyond any narrow ideological...
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SOURCE: "San Francisco: Literary Burlesques and 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County'," in Mark Twain, Twayne, 1988, pp. 15-18.
[In the following excerpt from a book-length critical study of Twain's work, Gerber outlines the frog story's circumstances of composition and remarks that the narrators, rather than the anecdote itself are the central elements of the story.]
Except for three months spent in the Tuolumne Hills, Mark Twain lived in San Francisco from May 1864 to March 1866. It was not one of the happiest periods of his life. Of necessity he took a job as local reporter with the Morning Call, the "washerwoman's paper." Most of what he wrote for the Call was routine reporting. But as daily contact with the sour underbelly of city life strengthened his impatience with cruelty and corruption, his treatment of such topics as street crime and police court procedures increasingly sharpened into satire.
As soon as he could, he left the Call and began to write for two literary journals, the Californian and the Dramatic Chronicle. These arrangements improved his income and provided a chance to write literary sketches and burlesques. Some twenty of the sketches he wrote for the Californian appeared while Bret Harte was editor. Twain later told T. B. Aldrich that Harte changed him from "An awkward utterer of coarse grotesquenesses to a...
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SOURCE: "Mark Twain and the Escape from Sense," in Mark Twain on the Loose: A Comic Writer and the American Self, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995, pp. 1-38.
[In the following excerpt, Michelson begins by discussing several traditional interpretations of the jumping frog sketch as greatly indebted to the humorous Southwestern frame story. He then asserts that Twain breaks from the conventional structure to create a complex, mischievous tale that calls into question reality and common sense and confounds interpretation.]
"The Celebrated Jumping Frog," which Mark Twain also published as, among other things, "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog," and "The Frog Jumping of the County of Calaveras" (for in both name and substance this tale stayed appropriately restless in the retelling), indeed grew so "celebrated" that for years after its first appearance, an untitled frog-picture on handbills was advertisement enough for a Mark Twain stage show. Yet one can read long in the commentary without learning quite why the American public found this story so transcendently funny, such a frog-leap beyond Southwest humor of its own time. A pause over that mystery might help us turn as well to other Mark Twain works with renewed openness to their possibilities. This frog leads us into those narratives that helped make Twain a star, and that continue to be known...
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Covici, Jr., Pascal. Mark Twain's Humor: The Image of a World. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1962, 266 p.
Full-length study of Twain's humorous works, including a discussion of the frog story. Covici contends that Wheeler's deadpan style of narration, his inattention to his audience, and his inability to distinguish between the significant and trivial, and between the mundane and fantastic, are the main sources of humor in the tale.
Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966, 321 p.
Freudian analysis of Twain's works, with a section on the frog sketch, assessing the significance of the tale's layered use of frames.
Lewis, Oscar. The Origin of the Celebrated Jumping Frog. San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 1931, 27 p.
Traces the history of the story from its origins in the mining camps of California during the Gold Rush to its popularization in Twain's sketch.
Quirk, Tom. Mark Twain: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1997, 232 p.
General study of Twain's short stories containing a discussion of the frog story, arguing that in this early sketch we see evidence of Twain directing his previously...
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