Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In this highly significant humorous experiment, the author incorporates the traditional form of the tall tale into a story of his own creation. He produces a sort of literary tug-of-war between town and country, provincialism and urbanity. In appropriating this apocryphal frog story for his own purposes, Twain makes numerous changes in its composition. First and foremost, he embellishes the anecdote with a frame, in which he presents the narrator, Mark Twain, who in turn explains his encounter with Simon Wheeler in the mining settlement at Angel’s Camp.
The names of the bulldog, Andrew Jackson, and the frog, Daniel Webster, may suggest that Twain was merely indulging in topical political satire. In fact, however, his intention was to mock politicians and lawmakers as a species—an activity in which he gleefully engaged throughout his literary career. Simon Wheeler’s tall tale does not attempt to size up recent history. Its content is purely Western in feeling and, as such, is generous in its ready acceptance of the exaggerated and the absurd. In this story, it is the vernacular, not the traditional style of polite speech, that emerges triumphant. The city slicker narrator receives, not teaches, the lesson.
This is not merely the repetition of an oft-told tall tale, redesigned and decked out in a new guise. From the beginning it is made clear that there is no Leonidas W Smiley, especially no Reverend Leonidas W Smiley, and that his existence is mere pretense in order to hear Simon Wheeler elucidate on the past experiences of Jim Smiley. Simon Wheeler’s calculated ramblings admirably provide a platform for Twain’s subtle and not-so-subtle humor. His literary greatness, in part, emanates from a perpetual malicious shrewdness that he frequently chooses to cloak under an assumed simplicity. His innocence is always pure sham, and the fact that he openly shares this secret with the reader is part of the fun.
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (Magill Book Reviews)
Wheeler’s story is slight. Jim Smiley, who would bet on almost anything, once trained a frog to jump so well that Smiley wagered his frog would beat any other. A stranger takes Jim’s bet, though he confesses to having no frog of his own and forcing Jim back to the marsh to catch one for him. In Smiley’s absence, the stranger takes hold of Smiley’s frog, pries open its mouth and pours a bellyful of buckshot down its throat. When Smiley returns and pits his frog against the new one of the stranger’s, Smiley’s frog is virtually 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 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 straight-faced delivery 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 successful mixture of dialect, delay, deadpan tone, and absurd detail makes this story a fine example of the tall-tale tradition in American literature.
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Discussion
Ideas for Reports and Papers
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
For Further Reference
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Burns, Ken, Dayton Duncan, and Geoffrey C. Ward. Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
Camfield, Gregg. The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Emerson, Everett. Mark Twain: A Literary Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American...
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