The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (American History Through Literature)
The story of Jim Smiley's jumping frog has been from the first and continues to be a staple of Mark Twain's reputation as a humorist and teller of tall tales par excellence. Twain (Samuel L. Clemens, 1835910) composed the sketch in 1865 while working (intermittently) as a journalist in and around San Francisco. By his own testimony, he had heard a version of the story early in 1865 during a sojourn in the mining camps of Jackass Hill and Angel's Camp in northern California with Jim and William Gillisrothers of Steve Gillis, a close friend and fellow newspaperman (a compositor) from Twain's days on the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. While confined by rainy weather with Jim Gillis and others at Angels Camp, Twain heard (while no doubt reciprocating with stories of his own) a number of tall 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 froget stranger $50tranger had no frog, & C got him onen the meantime stranger filled C's frog full of shot & he couldn't jumphe 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 [probably meaning Illinois] river pilot here" (p. 75), but Twain did not make the connection explicit. What he did later make explicit was a connection between Coon and the character Twain would develop as "good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler" ("The 'Jumping Frog' in English," p. 589), the fictional narrator of the jumping frog story, who made his first appearance in a newspaper piece titled "An Unbiased Criticism" that Twain published in the Californian in March 1865, soon after his return from Jackass Hill and Angel's Camp.
VERSIONS OF THE JUMPING FROG STORY
During the eight-month interval between Twain's return to San Francisco from the mining camps and his submission of the jumping frog story for publication, he made two unsuccessful beginnings at writing the narrative (both evidently from September or early October 1865) that were preserved in manuscript form and much later (1981) published in the second volume of Early Tales and Sketches. In the first of these, titled "The Only Reliable Account of the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," Twain sets the story in the California mining camp of Boomerang. This fragment describes Boomerang in detail and introduces Simon Wheeler as prospective narrator but does not manage to include any speech by Wheeler or anything at all about the jumping frog. A second effort, titled "Angel's Camp Constable," again set in Boomerang, has Wheeler tell about the title character, Constable Bilgewater (a name that Twain would later resurrect in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1885), but again does not arrive at any portion of the jumping frog story itself. Finally, in October 1865, apparently prodded by continuing requests from Artemus Ward (the literary pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne) to contribute to a book Ward was compiling, Twain managed to get on track and produce the story he published as "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog."
In middle to late October Twain dispatched the story to New York, where Ward's publisher was located, but it arrived too late for inclusion in Ward's book. The publisher, George Carleton, passed "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" along to Henry Clapp, publisher of the New York Saturday Press, where it appeared on 18 November 1865. This first published version of the story, retaining (like the abortive manuscript versions) "the village of Boomerang" as its setting, takes the form of a letter addressed to "Mr. A. Ward" and uses the now-familiar frame story in which the unnamed narrator looks up "fat and bald-headed" ("Three Versions," p. 282) Simon Wheeler to inquire, in this case at Ward's instigation, for Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, only to find himself trapped into listening to a meandering story about Jim Smiley instead result that the narrator suspects of being a practical joke played by Ward. The story wanders through accounts of Smiley's betting on dogs, cats, chickens, birds, even "straddle-bugs," and most remarkably, on the imminent death of Parson Walker's wife before reaching the more detailed episodes of the "fifteen-minute nag," the "bull-pup" Andrew Jackson, and at long last, the prize jumping frog "Dan'l Webster"nly to trail off with the narrator's hasty departure in order to avoid hearing any additional seemingly pointless tales about Jim Smiley's adventures.
Soon after its initial publication, "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" was reprinted in a number of other newspapers and magazines. It quickly became a principal vehicle for spreading Twain's growing West Coast reputation to the eastern states. A San Francisco magazine, the Californian, published a revised version of the story, retitled "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," in December 1865, and two years later Charles Henry Webb, the former editor of the Californian (who had by then, like Twain, moved to the East Coast) arranged to have it serve as the cornerstone of Twain's first book, a collection of short works titled The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (1867). This revised version of the jumping frog story changes the location of the story's action from "the village of Boomerang" to "Angel's Camp," the name of the actual place where Twain evidently first heard the story. It also drops both the epistolary form and the specific reference to Artemus Wardeferring instead to "a friend of mine" ("Celebrated Jumping Frog," p. 7) as the joker who sends the narrator on his fool's errand. In addition, there are revisions from the earlier published version in the direction of increased dialect in Wheeler's narration, giving his narrative style a more distinctive "local color" flavor.
The final major revision of the story occurred when it was republished by the American Publishing Company in 1875 in a subscription book, Mark Twain's Sketches, New and Old. In this reworking, Twain again made changes to increase the distinctiveness of Simon Wheeler's vocabulary and pronunciation, giving him a more coherent and clearly identifiable "voice." He also altered the frame narrator's character slightly to make him more of an objective, amused observer. In "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog," the narrator at the end responds to Wheeler's offer to tell about Jim Smiley and his "yaller one-eyed cow that didn't have no tail only just a short stump like a bannanner" with the impatient, if good-natured, exclamation, "O, curse Smiley and his afflicted cow" ("Three Versions," p. 288). The "Celebrated Jumping Frog" version closes with a similar epithet, changing "curse" to "hang." The "Notorious Jumping Frog," on the other hand, demonstrating Twain's growing mastery of the storytelling art, renders the narrator as ironic rather than exasperated: "lacking both time and inclination, I did not wait to hear about the afflicted cow, but took my leave" ("The 'Jumping Frog' in English," p. 594).
In Sketches, New and Old, the jumping frog story is accompanied by a French translation of the story from Revue des Deux Mondes (possibly an early cause for Twain's distaste for things French) and by Twain's doubly comic retranslation back into Englishhe whole accumulated mass bearing the title "The 'Jumping Frog' in English. Then in French. Then Clawed Back into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil." By this means Twain found an opportunity to satirize the difficulty of preserving the nuances of a literary work during translation to another language as well as to showcase ironically the international popularity of what had by then became his signature story. The focus on a labored relation between English and French can be seen as a precursor to the "Why don't a Frenchman talk like a man?" conversation between Jim and Huck in chapter 14 of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. An example of that strained relation occurs in the story's principal punch line: "I don't see no p'ints about that frog that's any better'n any other frog" in the "Notorious Jumping Frog" becomes "I no saw not that that frog had nothing of better than each frog" in Twain's retranslation from the French. And "he set the frog down and took out after that feller, but he never ketched him" becomes "he deposited his frog
Further exploiting the immense popularity of the jumping frog story, Twain later included it in several additional collections. He also published "Private History of the 'Jumping Frog' Story" in the North American Review in 1894. Here Twain recounts the deadpan telling of the story by the man from whom he professes to have actually heard it. Though he does not identify the teller, he accurately specifies the time and place of the telling as Angels Camp in 1865 and identifies the event itself (i.e., the fateful encounter between Jim Smiley and the stranger) as having occurred in Calaveras County in 1849. He then further complicates the "Frog's" genealogy (and the relation between fact and fiction) by acknowledging (satirically) a predecessor text from ancient Greece. The "Private History" includes the greater part of the "Notorious Jumping Frog" text plus a "translation" of the ancient Greek version and an excerpt from the "retranslation" from French previously published in Sketches, New and Old. The "Greek" story is a very straightforward telling of the jumping frog anecdoteith no "fifteen-minute nags," bull-pups, straddle-bugs, or incompetent, dialect-speaking narratorsn which Jim Smiley becomes a Boeotian and the stranger who bests him is an Athenian.
THE "P'INTS" OF THE JUMPING FROG STORY
Probably the most important factor in the jumping frog's success is simply Twain's overwhelmingly effective sense of humor. In this respect the sketch, for all its seeming offhandedness, is notably dense, containing within its brief compass a remarkable number of amusing incidents, each causally but deftly given its due in the course of the dual narratives presented by the frame narrator and, within his narrative, Simon Wheeler. These include the securing of the frame narrator as a literally captive audience by Wheeler, who "backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair" ("The 'Jumping Frog' in English," p. 589), the catalog of Jim Smiley's gambling adventures (such as his betting on the effectiveness of Parson Walker's sermons or his willingness to follow a straddle-bug "to Mexico" to settle a bet), the proposed bet with Parson Walker about his wife's health, the glorious career of the extraordinarily trained "fifteen-minute nag," the story of the resourceful but eventually tragic bull-pup Andrew Jackson, the jumping frog incident itself, and finally, the story of the "yaller one-eyed cow," which manages to be funny without even being told.
A somewhat less visible but nonetheless compelling aspect of Twain's narrative is the degree to which he succeeds in telling what is actually a tightly structured story while making it seem entirely artless. Simon Wheeler's narrative seems at first to be no story at all but just a rambling expostulation on the peculiar habits of Jim Smiley, which itself is only a digression from consideration of the Reverend Leonidas Smiley, who is purportedly the real object of interest. The name Smiley makes Wheeler think of Jim Smiley, and the reminiscence about Jim's obsession with betting makes him think of the particular incident of Parson Walker's wife, which is not really a story but merely an anecdote about a specific conversational exchange. From there Wheeler's narrative broadens into the story of the fifteen-minute nag, which has character development (of the horse) but no ending. But then the train of thought moves to the story of Andrew Jackson, who has still more personality than the horse, underscored by the fact that he has a name and by Wheeler's expression of sorrow at the outcome of Andrew Jackson's last fight, as well as his judgment that "he would have made a name for hisself if he'd lived, for the stuff was in him and he had genius" ("The 'Jumping Frog' in English," p. 591). The Andrew Jackson episode also includes a reversal of fortune in which the trickster is tricked, as Andrew Jackson's technique of defeating his adversary by merely holding onto his hind leg becomes his undoing when he faces a dog whose legs have been "sawed off in a circular saw" ("The 'Jumping Frog' in English," p. 591). At last Wheeler arrives, as if by chance, at the climactic story of Dan'l Webster, the jumping frognly to have the value of that story denied in the amusingly and carefully prepared-for anticlimax of the narrator's flight in the face of Wheeler's promise of further Jim Smiley episodes.
An important element in the jumping frog story's artful artlessness is its narrator, Simon Wheeler. It is interesting to note that in Twain's preparation for the story Wheeler had already made four appearanceswo newspaper pieces and two manuscript versions of the storyefore any portion of the jumping frog narrative itself (other than the plot outline in Twain's notebook entry) is known to have come into being. The evidence is strong that Twain regarded the narrative mode as crucial to the success of the story. In fact, one might say that the core idea for Twain's sketch is as much his conception of Simon Wheeler as narrator as it is the anecdote of Jim Smiley and his well-trained jumping frog. That conception can be seen in Twain's 1894 "Private History of the 'Jumping Frog' Story" in his recollection, whether real or fanciful, of the actual teller of the story when he first heard it:
He was a dull person, and ignorant; he had no gift as a story-teller, and no invention; in his mouth this episode was merely historyistory and statistics; and the gravest sort of history, too; he was entirely serious, for he was dealing with what to him were austere facts, and they interested him solely because they were facts; he was drawing on his memory, not his mind; he saw no humor in his tale. ("Private History," p. 153)
This description of the Simon Wheeler prototype tallies closely with Twain's advice on the right method for telling a humorous story given in his essay "How to Tell a Story," published in the next year (1895). Here Twain identifies the "humorous story" as distinctively American, as opposed to the English "comic story" and the French "witty story." He says, "The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular" (p. 201) description perfectly tailored to the narrative method of Twain's jumping frog story. As for the teller of the humorous story, he must convey his material "gravely": "the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it" (p. 201). This storytelling mode, no doubt reflecting Twain's own very successful method for telling humorous stories on the lecture circuit, fits Simon Wheeler precisely, except that in Wheeler's case, the art is all his creator's. He is a kind of idiot savant who tells a hugely amusing story without at all trying to do so.
LIVING WITH THE FROG
When Henry Clapp published "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" in the Saturday Press in late 1865, it was not Twain's first exposure in the East. He was in fact already beginning to become well known before its publication. In autumn 1865 the New York Round Table published a praiseful assessment of Twain's work, which, as it happened, was reprinted in the San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle at about the same time as he was mailing the jumping frog manuscript to New York. Clearly gratified by the positive response to his work, he wrote to his brother Orion Clemens (19 October 1865) that he had experienced "a 'call' to literature, of a low order.e. humorous" (Mark Twain's Letters, p. 322). He continued, "It is only now, when editors of standard literary papers in the distant east give me high praise, & who do not know me & cannot of course be blinded by the glamour of partiality, that I really begin to believe there must be something in it" (p. 323). He evidently felt himself at this moment poised for a breakthrough, and when "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" was published in New York a month later and was widely praised and reprinted, he must have known that his opportunity had come. Indeed, he perhaps could hardly believe his good fortune. He wrote to his mother and sister on 20 January 1866, "To think that after writing many an article a man might be excused for thinking tolerably good, those New York people should single out a villainous backwoods sketch to compliment me on!" (Mark Twain's Letters, p. 327). But it is unlikely that Twain was actually fooled about the literary value of his jumping frog story. It may have been "a villainous backwoods sketch" when he heard it at Angels Camp early in 1865 and recorded its outline in his notebook, but by the time he had worked through the technical considerations that he recognized as necessary for giving it the most effective presentation, it had become a work of considerable craftsmanship.
A measure of the degree to which the average reader of the late nineteenth century could be expected to be familiar with Twain's story occurs in William Dean Howells's (1837920) The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), in which the title character's daughter Penelope, a young woman noted for her keen wit, ridicules the possibility of an opposing point of view with the main punch line (what Twain, in "How to Tell a Story," refers to as the "nub") from the jumping frog story: "I don't see any p'ints about that frog that's any better than any other frog" (Howells, p. 80). The story of the jumping frog remains a staple of American culture because its author, turning his own fascination with the culture of the mining camps into something distinctive and yet universally recognizable (as he did with numerous other cultures that he encountered), elevated Jim Smiley, the ill-fated gambler, and Simon Wheeler, the artlessly compelling storyteller, to a level that transcends cultural differences.
See also Humor; Tall Tales
Howells, William Dean. The Rise of Silas Lapham. 1885. New York: New American Library, 1963.
Twain, Mark. "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." 1867. In The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches, pp. 79. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Twain, Mark. "How to Tell a Story." 1895. In Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays, 1891910, pp. 20106. New York: Library of America, 1992.
Twain, Mark. "The 'Jumping Frog' in English. Then in French. Then Clawed Back into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil." 1875. In Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays, 1852890, pp. 58803. New York: Library of America, 1992.
Twain, Mark. Mark Twain's Letters. Vol. 1, 1853866. Edited by Edgar Marquess Branch, Michael B. Frank, and Kenneth M. Sanderson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Twain, Mark. Mark Twain's Notebooks and Journals. Vol. 1, 1855873. Edited by Frederick Anderson, Michael B. Frank, and Kenneth M. Sanderson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
Twain, Mark. "Private History of the 'Jumping Frog' Story." 1894. In Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays, 1891910, pp. 15260. New York: Library of America, 1992.
Twain, Mark. "Three Versions of the Jumping Frog" ["The Only Reliable Account of the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," "Angel's Camp Constable," and "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog"]. In Early Tales and Sketches, 18645, edited by Edgar Marquess Branch, Robert H. Hirst, and Harriet Elinor Smith, pp. 26288. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
Branch, Edgar Marquess. The Literary Apprenticeship of Mark Twain. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1950.
Branch, Edgar Marquess. "'My Voice Is Still for Setchell': A Background Study of 'Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.'" PMLA 82 (1967): 59101.
Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.
Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, a Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966.
Krause, Sydney J. "The Art and Satire of Twain's 'Jumping Frog' Story." American Quarterly 16 (winter 1964): 56276.
Lynn, Kenneth S. Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.
Steinbrink, Jeffrey. Getting to Be Mark Twain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Wilson, James D. A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Mark Twain. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.
James S. Leonard