What happens in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County?
In "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," old Simon Wheeler tells the narrator the amusing story of Jim Smiley and his trained frog. A notorious gambler, Jim was swindled one day when a stranger fed his frog buckshot and made Jim lose a bet.
At a friend's urging, the narrator goes to visit Simon Wheeler, a chatty old man who lives in a mining settlement called Angel's Camp. From him, the narrator hears the story of Jim Smiley and his celebrated jumping frog.
Before training his frog, Smiley perpetrated a number of betting schemes, including one involving a bull-pup named Andrew Jackson, who won dog fights by latching onto one of his opponent's hind legs.
- A stranger bets Jim $40 that Jim's frog can't jump any better than any average frog. While Jim's back is turned, the stranger fills Jim's frog with buckshot. Jim doesn't noticed this until after he loses the bet, however, and has no way of winning back the money.
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...
(The entire section is 3,457 words.)