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.
The narrator, urged by a friend from the East, decides to call on Simon Wheeler, a good-natured and garrulous old fellow who resides at Angel’s Camp, a northern California mining settlement. His errand is to inquire about a certain Reverend Leonidas W. Smiley, but he, the narrator, is already half persuaded that Leonidas W. Smiley never existed. Asking about him will only result in releasing a torrent of Simon Wheeler’s boring reminiscences about Jim Smiley.
Simon Wheeler, a genial man, fat and bald-headed, wears a look of perpetual simplicity and tranquillity. As the narrator suspects, Wheeler cannot place Leonidas W. Smiley, but he does recall the presence of a fellow by the name of Jim Smiley who, some years previously, had been an Angel’s Camp inhabitant. Wheeler’s tone never changes, his voice never wavers from a pattern of earnestness and sincerity as he launches into his tale. He never registers anything but the utmost respect and admiration for the two heroes whose adventures he relates.
Jim Smiley, according to Simon Wheeler, was “always betting on anything that turned up.” He would lay odds on either side of a bet, and if he could not find a taker for the other side, he would simply change sides. He bet on horse races, dog fights, and chicken fights. If he had had the opportunity, he would have bet on how long a straddle bug’s flight was between one destination and another—then he would have followed the bug all the way to Mexico, if he had needed to, in order to win a bet. Smiley would bet on anything.
Smiley loved to employ animals in his betting schemes. He had a mare, an old nag really, but he used to win money on her, for all that she was slow and prey to myriad diseases such as asthma, distemper, and consumption. He also had a bull-pup, named Andrew Jackson, that he had taught to fight using a most peculiar strategy. Andrew Jackson always went for his opponent’s hind legs, and, holding these in a vise-like grip, could hold on for a year. Smiley always won money on that pup until he came up against a dog whose hind legs had been sawed off with a circular saw.
One day Smiley caught a frog and took him home, swearing that all a frog needed was a good education—he stayed home for three months educating him. Daniel Webster was the creature’s name, and Jim trained him so well that all he would have to do was yell, “Flies, Dan’l, flies,” and the frog would leap off counters, displaying amazing feats of skill to startled onlookers. A modest frog, too, Daniel Webster was not given to airs despite his great gift of agility. So naturally Jim Smiley began to bet on him, and he would take on all comers. He was exceedingly proud of his frog, convinced that Daniel was the finest example of the species to be found.
Once a stranger to Angel’s Camp saw Jim’s frog and inquired as to what he was good for. Jim eagerly explained that Daniel Webster could outjump any frog in Calaveras County. “I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog,” the stranger observed. However, he sportingly declared that he would bet with Smiley, if only he had a frog himself. Jim took that bet, and a sum of forty dollars was wagered. Then Smiley willingly went off to the swamp to look for another frog. In his absence, the stranger pried open Daniel Webster’s mouth and filled him full of quail shot. When Smiley returned with another frog, both contestants were placed on the ground, and each was given a push from behind by his respective human. The new frog hopped off immediately, but Daniel Webster remained behind, as if bolted to the ground. The stranger collected his forty dollars and readily departed.
Smiley was dumbfounded by this turn of events and picked up the frog. Feeling his radically increased weight, he turned the animal upside down and Daniel Webster belched out a double handful of shot. Smiley set out after the stranger, but he never caught him.
At this point the narrator interrupts Wheeler’s tale, assuring him that further information about Jim Smiley would shed no light on the activities of Leonidas W. Smiley. Lacking the desire to hear anything further relating to Jim Smiley, he leaves.