The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County Critical Overview
by Mark Twain

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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" was a popular success upon its first publication in The New York Saturday Press in 1865. Some of its success can be attributed to Twain's use of popular storytelling conventions and references to contemporary figures. For example, Twain adopted the humorous tall tale of the American Southwest, a popular genre at the time, to tell this story. Furthermore, this tale already was an established piece of American folklore that Twain modified and enhanced; early versions of the tale focused on a jumping grasshopper, not a frog. Twain added to the popularity of his "Jumping Frog" by reciting it at lectures and performances he gave across the United States. Because of its popularity, when Twain published his first collection of stories, he made "Jumping Frog" the title piece. The letter-writing structure initially used in this tale was popular at that time and also contributed to the story's success.

In the tale, Twain also made allusions to recent figures in contemporary American history. For example, Jim Smiley's dog, Andrew Jackson, shares his name with a former president of the United States, while Smiley's frog, Dan'l Webster, shares his name with a renowned statesman and politician of the nineteenth century. The letter that frames the original story was addressed to "A. Ward," whom many individuals believed to be Artemus Ward, another popular humor writer of the time. These references and conventions made the tale more accessible and thus popular with Twain's contemporaries.

Although "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" was initially admired for its humor and as an example of a tall tale, it also became known for its satirical portrait of the American East. Although one of Twain's earliest and most successful pieces—a piece that established him as a sketch-writer and humorist—this story also has much in common with his later works, which critics frequently note for their biting comments about American society and human nature. Furthermore, it is noted that by portraying himself as a fool, Twain could get away with more outrageous and possibly offensive comments. For example, he could feature a Westerner (Wheeler) duping an Easterner (Twain)—a situation that reversed the popular stereotypes of the day—without offending Eastern audiences. It must be noted, however, that Twain allowed Jim Smiley, a Westerner, to be duped when he lets his guard down.

(The entire section is 593 words.)