The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County Mark Twain - Essay

Mark Twain


(Short Story Criticism)

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" Mark Twain

The following entry presents criticism of Twain's short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." See also, The Mysterious Stranger Criticism.

One of Twain's earliest literary successes and most accomplished early sketches, this 2,600-word narrative was written following a three-month stay at Jackass Hill and Angel's Camp in California's Calaveras County in late 1864 and early 1865. Twain first heard the tale of the jumping frog from Ben Coon, a fixture at the Angel's Camp Hotel bar. He liked the story, jotting down its details in a notebook, but was especially taken with Coon's masterful oral delivery of the anecdote: like other mining camp raconteurs, Coon recounted the episode with utter seriousness for dramatic and humorous effect. This particular brand of deadpan humor told in rich vernacular proved to be most influential on Twain's development as a writer and humorist.

Upon returning to San Francisco from Calaveras County, Twain received a letter from his friend and literary mentor, the writer Artemus Ward, requesting that he send a piece of writing to be included in a work Ward was editing about Nevada Territory travels. Twain thereupon began writing his own version of the frog story, but it took six months and several failed attempts to produce something to his satisfaction. In October 1865 he sent the manuscript of the sketch to New York for inclusion in the Ward collection, but it was turned down, probably because the book was about to go to press. The publisher sent the story to the Saturday Press, where it appeared in November, 1865 as "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog." The tale was an overnight sensation, and was reprinted in magazines and newspapers all over the country. In December 1865 Twain published a revised version of the story in the Californian, and a further revised version was used as the title story in his 1867 collection, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras Country, and Other Sketches. The story has also been published under the title "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," and is often referred to by scholars simply as "The jumping frog story."

The tale is told using the structure of a traditional Southwestern frame story, wherein a genteel, educated narrator recounts a story he has heard from an unsophisticated teller, and gives a secondhand account of a career gambler who gets taken by a stranger passing through town. In the earliest published version of the story, Twain himself narrates the frame in the form of a letter to his friend Ward about a visit to the mining camp Noomerang where he hears the story of Jim Greeley's frog. Later versions of the story drop the epistolary structure, use an anonymous narrator, change the name "Noomerang" to "Angel's Camp," and substitute the name "Smiley" for "Greeley."

Plot and Major Characters

The narrator, a mannered Easterner, describes his visit to a mining camp where, on behalf of a friend, he is searching for one Leonidas W. Smiley. He stops in an old tavern, where he meets "goodnatured, garrulous" old Simon Wheeler, who cannot recall a Leonidas Smiley, but does remember a Jim Smiley who lived in the camp around 1849 or 1850. Without prompting, Wheeler launches into an extended narrative about the gambler Smiley and his exploits. Smiley, he says, was "uncommon lucky," and had a reputation for betting on anything he could: horse races, dog fights, and even which of two birds sitting on a fence would fly first. His broken-down old nag somehow always managed to win races when Smiley bet on her. His bullpup, Andrew Jackson, also won all its fights. Smiley also owned rat terriers, chicken cocks, and tom-cats, and wagered on all of them—and won.

Smiley, Wheeler goes on, once caught a frog, which he named Dan'l Webster, and trained him to jump. And that frog was a remarkable jumper, beating out any frog brought from near and far to challenge him. One day a stranger came to the mining camp and, on seeing Smiley's frog, remarked he didn't see anything unusual about it. Smiley wagered $40 that his frog could outjump any other in Calaveras County. Since the stranger had no frog, Smiley went out to find him one. In Smiley's absence, the stranger pried open Dan'l Webster's mouth and filled it with quail-shot. When Smiley brought the new frog to challenge Dan'l, it hopped off, but Dan'l couldn't budge. The stranger took his $40 in winnings and remarked again that he really could not see any special points about Smiley's frog. When Smiley examined his frog and realized what had happened, he took off after the stranger, but never caught him.

At this point in the narrative, Wheeler is called outside. When he returns, he begins a new anecdote about Smiley's tail-less, one-eyed cow, but the narrator, sure he will not learn anything about Leonidas W. Smiley from another "interminable narrative," does not have the patience to listen to it, and departs.

Major Themes

With its complexity of characterization, sophisticated narrative structure, and controlled style, "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" was the best work Twain had written to date, and marks a turning point in his development as an artist. While the sketch has its stylistic roots in the classical Southwestern frame story, there are touches in the tale that are purely Twain's, and which mark his later writing. Some major themes in the story that are found in other Southwestern folktales include that of shrewdness outwitted, as the wily old gambler finally meets his match in the person of the stranger; the confrontation between East and West, between the green Easterner and the slick Westerner, represented by the narrator and Wheeler; and the fantastic, as Wheeler's account of Smiley's assortment of animals and their talents becomes more and more improbable. However, as noted by several scholars, Twain overturns the traditional use of these themes as they are found in conventional Southwestern burlesques. Wheeler's innocence and self-absorbed frankness is a departure from the bragging style of the typical frontiersman. The genteel narrator's tale is not told at the expense of the yokel whose story he recounts, as is typical, but rather the joke is on himself, since his quest for the elusive Leonidas W. Smiley is in vain. Twain elevates the typical Southwestern humorous tale to new heights of sophistication with the creation of memorable characters and events and with his subtle use of shifting points of view and believably wrought narrative voices. The use of satire lurking beneath the surface of a supposedly simple, straightforward tale and the seriousness of voice betraying no recognition of the humor in the situations described are elements found in Twain's later works.

Critical Reception

The immediate response to Twain's story was almost entirely positive, and the story was reprinted more than ten times in the decade following its appearance in the Saturday Press. However, Twain was at first uncomfortable with the immediate reputation as a "western humorist" that the story conferred upon him, and dismissed it in an 1866 letter to his mother as a "villainous backwoods sketch." But his estimation of the story grew when he eventually cast off the bohemian sophistication he had hoped to achieve and recognized that public acceptance of this particular brand of writing and the persona of a "wild man of the West" could be a literary asset. Ten years after its initial publication, he wrote and published an elaboration of the story, called "The Jumping Frog in English, Then in French, Then Clawed Back into Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil," in response to a poor French translation of the tale and its accompanying unflattering assessment of his place in American letters. A further indication of the importance he attributed to the story is that almost twenty years later, Twain published "The Private History of the Jumping Frog Story," in which he considers a contemporary scholar's (unbeknownst to him, erroneous) claim that the frog story had a prototype in Greek literature.

Critical analysis of the story has focused on many issues, but all recognize that the story marks a transition in Twain's development as a writer, and agree that the seeds of his later genius are clearly found in the sketch. Early discussions tended to stress the story's origins in Southwestern folklore and its relationship to the work of other Westerners writing in the same genre. The first sustained critical commentary dealing with the content of the sketch was presented in 1950 by Edgar M. Branch, who pointed out the relationship between the storytellers Mark Twain and Simon Wheeler as representations of Eastern and Western sensibilities. Modern critics have taken up this point and have examined the related contrast between the narrative methods and structures of the two men's tales, which, they consider, tell us something about their attitudes. Some scholars have pointed out that there are actually several layers of stories within the framed story, and each successive tale in turn reveals the attitudes of characters toward each other: the genteel narrator's attitude toward Wheeler, Wheeler's attitude toward Smiley, Smiley's attitude toward the stranger, etc. Other critical analyses reveal the circumstances in Twain's life that occasioned the writing of the tale; examine Twain's use of satire; discuss humorous techniques found in the story that are developed in later works; understand the story as an assertion of true American values; and show how Twain's genius unfolds in this early work.

Mark Twain (essay date 1894)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Private History of the 'Jumping Frog' Story," in How to Tell a Story and Other Essays, Harper & Brothers, 1897, pp. 149-63.

[In the following essay, originally published in the North American Review in 1894, Twain compares his story to a similar frog story that a scholar had claimed was of ancient Greek origins. In doing so, Twain reveals something of his attitude toward the narrator from whom he first heard the story. He then goes on to "retranslate " in humorous manner a bad French version of the story back into English.]

Five or six years ago a lady from Finland asked me to tell her a story in our negro dialect, so that she could get an idea of...

(The entire section is 3916 words.)

Frank R. Morrissey (essay date 1921)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Ancestor of the 'Jumping Frog'," in The Bookman, Vol. 53, No. 1, April, 1921, pp. 143-45.

[In the following essay, Morrissey recounts a Virginia tale about a man and a trained grasshopper, claiming it to be a prototype of Twain's jumping frog story.]

Occasionally it is given to lesser mortals not only to read the fiction of the gifted ones, but also to glimpse the skeleton of truth upon which the wordy flesh has been grown. For some such an experience holds no more of romance than watching a play from the wings; for other, more blessed, souls the insight serves to arouse further admiration at the deft touches that have made fancy far more pleasant than...

(The entire section is 759 words.)

Edgar M. Branch (essay date 1950)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Californian: The Jumping Frog," in The Literary Apprenticeship of Mark Twain, with Selections from His Apprentice Writing, University of Illinois Press, 1950, pp. 120-29.

[In the first important scholarly discussion of the jumping frog story, Branch examines Simon Wheeler's narrative method and asserts that there are three levels of reality in the storythe commonsense world, the realm of oddity, and the realm of the fantasticas represented by the figures of the genteel narrator, Simon Wheeler, and Jim Smiley.]

In the thirteen years between "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter" and "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog"10 Mark Twain...

(The entire section is 4304 words.)

Roger Penn Cuff (essay date 1952)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mark Twain's Use of California Folklore in his Jumping Frog Story," in Journal of American Folklore, Vol. LXV, 1952, pp. 155-58.

[In the following essay, Cuff discusses similarities between Twain's jumping frog story and earlier published versions with roots in California folklore, and asserts that while there are parallels in terms of content and phrasing among the various renditions, the imaginative, dramatic, and realistic detail in "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" are clearly Twain's own contribution.]

A few accounts of a jumping contest between frogs had appeared in print before Mark Twain wrote the story, "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,"1...

(The entire section is 1927 words.)

Paul Schmidt (essay date 1956)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Deadpan on Simon Wheeler," in Southwest Review, Vol. 4, No. 3, Summer, 1956, pp. 270-77.

[In the following essay, Schmidt investigates Twain's use of comic gravity in Simon Wheeler's narration of the frog story.]

In the encounter between Mark Twain and Simon Wheeler which frames the story of "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" we are, apparently, expected to agree with the narrator, Mark Twain, that the "good natured, garrulous" miner is a comic butt. Wheeler tells his story, according to Mark Twain, like a simpleton:

He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key...

(The entire section is 3872 words.)

Kenneth S. Lynn (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "An American Image," in Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor, Little, Brown and Company, 1959, pp. 140-73.

[In the following excerpt, Lynn argues that in Twain's telling of the jumping frog story, the author stands the tradition of the conventional Southwestern folktale on its head. Lynn then goes on to discuss Twain's narrative technique and use of political humor.]

In search of new forms to express a new idea of himself, Twain experimented in his Western period with a variety of humorous devices. Caricatures, puns, burlesques, hoaxes, and editorial bandinage were the stock-in-trade of Washoe journalism at the time, and Mark Twain of the Enterprise tried...

(The entire section is 1127 words.)

Hennig Cohen (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Twain's Jumping Frog: Folktale to Literature to Folktale," in Western Folklore, Vol. 22, January, 1963, pp. 17-18.

[In the following essay, Cohen claims that despite its clear origins in folklore, Twain's frog story achieved such a widespread reputation and was so clearly associated with his name that later folk versions of the tale were assumed to have used his tale as their source.]

Sometime in February, 1865, when Mark Twain was at Angel's Camp, California, trying his luck at pocket mining, he made an entry in his notebook as follows:

Coleman with his jumping frog—bet a stranger $50.—Stranger had no frog and C. got...

(The entire section is 986 words.)

Paul Baender (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The 'Jumping Frog' as a Comedian's First Virtue," in Modern Philology, Vol. 40, No. 3, February, 1963, pp. 192-200.

[In the following essay, Baender argues that although Twain's jumping frog story borrows conventions of the Southwestern frame story, the sketch is a creative departure from that traditional form. Baender points out that the tale includes many anecdotes that are clearly the author's own invention, and that it has national rather than regional appeal.]

Mark Twain criticism is still violent and unsettled. Ever since the 1860's people have fought as to whether he was more than a humorist or only a humorist, civilized man or frontiersman, and more...

(The entire section is 5512 words.)

S. J. Krause (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Art and Satire of Twain's 'Jumping Frog' Story," in American Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4, Winter, 1964, pp. 562-76.

[In the following essay, Krause claims that Twain 's jumping frog story combines Eastern political satire and traditional folk humor.]

Recent analyses of Mark Twain's "Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" tend to stress its projection of the traditional conflict between eastern and western values—or, more precisely, between the values of a gentle, civilized class and those of the frontier.1 Taking in its broadest potential reference, Paul Schmidt has seen the "Jumping Frog" as dramatizing those assumptions which, as he has...

(The entire section is 7228 words.)

Paul Smith (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Infernal Reminiscence: Mythic Patterns in Mark Twain's 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County'," in Satire Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring, 1964, pp. 41-4.

[In the following essay, Smith offers a fantastic reading of Twain's jumping frog sketch in the poker-faced manner of Simon Wheeler, leading other critics to observe that Smith's article is in part a humorous jibe at the state of literary scholarship.]

Much critical effort has been spent on fixing the original date of Mark Twain's darker view of humanity; and as the years have progressed, inevitably, the terminus ad quem of his pessimism has regressed, ineluctably: first it was placed...

(The entire section is 1647 words.)

J. Golden Taylor (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," in The American West, No. 4, Fall, 1965, pp. 73-6.

[In the following essay, Taylor contends that the significance of Twain's jumping frog story lies in the manner in which Twain elevates a humorous regional tale into a fable that provides insight into universal traits of human nature.]

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" is one of the most widely acclaimed pieces of Western Americana, and it has now delighted millions of readers all over the world for exactly a century. Such fame is somewhat of a phenomenon considering that Mark Twain at first apparently had in mind no such life...

(The entire section is 2897 words.)

Edgar M. Branch (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "'My Voice is Still for Setchell': A Background Study of 'Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog'," in PMLA, Vol. 82, No. 7, December, 1967, pp. 591-601.

[Below, Branch discusses the influence of Twain 's personal life on his composition of the jumping frog story.]


For the past fifteen years scholars have examined many facets of Mark Twain's "Jumping Frog": its narrative techniques and some of its textual history, its relation to folklore, American humor, and Clemens' theory of humorous gravity, and its political, regional, and cultural bearings.1 This article, by focussing on the personal background to the tale, tries to cast...

(The entire section is 9405 words.)

Paul C. Rodgers, Jr. (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Artemus Ward and Mark Twain's 'Jumping Frog'," in Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 28, December, 1973, pp. 273-86.

[In the following essay, Rodgers surveys some of the notable scholarly interpretations of Twain's jumping frog story before arguing that the sketch can be best understood in the context of Twain 's relationship to the man to whom it was addressed: Artemus Ward.]

Over the last four decades, students of Twain's "Jumping Frog" sketch of 1865 have made their chief advances by working outward from the dramatic center of the tale, shifting their attention from Jim Smiley and his fateful frog to the ambiguous figure of Simon Wheeler, Smiley's garrulous...

(The entire section is 5459 words.)

John C. Gerber (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "San Francisco: Literary Burlesques and 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County'," in Mark Twain, Twayne, 1988, pp. 15-18.

[In the following excerpt from a book-length critical study of Twain's work, Gerber outlines the frog story's circumstances of composition and remarks that the narrators, rather than the anecdote itself are the central elements of the story.]

Except for three months spent in the Tuolumne Hills, Mark Twain lived in San Francisco from May 1864 to March 1866. It was not one of the happiest periods of his life. Of necessity he took a job as local reporter with the Morning Call, the "washerwoman's paper." Most of what he wrote...

(The entire section is 1725 words.)

Bruce Michelson (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mark Twain and the Escape from Sense," in Mark Twain on the Loose: A Comic Writer and the American Self, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995, pp. 1-38.

[In the following excerpt, Michelson begins by discussing several traditional interpretations of the jumping frog sketch as greatly indebted to the humorous Southwestern frame story. He then asserts that Twain breaks from the conventional structure to create a complex, mischievous tale that calls into question reality and common sense and confounds interpretation.]

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog," which Mark Twain also published as, among other things, "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," "Jim...

(The entire section is 3753 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Covici, Jr., Pascal. Mark Twain's Humor: The Image of a World. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1962, 266 p.

Full-length study of Twain's humorous works, including a discussion of the frog story. Covici contends that Wheeler's deadpan style of narration, his inattention to his audience, and his inability to distinguish between the significant and trivial, and between the mundane and fantastic, are the main sources of humor in the tale.

Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966, 321 p.

Freudian analysis of Twain's works, with a section on...

(The entire section is 371 words.)