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

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County book cover
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(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...

(The entire section is 56,457 words.)