The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County Style and Technique

Mark Twain

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In this highly significant humorous experiment, the author incorporates the traditional form of the tall tale into a story of his own creation. He produces a sort of literary tug-of-war between town and country, provincialism and urbanity. In appropriating this apocryphal frog story for his own purposes, Twain makes numerous changes in its composition. First and foremost, he embellishes the anecdote with a frame, in which he presents the narrator, Mark Twain, who in turn explains his encounter with Simon Wheeler in the mining settlement at Angel’s Camp.

The names of the bulldog, Andrew Jackson, and the frog, Daniel Webster, may suggest that Twain was merely indulging in topical political satire. In fact, however, his intention was to mock politicians and lawmakers as a species—an activity in which he gleefully engaged throughout his literary career. Simon Wheeler’s tall tale does not attempt to size up recent history. Its content is purely Western in feeling and, as such, is generous in its ready acceptance of the exaggerated and the absurd. In this story, it is the vernacular, not the traditional style of polite speech, that emerges triumphant. The city slicker narrator receives, not teaches, the lesson.

This is not merely the repetition of an oft-told tall tale, redesigned and decked out in a new guise. From the beginning it is made clear that there is no Leonidas W Smiley, especially no Reverend Leonidas W Smiley, and that his existence is mere pretense in order to hear Simon Wheeler elucidate on the past experiences of Jim Smiley. Simon Wheeler’s calculated ramblings admirably provide a platform for Twain’s subtle and not-so-subtle humor. His literary greatness, in part, emanates from a perpetual malicious shrewdness that he frequently chooses to cloak under an assumed simplicity. His innocence is always pure sham, and the fact that he openly shares this secret with the reader is part of the fun.