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The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

by Mark Twain

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What historical significance did mining towns, like in "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," have on the West's development and who were attracted to these camps?

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In the mid-nineteenth century there was a great divide between the civilization of the East with its factories and cities and the West, a part of the country where there were tremendous expanses of land, large herds of buffalo, and Native Americas with whom white men often had horrific conflicts. In short, the "Wild West" was considered an area where rugged, independent "wild and woolly" men lived. They were often loners that were lacking in education, sophistication and ethics. Sometimes they were even criminals; most of the time, they were opportunists and fortune seekers with little or nothing to lose in their ventures.

Mining towns were frequently communities that sprang up during the California Gold Rush of 1849; they were makeshift towns of tents, perhaps with a wooden saloon.  When gold was found nearby, communities turned into cities overnight. For instance, "San Francisco grew from a small settlement of about 200 residents in 1846 to a boomtown of about 36,000 by 1852." These towns attracted men who were adventurous, optimistic and hopeful of striking it rich, and often naive in their expectations. Certainly, these men were unrefined, ill-educated, mostly single, and ready to brawl, exaggerate their claims, and even trick others. Professional gamblers and saloon girls certainly found their ways into these mining towns. The saloon, too, was usually the site where tall-tales were told.

Easterners who came West were ridiculed by the Westerners who found them dandies who could not shoot a six-gun, ride a horse, or hunt, while Easterners felt that the men from the West were dirty, uncouth, and certainly unsophisticated--perhaps, even stupid. This contrast of attitudes is what constitutes much of the humor of Twain's short story. For, Simon Wheeler's deadpan delivery is his way of tricking his supposedly sophisticated listener from the East, who perceives him as slow and mentally dull and is completely fooled. The narrator describes him,

He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice....but all through the interminable narrative there ran a vein of impressive earnestness and sincerity, which showed me...he regarded it as a really important matter, and admired its two heroes as men of transcendent genius in finesse.

As a consequence of Simon Wheeler's grave telling of his story, he is able to fool his listener. Thus, Mark Twain satirizes the stereotype of the uneducated, simple  and backward Westerner. For, Simon corrals his supposedly sophisticated Easterner and forces him to listen to his tall-tale. The narrator is also fooled by his friend.

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