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Essay On The Notorious Jumping Frog Of Calaveras County

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“The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was originally published in the Saturday Press in 1865 before appearing two years later in Mark Twain’s Sketches, New and Old. The story can present something of a prickly problem for old-fashioned search engines—human effort—as the story is also often published under the slightly altered title “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” The story itself has the power to bring to mind to certain readers those occasions when one Grandpa Simpson would go off on a digressive tangent about life in dickety-four when nickels had pictures of bumblebees on them and you’d say give me five bees for a quarter...and so on. The story within the story has a haphazardly constructed, go-nowhere sort of feeling to it like one Abe Simpson’s long-winded stories. The story that Twain constructed to relate the digressive tale within, however, actually benefits from the kind of tightly wound precision that is the mark of a great writer.

Close scrutiny to Simon Wheeler’s narrative methodology reveals a repetitive pattern of starting from a situation of the ordinary and workout progressively outward to that which is more and more out of the ordinary. This pattern is replicated in his descriptions of the animals in which the details become more abundant in direct ratio to the farther away from the prosaic his subject moves. Even the betting obsession of Jim Smiley move in a progressively forward manner from the definitively commonplace wagering on horses to the obsessively outrageous act of staking a claim on the mortality of Parson Walker’s wife.

Rest assured that the attention to detail even extends to the seemingly silly names of the participants in the competitions. A little knowledge of America’s political history—notably that of the Whig Party, its greatest representative and its most vociferous opponents—as well as a familiarity with Twain’s own political leanings endows the story with a more expansive meaning through the seemingly merely idiosyncratic names given to a couple of those animals ripe for placing a wager upon.

All the staggering genius that would be exhibited for display throughout the rest of Twain’s career can be found intact in miniature form in the story that, ultimately, is about neither a notorious jumping frog nor a celebrating jumping frog. While Twain’s subsequent maturation has tended to relegate this story to that of mere entertainment lacking much of the deeper substance of later works—especially his novels—the truth is that for what content is contained in the digressive nature of this amusing little piece of fluff, the astute reader can easily extricate quite a bit more than just a few hearty chuckles.

"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.

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