Mark Twain: The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

Samuel Longhorn Clemens

The story written by Samuel Longhorn Clemens, who used the pen name Mark Twain first appeared on November 18, 1865 in the New York Saturday Press and has been published several times since then. (The Norton Anthology of American Literature). "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1) is one of the most famous tall tales written by the most famous author of the west. Mark Twain has mostly become popular of his "Huckleberry Finn" stories, but the "Jumping Frog" as the tall tale will be further called in this essay was one of his first story and the one that brought Twain into notice to the public. When he was writing for newspapers he was also traveling a lot, for example to California. On the ship he made acquaintance of Bret Hawk and when they reached San Francisco Mint Twain told Hawk this story of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" as it was called at first. Nowadays Twain, who was born in Florida on November 30, 1835 and died 1910 is described as humorist and master of simple and effective narrative and of vivid description, but under all this lie depths of melancholic wisdom and a great capacity for righteous indignation. The "Jumping Frog" certainly implies all of this.(2) 

The setting of the story is Angels Camp, a mining town in the west, still existing today. The date is winter 1849/ spring 1850 during the goldrush. At first sight the story seems to be childish, without any deeper meaning and very confusing. Latter is due to the fact that it is a story within a story- a background story. One might get the impression that the narrative proliferates and the reader finds it difficult to keep track. 
As mentioned above, we deal with a tall tale, a genre with features like the vernacular speech, very obvious in the "Jumping frog" and the disorientation of the reader who does not know whether he is being confronted with a lie or the truth. In fact the tall tale is something in between. Fiction is used to criticize or describe non-fictional happenings of this time.
The story starts with a short introduction and continues with a line of narratives. In the introduction the background story teller, who is from the East appears and claims that he is looking for a person called Reverend Levidas W. Smiley. He has been told that he might ask Simon Wheeler, a man from the West because Smiley had once been his companion of boyhood and a resident of Angel's Camp. In this paragraph the reader is confronted with a high registered speech, a symbol for the educated and civilized Easterners. 
The narrator finds Wheeler "dozing" in front of a "dilapidated tavern in the decayed mining camp of Angel's".(3) Alone in this quotation we find some hints about the eastern opinion of the Westerners. According to the East, they are lazy and live in run- down mining camps. Furthermore, the narrator describes Wheeler as "fat and bald-headed [...with, D.K] an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity".(4)  This proofs that he does not categorize Wheeler as a highly educated person, who cares for his appearance. After being asked, Wheeler starts his discourse about a man called Jim Smiley, who is apparently not the one searched for, with a monotonous voice, lacking any enthusiasm but with an "earnestness and sincerity, which showed me plainly that [...] there was anything ridiculous or funny about this story" .(5) 
At this point the reader might experience the same feeling of disappointment as the narrator, because Reverend Levidas W. Smiley is obviously not identical with Jim Smiley. There is also a contradiction in the register of the names. The first one is a Reverend, a highly respected person of public life, an Easterner, who seems to be educated and wears an impressive first name with the mysterious initial W. On the other side is Jim Smiley - a common first name and surname, a man from the West, who does not seem to be very important so far.
From now on, Wheeler takes over the part of the narrator by telling the story of Jim Smiley, who was a man addicted to betting. The narrative is now in vernacular English and with a greatly exaggerated, which is comical. This implies a devaluation of the background narrative and a revaluation of the inner story. Smiley is even betting on the date of death of the wife of his friend Walker, which is a break of the convention and this again is comic. 

Now a story about a slow mare and a little small bull-pup, called Andrew Jackson follows. The curiosity about the latter one is the name of the dog, because the 7th President of the United States, who was the first Westerner to become president and who advocated the right to vote for every State of the West in 1830 had had the same. Mr Jackson had been a gambler, a wild man, who had whores and spend much time in saloons. He was the cause for a scandal by entering the White House on the back of his horse. He wanted democracy of the common people and he reached his aim.
The narrator continues with a story about a frog, called Dan'l Webster. This might remind the reader of Daniel Webster, a senator who had great responsibility for the slavery law. In the "Jumping Frog" a common, uneducated frog wins against an educated frog and has the conclusion that an ordinary frog is equal to the educated frog with a great name- Dan'l Webster. The senator Webster was educated as well and still the time of the slavery is gone, just as the Western states always wanted to. They fought for the rights to be a State of America although they were not willing to have slavery on their grounds. Back then the law was to have one State with and the next one without slavery, always one after the other. When the West was applying it was the turn of a slavery State and although it was none they were permitted. The conclusion is that people are equal and the winner is not always the civilized and educated one, as the following quotation proves: "I don't see no p'ints about that frog that's any better'n any other frog." (6) 
After this story the narrative could have gone further but the background- narrator and listener leaves. "However, lacking both time and inclination, I did not wait to hear about the afflicted cow, but took my leave." (7) 

Sources: 1:
                     accessed on 01/03/2001
                     accessed on 01/03/2001
             3: Twain, Mark (1865). The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
                 In: The Norton Anthology of American Literature;  p.13
             4: Ibd.; p.13
             5: Ibd.; p.13
             6: Ibd.; p.15
             7: Ibd.; p.16

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