Twain: The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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