Story Playlist 3: The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

Mark Twain: “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865) In Mark Twain’s first big hit story, the narrator, on behalf of a friend, goes to ask an overly-talkative barman named Simon Wheeler about his friend’s former acquaintance, Reverend Leonidas W. Smiley, who may or may not have stayed in the mining camp at which the barman works. Wheeler doesn’t know Leonidas W. Smiley but he does recall a Jim Smiley, and he quickly launches into a story about the latter.

Twain’s short, short story—only 2,631 words—is the narrator’s word-for-word recollection of Wheeler’s monologue about Jim Smiley’s gambling escapades. Smiley would bet on anything, even that a friend’s wife would not recover from illness. He didn’t care what he bet on, or which side he took, as long as he could make a bet. He once had a dog named Andrew Jackson that developed a technique to win dogfights bloodlessly, grabbing hold of his opponent’s hind legs with his maw without biting until the opponent had to give up. Knowing of Andrew Jackson’s strategy, an opponent set an invalid dog, missing its hind legs, against Andrew Jackson, and Smiley’s prize dog lost.

Later, Smiley takes an interest in training the story’s eponymous hero which he named Dan’l Webster. He spends three months teaching the frog to jump until he is pretty sure that Dan’l Webster can jump better than any other frog in the county.

An unnamed bettor appears and Smiley engages him in a $40 bet (no small change back then) that Dan’l Webster can out-jump any other frog. The bettor takes a good look at Dan’l Webster and comments, “Well, I don’t see no p’nts about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog.” He wants in, but laments that he has no frog of his own—indeed, if he had brought his own jumping frog, we might wonder about his sanity as much as we do about Smiley’s. So Smiley offers to catch him a frog to use in the competition.

While Smiley is off in the woods frog-hunting, the bettor decides to hedge his bets, just in case this Dan’l Webster really is as good as his owner claims. He spoon-feeds buckshot into Dan’l Webster’s mouth until the frog is full, then places him gently on the ground. Smiley returns with a frog for his opponent, which he places beside Dan’l Webster. Each bettor prods his frog’s rear end to send it jumping, but only the newly-caught frog jumps. Dan’l Webster remains stock still. Smiley is confused, but pays his loss. As the bettor walks briskly away, pleased with his victory, he restates, “Well, I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s better’n any other frog.”

Smiley notices that Dan’l Webster “’pears to look mighty baggy,” and might not be well. He lifts him up and exclaims, “Why, blame my cats, if he don’t weigh five pound!” Turned upside-down, the frog belches buckshot. Smiley realizes he’s been had, but the stranger is long gone.

Wheeler is then interrupted in this uninvited story by business at the bar. He tells the narrator to wait, and when he returns, he begins the story of Jim Smiley’s next escapade, involving a one-eyed cow. But the narrator, having realized that his errand to learn about Leonidas W. Smiley is fruitless, slips away before he can be cornered again.

Quite aware of his tale’s irrelevance, the narrator begins his story with a warning, directed at the audience, that let’s us know his tale, far from satisfying the errand and any curiosity about Reverend Smiley, will be “as long and tedious as it should be useless to me.” The narrator even wonders if his friend sent him to speak to Simon Wheeler as a sort of prank, knowing that he’d be roped into listening to a pointless, if charming, story.

Part of the humor of Twain’s text is in the narrator’s use of dialect, with words spelled out to imitate his characters’ pronunciation: “Dan’l” for “Daniel,” “p’nts” for “points.” Today, this is viewed as a dangerous technique as it can misfire and seem to condescend to characters or make them regional stereotypes. Twain gets away with it, in part because we sense that the sound of his speech is key to the character of Wheeler the raconteur and Smiley, the archetypal bet-maker. Much of the story’s charm relies on its folksy, I’m-gonna-tell-you-a-tale oral tradition.

Twain’s stories deliberately court the feel of an old man in a rocking chair, telling you a story on a cricket-infused summer night, with iced tea in beaded glasses and mosquitoes round your ears. Twain made a great deal of money by performing his stories, essentially story-telling on stage, and key to his success was his genius at approximating the mannerisms of speech, the way that phrasing and word choice create character. But along with reproducing the homey way that unschooled people speak, Twain captures the way that anecdotal story-tellers can spin yarns apropos of little and keep it up indefinitely.

The narrator’s tale allows him to play straightman to a lonely old man who is pleased to find an interlocutor, even an unwilling one. Wheeler “backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair.” Smiley is a pure caricature, relentless, none-too-clever, and all-too-eager to display his failings, not only with the dog, Andrew Jackson, but with his celebrated frog, Dan’l Webster. A gambling addict, Smiley has the time and wherewithal to dedicate three months to frog-training, only to be bamboozled by a cleverer stranger. If we enjoy Wheeler’s company, then we should be curious to know what Smiley got up to with his one-eyed cow.

Twain himself rewrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras Country” several times, giving it different titles, and it was widely translated. He wrote an essay about the writing of “The Jumping Frog Story,” and he even demonstrated his anti-Gallic sentiment by retranslating into English the French translation of the story, retaining the French grammatical structure to humorous effect, in his “The Jumping Frog Story: in English, then in French, and then Clawed Back into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil.” Twain was a master at making one effort earn multiple times, as evidenced by at least three versions of this story published in books and magazines, his on-stage performances of it, and his addition material in the form of an origin essay and his re-translation from French.

In his 1903 essay, “Private History of the Jumping Frog Story,” Twain tells how pleased he was to learn that a similar story about a frog had appeared as an ancient Greek fable, along the lines of Aesop. Of this he wrote, “I think it must be a case of history actually repeating itself, and not the case of a good story floating down the ages and surviving because too good to be allowed to perish.” He would later learn that this rumor was mistaken—there was no ancient Greek fable about a jumping frog, but his own story had been adapted by a Professor Sidgwick in his book on grammar, Greek Prose Composition. The idea that the story has ancient origins suggests that Twain’s version might be either an allegorical or a moral tale with a didactic purpose, as with Aesop’s fables.

And yet Twain’s apparent confusion about an ancient antecedent sounds a bit like a shaggy-dog—or buckshot-filled frog—story itself. Is the uncertainty surrounding the origins of folk tales the point, or is Twain simply ribbing us with the possibly of allegory—in which animals take on the names of important American personages? Andrew Jackson and Daniel Webster, while certainly historically significant individuals, are also figures of folk lore and tall tales. Is there an allegory behind Twain’s story, or merely fun with the very notion of moralizing fiction? There may be less to it than meets the eye, but the “Jumping Frog” story is undoubtedly charming, funny, was hugely popular a good fifty years after its first publication, and has been duly “celebrated” ever since.