By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Originally published in the New York Saturday Press in 1865 under the title ‘Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog’, Mark Twain’s short story ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ was one of his earliest pieces of writing and is probably his best-known short fiction. The story is widely studied and analysed in schools and universities. But what does it mean?
You can read ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Twain’s story below.
‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’: plot summary
The story is narrated by a man, presumably Twain himself, who has gone to California from the East at the behest of his friend, who wanted Twain to find man named Simon Wheeler and enquire about an old childhood friend of his named Leonidas W. Smiley, who is thought to have become a reverend and moved out west to a gold-mining camp named Angel’s.
Twain locates Wheeler in a tavern, and the bulk of the story is told by Wheeler himself, who relates to Twain his recollections of a man named Smiley. As Twain suspected, Wheeler does not appear to know Leonidas Smiley but does know a man named Jim Smiley, who used a variety of animals in his various schemes in order to have bets with people and win money off them. These included his bull-pup, which he named Andrew Jackson after the American President.
Wheeler tells Twain that Smiley would bet on anything: if there were two birds sitting on a fence, Smiley would place a bet on which of them would fly off first. He even bet that the parson’s wife wouldn’t recover from a bout of illness and would die. After using various animals in his money-making schemes and bets, Smiley found a frog which he taught to jump. He named this frog Daniel Webster, after the nineteenth-century politician.
The frog proved very lucrative for Smiley, since it could jump as no other frog could and so Smiley would easily win bets he had with people. One day, Smiley bragged to a stranger that the frog could outjump any other frog in the whole county, and the stranger took the bet, which was for forty dollars.
However, while Smiley was away catching another frog to race against Daniel Webster, the stranger spooned some quail-shot (small metal bullets used in shooting game birds) into the frog’s mouth to weigh it down. When Smiley returns with a frog for the stranger, he doesn’t suspect anything amiss.
When they put the two frogs down and encourage them to jump, the stranger’s frog jumps, while Daniel Webster, weighed down with quail-shot, cannot move. The stranger takes his forty dollars in prize money and departs, leaving Smiley to wonder how his celebrated jumping frog could have failed to perform. When he picks up his frog, he realises how heavy it is, and, turning it over, causes the frog to belch out the quail-shot. Smiley, angry that the stranger cheated in this way, runs after him, but fails to catch him.
At this point in his narrative, Wheeler is summoned outside the tavern by someone, and when he returns and begins to tell the narrator about one of Jim Smiley’s other animals (a frog with one eye and no tail), Twain/the narrator makes his excuses and leaves.
‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’: analysis
‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ combines both the tall tale and the practical joke into one short narrative, which proved an instant success when the story was first published in 1865. Like much of Twain’s fiction, how the story is told (in this case, by one man to another in a tavern, in folksy, colloquial fashion) is as important as the details of the story, which, as the plot summary above demonstrates, is fairly straightforward.
This is significant because ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ signalled Twain’s arrival on the American literary scene, and set a trend which would continue through much of his fiction: introducing eastern Americans to the people and places in their own country whose lives they barely knew about.
In this case, Twain is speaking to his New York readers, but relating a story that a simple Californian mining man, Simon Wheeler, told to him. There is thus a ‘told-about’ or ‘hand-me-down’ feel to the story which gives it an authenticity, if not a believability. We may find the details of the story exaggerated or even improbable, but we can easily imagine the young Twain by the barroom stove in the tavern with the balding, fat Wheeler while the latter relates his story in his plain, homespun manner to the younger man.
Ernest Hemingway once remarked that all American literature came from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, his point being that Twain established a distinctive American idiom with his fiction. ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ marks a similar origin-point, if on a much smaller scale.
Indeed, we might go so far as to say that the plot of the story is merely a means for Twain to introduce us to the character of Simon Wheeler: it is Wheeler, rather than Smiley, who is the most important character in ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’. His relaxed and conversational mode of narration is, of course, of a piece with the humorous, jokey tale he is telling, which is exactly the kind of story we can imagine miners sitting around and telling each other of an evening.
And in some respects, Wheeler’s conversation with Twain (though it can hardly be considered a two-way exchange) mirrors the story within the story: Twain becomes the butt of Wheeler’s joke just as Smiley was made the butt of the stranger’s dupe when he filled Smiley’s frog with quail-shot and rigged the bet in his own favour.
Similarly, Twain has come to Angel’s to discover some information about his friend’s old acquaintance, and instead he ends up hearing an inconsequential, and, to him, irrelevant tale about a man who simply happens to share the same surname as that acquaintance.