The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
CRITIQUE | THE TEXT
1865, The New York Saturday Press as "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog"
First book publication
1867, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches
Approx. 2,600 words
A shaggy frog story
This is Mark Twain at this earliest and most innocuous—a genial small-town storyteller in the vein of America's Bret Harte or Canada's later Stephen Leacock. With only a trace of the crankiness and harder-edged satire to come.
In fact, apart from being Twain's first big writing success, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County gives little evidence of the great writer he would become.
The story itself is slight to, to say the least. One Jim Smiley (surnamed Greeley in some early versions), known in a "decayed mining camp" for betting on anything, places a wager with a stranger that his frog can outjump any other in the county. The stranger, however, pulls a trick to win. Smiley discovers the trick after he's paid off on the bet but he can't find the stranger.
No doubt, the reader is expecting some twist at the end in Smiley's favour but it never comes as far as we know, as the storyteller is called away.
The point of the story seems to be that Smiley usually wins his wagers because locals can't see through his cunning, but in this case he's the one taken in by an outsider. (I don't know whether there is any significance to the frog being named after the famous American lawyer and three-time secretary of state Daniel Webster.)
Twain would publish other rambling stories with anti-climactic endings, but this remains his most famous.
What's most interesting about The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County from a literary point of view may be how the story is told in two layers: by the writing narrator, presumably Twain, who is visiting out west, calling on a friend of a friend, and by Simon Wheeler, that friend of a friend who relates the frog story.
The narrator's suspicion that he was tricked by his friend in the east into eliciting the frog tale from the long-winded Wheeler and his narrow escape from hearing another such pointless story form the story's bookends.
Told in the early American vernacular ("There was a feller here once by the name of Jim Smiley.... Thish-yer Smiley had a mare the boys called her the fifteen-minute nag...."), The Celebrated Jumping Frog is charming in its small way. But I'm not sure why it's so often anthologized, given so many other more interesting Twain stories.
— Eric McMillan
CRITIQUE | THE TEXT