Mark Twain and the Jumping Frog (1865 November 18th)


Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was first published in the November 18,1865, edition of The New York Saturday Press, under the title “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.” The story is set in a gold-mining camp in Calaveras County, California, and has its roots in the legends of the Gold Rush era. It was one of Twain’s initial writings, and helped launch his reputation as a humorist. He eventually included it as the title story in his first collection of tales.

What is The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County About and Is It Really True or Fake?

How can we not care about a frog that jumps really high except when he is force-fed lead shot? But really, this tale proves to us the power of storytelling, and that just about anything can be fascinating, if it is told well (and with an accent).

When Mark Twain headed out to Nevada in 1861, hoping to strike it rich in the silver boom, he began writing for a newspaper called the Territorial Enterprise. There, he and his fellow “journalists” would create news sometimes (for kicks) and would try to make the most ludicrous circumstances seem like the “real” news to readers. They would have contests to see who could create the most absurd yet credible stories (source). Basically, they were pioneers in the “fake news media.”

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County Is It A Tale of Deceit or Cleverness?

Though Jim Smiley seems to be extremely lucky, it is partly through his wily and cunning ways that he is able to win bets. He is finally outsmarted by a stranger, who beats him through dishonest. Nonetheless, the story poses a moral distinction between honest and fraudulent cleverness. It also shows that you don’t necessarily have to be educated and well spoken to be clever, nor is a good education a defense against getting fooled.

Although this story is full of messages about the differences between the West and the East, and about education, the main lesson is about the rules of fair play.

Though Jim Smiley “deceives” people by betting on his animals that don’t look like they can ever win, his dishonesty is innocent in contrast to the stranger’s. All gambling is an attempt to deceive, so Smiley’s opponents should know what they are getting into.  As the saying goes…all fair in love and war, and apparently frog jumping too.

Contrast Of Regions, ie He’s From Over There:

Though the eastern and western United States aren’t exactly contrasted in this short story, we do see a difference between the educated, refined narrator from the East (who also happens to be “green”) and the uneducated but slick characters who populate Angel’s mining camp in the West. The characters in the West love a good tall tale, while the narrator appears to find it pointless and tedious, but maybe that’s because he doesn’t get it

The Melting Pot Before There was a Melting Pot and The Merits of Foreigners.

Twain was exploring the idea of America’s strength resulting from its status as melting pot of various culture, histories and ideologies even before it was known as “pluralism.”. The story was published in 1865 and while immigrants had always been a vital constituent of American growth, the long lines at Ellis Island was still a very long way off. In revealing that the prejudices of both the East and West may be unjustified and in showing that the frontier Americans could be trusted with spreading the literal concept and the symbolic weight of America as a grand experiment in democracy, Twain’s story can be read as an allegory of the American melting pot. It takes all kinds and all kinds are going to be necessary to make this idea work across such an enormous expanse of geography, the story says. At a time when much of the East’s negative perception of those settling the frontier was informed by the very real possibility that much of that land might be lost to Mexicans, Indians or some foreign power, one can only assume that the optimistic name of the westerner who gets the better of the easterner was not chosen randomly.

8 thoughts on “Mark Twain and the Jumping Frog (1865 November 18th)

  1. It’s funny you mention Mark Twain since he’s someone I’ve never really read, as much as I read. Recently I did read a short, great, book about his relationship with U.S Grant publishing his war memoirs. I think I’ll peruse the library stacks today for a little Twain. Thanks. I love the photos.

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    1. Twain was a real character. Indeed, he created his Twain persona and capitalized on it. Some of the language in his stories can be hard to read out loud though it definitely is realistic in the context of his stories.

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      1. Ever see the Ken Burns film on him? I remember loving it. He had lots of ups and downs and sadness as well. I guess no one escapes. Even Tom and Huck’s dad.

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      2. I love that whole series, I forget what he calls it. The Brooklyn Bridge, The Statue of Liberty, The Congress, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The Shakers. Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright and another one. Whew!

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  2. 1865. Am I right in thinking this was the end of the Civil War? That brings in a North South divide that still exists today. And the East West divide in that time was perhaps a bit different than later times. Interesting post with the Twain and frogs weaving this analogy. On a side note the term “melting pot” seems to have been replaced by “mulitculturalism ” which means something very different as individual cultures are maintained side by side and no melting or assimilation takes place. At least that is the situation in Canada

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