Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835 in Florida, Missouri. He spent much of his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, a town located on the Mississippi River. He never finished school and instead became a printer’s apprentice at the age of twelve. In the 1850s he worked as a riverboat pilot and later briefly served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. During this time he submitted his first journalism pieces, using the pseudonym Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass. He then traveled west and found work as a miner and a reporter. It was at this time that he first began to publish work under the name Mark Twain and to establish himself as a sketch-writer and humorist. “Mark Twain” was a reference to his riverboat days; it was a term that the men who worked on the boats used to indicate the depth of the water.
“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, which has also been published as “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” is set in a gold-mining camp in Calaveras County, California, and has its origins in the folklore of the Gold Rush era. It was one of Twain’s earliest writings and helped establish his reputation as a humorist.
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” takes place in the mid- to late 19th century, shortly after the California Gold Rush of 1849. Mark Twain’s experience with Simon Wheeler and Wheeler’s stories about Jim Smiley both occur in Angel’s Camp, a mining settlement located in Calaveras County, California. Wheeler tells stories to Twain in a local bar, the type of place where stories were often shared.
A cultured easterner relates his recent visit to a talkative old man at a western mining camp. Rather than providing the information that the easterner is looking for, the old man keeps him waiting while he spins a tale about a betting man and his pet frog.
The frame tale structure of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is one of its most important literary devices. In a frame tale, one story appears in-that is, it is framed by-another story. In “Jumping Frog” the outer tale focuses on Mark Twain and his meeting with the talkative old storyteller Simon Wheeler. This meeting occurs at the request of a friend of Twain’s, identified in some versions of the tale as A. Ward, who supposedly wants to find out about an old acquaintance named Leonidas Smiley. Twain reveals, however, that he suspects his friend’s request was merely a practical joke designed to waste his time. Twain’s suspicions about the meeting and his descriptions of Wheeler appear in the few paragraphs that open and close the entire story. Twain speaks in the first person in these passages. Because this portion of the tale first appeared in the form of a letter, the entire story also can be considered an epistolary tale.
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was first published in 1865, when Mark Twain was living in the American Southwest, which was still being settled. The Industrial Revolution had brought machinery and factories to the eastern United States, but most of the country, particularly areas west of the Mississippi River, still relied on the land for economic development. Much of the land in the West was devoted to cattle, and the U.S. government was involved in battles and embroilments with various Native American tribes in order to obtain more land. The West’s growing population was influenced by both the Homestead Act of 1862, which promised free farms to families, and the discovery of gold in California in 1848. As a result of this discovery, mining towns and camps, such as Angel’s Camp where Twain sets “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” were established throughout California and the western United States.
1. Some of the satiric effects and humor in the story are derived from a clash between the eastern and western cultures in the United States during the 19th century. What aspects of this cultural divide still exist?
1. Twain’s story was first written as a letter, a style referred to as epistolary. Other examples of epistolary works are Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). Discuss the impact of the epistolary form on the narrative and the reader’s interest in a work.
The Best Man Wins, directed by John Sturges, was distributed by Columbia in 1948. This film version of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” stars Edgar Buchanan and Anna Lee.