“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.
“Jumping Frog” was originally told in epistolary form-that is, as a letter-though some reprints of the tale have since omitted this letter-frame convention. In the story Twain recounts his visit, made at the request of a friend back east, to an old man named Simon Wheeler in a California mining camp. Wheeler tells Twain a colorful story about another miner, Jim Smiley. According to Wheeler, Smiley loved to make bets; he would bet on nearly anything. Wheeler relates some of Smiley’s more famous gambling escapades, one of which concerns a pet frog. Critics frequently cite this story as an example of a tall tale and note Twain’s use of humor and exaggeration. They also emphasize the tale’s satirical focus on storytelling and existing cultural differences between the western and eastern regions of the United States.
In the story Twain has gone to see Wheeler at the urging of a friend back east who is searching for information about a boyhood companion named Leonidas W. Smiley. Leonidas W. Smiley supposedly became a minister and went to a western mining settlement called Angel’s Camp. The narrator notes that he has come to believe there is no such person as Leonidas W. Smiley, and that the inquiry was designed to provide Wheeler with an excuse to talk about Jim Smiley. The narrator finds Wheeler in a run-down tavern in Angel’s Camp and politely asks about Leonidas W. Smiley. The name means nothing to Wheeler, but he thinks almost immediately of Jim Smiley and begins recounting tales of this bizarre character for his visitor.
Jim Smiley, according to Wheeler, was a man who would bet on anything. “Why, if there was two birds Setting on a fence, he would bet you which one would fly first,” Wheeler says. Wheeler recalls that Smiley had a slow, sickly horse that would surprise everyone by winning races, and Smiley frequently won money with that horse. Smiley’s bull-pup, named Andrew Jackson after the strong-willed U.S. president, also had an amazing talent. Andrew Jackson the dog was not very impressive in appearance but was remarkably tenacious when there was a bet riding on him. He would let another dog beat him savagely until the largest and final bet of the fight was on, then take one of his opponent’s hind legs in his mouth and hold on until the other dog simply gave up. He continued winning in this manner until he went up against a dog with no hind legs. Unable to use his favorite tactic, Andrew Jackson became so disheartened that he just slunk off and died, Wheeler tells Twain.
Wheeler continues with a story about how Smiley once caught a frog and trained it to jump. The frog, named after the famed 19th-century American politician Daniel Webster, developed incredible jumping ability. Smiley won many bets with Dan’l Webster and took great pride in him, Wheeler says. One day Smiley boasted to a stranger in the camp that Dan’l Webster could out-jump any frog in Calaveras County, and he offered to bet 40 dollars to prove it. The stranger had no frog to pit against Smiley’s, so Smiley left Dan’l Webster with him and went to find another frog in a nearby swamp. While Smiley was gone, the stranger spooned quail shot into Dan’l Webster’s mouth until the frog was weighted down. Smiley returned with the second frog, and the jumping contest began, but Dan’l Webster could not move. After the stranger took his money and his leave, Smiley noticed that something appeared to be wrong with Dan’l. He lifted the frog, realized how heavy it was, and turned it upside down until it belched out the shot. He then chased after the visitor but never caught him, Wheeler relates.
At this point in the tale someone outside the tavern calls Wheeler’s name, and Wheeler steps out after urging the narrator to wait for him to return. By this time, however, the narrator believes he will obtain no useful information from Wheeler, and he gets up to leave. As he reaches the door, Wheeler comes back and starts to tell him about Jim Smiley’s one-eyed, no-tailed cow. “Lacking both time and inclination” to hear this story, the narrator makes his escape.
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was a popular success upon its first publication. Some of its success can be attributed to Twain’s use of popular storytelling conventions and references to contemporary figures. For example, Twain adopted the humorous tall tale of the American Southwest, a popular genre at the time, to tell this story. Furthermore, the tale already was an established piece of American folklore that Twain modified and enhanced; early versions of the tale focused on a jumping grasshopper, not a frog. Twain added to the popularity of his “Jumping Frog” by reciting it at the lectures and performances he gave across the United States. The letter-writing structure initially used in this tale was popular at that time and also contributed to the story’s success.
Twain also makes allusions to recent figures in contemporary American history. For example, Jim Smiley’s dog, Andrew Jackson, shared his name with a former president of the United States, while Smiley’s frog, Dan’l Webster, was named after the renowned statesman and politician. The letter that frames the original story is addressed to “A. Ward,” whom many individuals believed to be Artemus Ward, another popular humor writer of the time. These references and conventions made the tale more accessible and thus popular with Twain’s contemporaries.
Although “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was initially admired for its humor and as an example of a tall tale, it also became known for its satirical portrait of the American East. Although one of Twain’s earliest and most successful pieces-a piece that established him as a sketch-writer and humorist-this story also has much in common with his later works, which critics frequently note for their biting comments about American society and human nature. Furthermore, it is noted that by portraying himself as a fool, Twain could get away with more outrageous and possibly offensive comments. For example, he could feature a westerner (Wheeler) duping an easterner (Twain)-a situation that reversed the popular stereotypes of the day-without offending Eastern audiences. It must be noted, however, that Twain allows Jim Smiley, a westerner, to be duped when he lets his guard down.
More recent interpretations of the story, by such critics as Lawrence R. Smith, have focused on the symbolism attached to the names used in the story. In the Mark Twain Journal, Smith asserted that Twain’s use of names offers insights into American society. “Smiley,” for instance, is considered an optimistic name. The dog’s namesake, Andrew Jackson, was a brave man of “common stock” and a president known for his strong will. Jackson was also known as a proponent of democracy-a philosophy that Twain highly valued and that is shared by all U.S. citizens regardless of where they live. In the case of the two men named Smiley, Leonidas, the name associated with Twain’s eastern friend, is a more sophisticated and potentially snobbish name. These qualities-sophistication and snobbery-were sometimes associated with the society of the eastern United States. Jim, on the other hand, is a more popular and common name, just as frontiersmen were generally considered more “common” and less sophisticated. Critics believe, therefore, that “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” provides a symbolic commentary on the melting pot of American society and the positive and negative qualities of all Americans.