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Twain's Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

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  • 0:07 Twain's Short Stories
  • 1:57 Background and Characters
  • 2:32 Plot
  • 5:35 Analysis
  • 6:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katherine Godin

Katherine is a teacher of middle and high school English and has an M.A. in English Education and an M.Ed. in Educational Administration.

In this lesson, we will explore the characters and discuss the plotline of one of Twain's most popular short stories, 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.'

Twain's Short Stories

Mark Twain spent his entire adult life writing nonfiction accounts, short stories and groundbreaking novels. He started, however, at a very young age as a typesetter and part-time newspaper contributor. It was during this time that he was able to experiment with humor in short, nonfiction and fiction pieces that were often published multiple times because of popularity. Twain became known for his short, humorous sketches and clever little stories with memorable characters. Prior to the creation of his most famous works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain gained acclaim as a short story writer.

Twain's short stories (whether widely read or not) show an equal passion and aptitude for creating simple plots that are not just exceedingly funny in dialogue, but also exceptionally artful in the way they highlight moral issues at the end. In true Twain style, he maintains a fidelity to regional dialects and real people and creates for average readers both humor and fantasy and a world that questions such important social structures as money, power, class and education. As a result, Twain is one of the great writers of the Realism movement in American literature.

Writer Mark Twain
Mark Twain Image

The story we are going to examine, 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County', is quintessentially Twain in these ways - simple, funny and wildly popular - giving us insight into both the writing style Twain created and the cultural context in which he wrote.

'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County' was first published in the New York Saturday Press in 1865. Originally titled 'Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog', the quirky characters and original and funny storytelling earned the story an immediate readership. The story was reprinted in several other papers and magazines and eventually gained its permanent name a few months later.

Background and Characters

The story, which takes place in Angel's Camp, California, is basically an encounter between two men. The narrator (our first character) shows up to see Old Simon Wheeler (our second character). Basically, the narrator - who is never given a name - has been asked by a friend back east to get some information about a guy named Leonidas W. Smiley. He's told that Old Simon Wheeler will be able to help him. That's really all the reader is told about the background of the encounter. Eventually, a third character presents himself in a story - Jim Smiley.

Plot

The story narrator shows up and asks Simon Wheeler if he has any information about Leonidas W. Smiley. Instead of giving the narrator the information he asks for, Simon, a very serious and monotonous storyteller, tells him about a guy he once knew named Jim Smiley.

So, Simon talks and talks and talks and talks about Jim Smiley. Basically, Jim Smiley was a man of many schemes. In many different ways, this Jim figured out how to make money from his schemes thanks to his cleverness and, Simon notes, his undying luck. At some point, this Jim gets himself a frog that he's going to educate. Yes, educate. He figures out how to get the frog, Daniel Webster, to jump and catch flies on cue. At this point in the story, Simon does interject that he's seen it with his own eyes. The frog that he saw could do all of those things - along with jumping higher than any other frog he'd seen. Wow. Keep in mind that Simon's storytelling is what gives the situation a hint of humor and an ounce of regional color:

'He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal'klated to edercate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump. And you bet he did learn him, too. He'd give him a little punch behind, and the next minute you'd see that frog whirling in the air like a doughnut see him turn one summerset, or may be a couple, if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right, like a cat. He got him up so in the matter of catching flies, and kept him in practice so constant, that he'd nail a fly every time as far as he could see him. Smiley said all a frog wanted was education, and he could do most any thing and I believe him.'

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