February 19, 2018

Twain, Smiley, Frogs

On this day in 1865 Mark Twain published "Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog" in the New York Saturday Press. The story was immediately popular nationally and then internationally, giving Twain first fame and the centerpiece for his first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches. As a sometime-reporter, Twain had been publishing such tall tales and hoaxes for several years -- writing them as "Josh" until 1863 -- but his frog story was an old chestnut, first heard from fellow prospectors while sitting around the saloon stove in Angel's Mining Camp, outside San Francisco:
    ..."What might it be that you've got in the box?"
    And Smiley says, sorter indifferent like, "It might be a parrot, or it might be a canary, may be, but it ain't -- it's only just a frog."
    And the feller took it, and looked at it careful, and turned it round this way and that, and says, "H'm -- so 'tis. Well, what's he good for?"
    "Well," Smiley says, easy and careless, "He's good enough for one thing, I should judge -- he can out-jump any frog in Calaveras county."
    The feller took the box again, and took another long, particular look, and give it back to Smiley, and says, very deliberate, "Well -- I don't see no p'ints about that frog that's any better'n any other frog."
    "Maybe you don't," Smiley says. "Maybe you understand frogs, and maybe you don't understand 'em; maybe you've had experience, and maybe you ain't only a amature, as it were. Anyways, I've got my opinion, and I'll resk forty dollars that he can outjump any frog in Calaveras county."
    And the feller studied a minute, and then says, kinder sad, like, "Well, I'm only a stranger here, and I ain't got no frog -- but if I had a frog, I'd bet you...."
Twain's frog story established the yarn-spinner persona and the gullibility theme that he would profitably mine for his entire career. Given his own tendency to leap into things -- he was bankrupted by schemes to make a perpetual calendar, or a fire extinguisher that worked like a grenade, or a set of clamps to keep the blankets on, or the world's first typesetting machine -- it would be money that he would need.

The frog-jumping continues at Angels Camp, now as part of a 4-day Calaveras County Fair. Any frog who thinks he can beat Rosie the Ribiter's world record of 21ft., 5.75 inches is welcome to try, but it will cost $5.

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