America in the Mid to Late Nineteenth Century
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was first published in 1865, when Mark Twain was living in the American Southwest, which was still in the process of 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 by 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.
Despite the increasing growth out West, there was still a great divide between the eastern and western parts of the United States. The West was thought to be wild and woolly, and populated by rough, uneducated pioneers. Easterners, on the other hand, were assumed to be more educated, polite, cultured, and sophisticated—in a word, “genteel.” Although trains and steamboats were popular modes of transportation, the transcontinental railroad had not yet been completed. This made travel between the two regions difficult, and this fact added to the sense of separation between them.
Literature in the United States
At the time Twain wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” distinctly American literature was still in its infancy. Henry James was beginning an acclaimed literary career and influencing the development of the modern novel form. Representing the cultured East, James often wrote of transplanted Americans in Europe and the tradition-bound Europeans who looked down on them for lacking sophistication. In direct contrast to James, Twain was busy forging an American identity in literature—based on the rugged and independent individuals who lived outside the East. Twain’s writing style forsook eloquence to focus on addressing situations unique to the United States and Americans. Classics such as Huckleberry Finn featured familiar American characters and settings, while commenting on the growing nation’s social issues.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Mark Twain, Published by Gale, 1997.