A cultured Easterner relates his recent visit to a talkative old man at a western mining camp. Rather than providing 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 Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” highlights various aspects of late nineteenth-century American society and culture through the retelling of a tall tale. Central to the story is the idea of conflicting cultures, particularly the clash between the settled, eastern portion of the United States and the still-developing West. At the time Twain wrote the story, the East and its inhabitants had a reputation for being civilized, cultured, and advanced. The West, on the other hand, was still being settled and was considered to be populated by a less-educated and less-refined group of people. By extension, Westerners were thought by Easterners to be naive and easily duped.
Twain presents these ideas in his story in various ways. Simon Wheeler, for instance, symbolizes the American Westerner—a garrulous old man who tells tales that are far-fetched and highly improbable. He speaks in monotone, supposedly having no knowledge of the techniques a good storyteller uses to keep an audience’s attention. An uneducated man, Wheeler tells his story in the popular genre of the tall tale, rather than in one of the more accepted classic genres taught in eastern schools. He also speaks in the vernacular; that is, in common language, which contains idiomatic expressions, slang, and improper grammar and syntax. Wheeler’s use of vernacular language reinforces the idea that the West was populated by crude barbarians who had little education or knowledge of good speech.
In stark contrast to Simon Wheeler, the narrator, Mark Twain, comes across as well-educated with refined tastes. This Mark Twain is a storyteller also, but in the passages that precede and follow Wheeler’s tale, Twain speaks in proper English. It is obvious he has been educated in the finer points of grammar and syntax. Twain, however, also comes across as a snob. He is annoyed by Wheeler’s diction and, because he finds Wheeler’s quaint stories fantastic, he thinks they lack value. Indeed, when Wheeler is called away, Twain sneaks off, unwilling to listen any longer. Twain does not consider Wheeler to be an effective storyteller because the old man does not use the conventions that Twain prefers. He does not realize, however, that Wheeler is actually capitalizing on the stereotype of the uneducated Westerner. For instance, although Twain finds Wheeler’s voice monotonous, it makes him believe Wheeler speaks with straightforward earnestness. Wheeler craftily balances the absurdity of his tale with the gravity with which he speaks to keep Twain in the listener’s seat.
Deception is an integral part of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and occurs on many levels. In the opening paragraph Mark Twain, the narrator, voices his suspicion that he has been duped by a friend who orchestrated this “chance” encounter with Simon Wheeler. His friend asked him to inquire about a childhood friend named Leonidas Smiley, knowing full well that Twain would instead be subjected to fabulous stories about the famous betting man of Angel’s Camp— Jim Smiley. His friend additionally knew that Twain would be bored and frustrated by the entire experience. Wheeler likewise dupes Twain. He tells him the fantastic and improbable story of Jim—rather than Leonidas—Smiley with a grave demeanor that masks the genuine humor of his tale. By using this mask, Wheeler initially fools the snobby Easterner and convinces him that he will be told a serious story. Another instance of deception involves Jim Smiley’s bet with the Stranger, who wagers that Dan’l Webster is not the best jumper in Calaveras County. Not only does the Stranger deceive Jim Smiley by pretending to be gullible, he cheats by stuffing Dan’l Webster with gunshot to weigh him down.
When first published, ‘ “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” provided relevant and incisive commentary about ninteenth-century American society. While portraying Easterners as educated and refined and Westerners as uneducated and gullible on the surface, Twain upset these stereotypes on a deeper level. He depicted the Easterner (Mark Twain) as a snob and someone who could easily be duped, while portraying the Westerner (Simon Wheeler) as somewhat of a schemer who, despite his lack of formal training, tells highly original tales. The names of Jim Smiley’s pets also had relevance for Twain’s American audience. Daniel Webster was the name of a famous American statesman known for his speaking abilities. Andrew Jackson, a former president of the United States and war hero known for his determination and strong will, was a strong believer in democracy and the rights of the “common” people. In these and other descriptions found in the story, Twain provided a more complicated and multifaceted view of Americans. “Jumping Frog” asserted that Americans could simultaneously be resourceful, innovative, practical, and determined, as well as shortsighted, narrow-minded, and gullible.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Mark Twain, Published by Gale, 1997.