Sunday, September 13, 2020

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865)

Although it's the story that launched Mark Twain, and pretty short too, I've long resisted this little thing, starting with the overlong 19th-century banner title. I recall it was taught in junior high and I resented the difficult and pointless word "Calaveras." As humor I didn't get it. I like it better now, maybe. What's mystifying about teaching it is that what I liked least—its sideways approach to never really telling the story—is exactly the kind of thing a kid can't stand. "It doesn't even make sense!" etc. I have a memory of grownups like my teacher snickering away at it as a classic but it seemed kind of lame to me. It may or may not be aging well now, but it's still one of the most anthologized stories in existence (note the list at Make Lists, Not War). One increasingly outdated aspect of its popularity is as A Colorful Tale of the American West. That's the basic appeal, in fact: a character study of a most peculiar man, the compulsive gambler Jim Smiley, as told by another most peculiar man, Simon Wheeler, as recorded by the first-person narrator (in the frame). The narrator claims to be bored with raconteurs like Wheeler and tired of characters like Smiley. The collision of these three sensibilities basically produces this story. I appreciate the colorful antics, they have a certain charm. The narrator is an exasperated Easterner, an inept dude with a short fuse like Daffy Duck. Smiley is more pathetic, in our era of greater knowledge of compulsive behavior. Sure, it's funny that he will bet on anything, and take either side, or at least funny to a point. In a way it reminds me of a bunch of drunks sitting around remembering the rip-roaring good times, which often come across more like tragically self-humiliating in the details. There is a frog in this story but it's beside the point, another keen disappointment when I read it as a kid. I like the lack of focus more now. Wheeler thinks he has a story to tell but he does not. The narrator walks away from him before he can finish. The narrator washes his hands of the whole thing. It has all been a bothersome episode and he's ready for it to be over. It's an early, raw, rudimentary version of one of Twain's best personas, not quite in focus yet but discernible.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic. (Library of America)

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