The Celebrated Frog of Calaveras County
A short story by Mark Twain

As one of my brighter though underachieving students once wrote on his binder, "Don't let school get in the way of your education." I wonder how he would have liked The Celebrated Frog of Calaveras County.

Unlike the East, where the narrator is from, Angel's Camp didn't have a public library and they didn't have Shakespeare in the park and so he mistakes it for being backward when it really is just remote.

Where ever you have people, there are stories to tell and lessons to be learned, even if they have to entertain themselves by frog jumping contests rather polo matches.

My first recollection of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County is hearing the laughter of a classmate of mine as he left his 9th grade English class. He wasn't a boy thought would enjoy anything in an English class other than a well delivered spit wad.

My class didn't read that story. We were using a different text. But I too wanted to have a good laugh so I read the story on my own. I remember reading it and thinking, "I guess you had to be there."

The story had long been popular at my high school and every spring there would be a frog jumping contest in our quad. My partner and I actually won it in our senior year and I think our 3 inch generic trophy is still in the varsity football trophy case.

What is the appeal of this story? I'm not sure.

When I think of American humor and how it contrasts with British humor I think of this story next to Virginia Woolf's story of the moth on the wall. How many pages did she dwell on that moth on the wall that turned out to be no moth at all? Lots. I understand British humor to be like standing on one foot. The longer you can stay in one place without falling down, the better. American humor seems to be the opposite: the quicker you jump from one place to another, the better. The "good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler" jumps from one story to another about "a yaller one-eyed cow that didn't have no tail, only jest a short stump like a bannaner..." as easily as an unweighted champion frog. This story is as American as Daniel Webster and Andrew Jackson.

From the narrator's point of view, Wheeler's stories are long and tedious. From Wheeler's point of view, Woolf's story about the moth would be long and tedious.

Wheeler's can't-stop-to-take-a-breath narrative contrasts with the formal, educated, stilted language of the narrator. ("In compliance with a request of a friend of mine...").

Wheeler's speech has the cadence and immediacy of spoken language. The narrator's language has the construction more commonly found on the printed page. It is not the product of public schooling.

Why does someone say "countenance" when the word "face" will do? St ringing together multisyllabic words can also produce a pleasing rhythm, true, but I imagine it's done as a way of maintaining social distinctions. Why does someone invert "Angel's Camp" to call it the "mining camp of Angel's?" Or invert boyhood friend to make it "companion of his boyhood?"

And how about these:

"inquired after my friend"

"hereunto append the result"

"commissioned me to make some inquiries"

The narrator looks up Wheeler on the advice of a friend of his from the East. This friend of his does so to play a joke on the narrator and I can imagine the friend would like the narrator to learn a lesson though there's no indication that he does.

The narrator wants particular information about the Rev. Leonidas Smiley. Wheeler's ignorance of Leonidas Smiley doesn't stop him from sharing what he does know.

Wheeler doesn't tell his tale as an amusing backwoods yarn. To Wheeler, this story is the truth that he happens to know and he takes it seriously. (The narrator finds it all the more absurd that Wheeler isn't chuckling at the funny parts.)

The narrator would have benefited by paying more attention to the themes of education and pride in Wheelers narrative rather than to dismiss it as the boring babble of a hick.

Wheeler's story touches on the theme that anyone can be educated. "All a frog wanted was an education, and he could do most anything." And that a limited education, though providing short term benefits, can ultimately be fatal ( the pup Andrew Jackson, who only knew how to win by attaching himself to the hind legs of his opponent, loses and dies when an opposing a dog with no hind legs.) And it's a lesson about pride. "He can outjump any from in Calaveras county," is a statement that sets up Smiley for his fall.

Wheeler's Smiley existed; the narrator's Smiley did not.

Why did this school mate of mine from high school like the story so much? He found it terribly funny that the frog couldn't jump. Did the social clash between the narrator and Wheeler mean anything to him? Maybe on an unconscious level? Did he enjoy the fact that Smiley, who usually won his bets, finally lost a bet because of overconfidence and greed?

This is a story I haven't shared with my students yet but I'm looking forward to how they'll react and why.

One exercise that I could to do is have the students translate the stilted phrases of the narrator and the colloquial expressions of Wheeler.

And then I'd probe to see how the students felt about Smiley losing the frog bet. Did he have it coming? Was his shortcoming the fact he had a gambling addiction, excessive pride in his frog or to much trust in the stranger who watched his frog while he was gone.

It's interesting that the stranger bet against Daniel Webster even before he came up with his plan to fill him full of quail shot. It was an impulsive bet and he was surely going to lose $40. How does this affect our opinion of the stranger and the loss of Smiley?

I hope I can track down Twain's poem about "wingless wild things" in the trees. It prepare the students to look at this story as a statement about language, knowledge and education.

Morrill Books