You may occasionally find Mark Twain’s tall tale in the form of a short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” under the alternate title “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” For that matter, the story was originally published under the title “Jim Smiley and Jumping Frog.” Since the entire existence of the story is dependent upon the oral tradition of storytelling in the old American west called “tall tales” one explanation for the various titles is that it may be one of American literature’s first wildly successful attempts at postmodern meta-fiction in which the story itself has the power to become part of its own narrative. Tall tales are, after all, subject to the greatest danger posed by the oral tradition: lack of continuity.
The origin of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras Country” may also be part of a tall tale: the legend goes that Twain got inspired to write his story after hearing a similar story told in a tavern in Angel’s Camp, California. Like his published story about a frog jumping competition, that tall tale in a tavern featured a ridiculously unlikely plot turning on the central psychological feature of its main character: what would today be termed a gambling addiction spun wildly out of control.
So popular was Twain’s own tale of a crazy competition and the gambling addict behind it that it also served him well as the title of his first book: The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches. Published in 1867, the book adds 26 other stories to the titular tale that had previously been published in various newspapers and magazines across the country.
A first-time acquaintance with “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” that takes the form of hearing someone read the story out loud main may bring to mind today the image of Homer Simpson’s doddering old dad when he goes off on one of his storytelling tangents that makes little sense and has even less purpose. Regardless of the familiarity with The Simpsons, reading—and especially hearing—Twain’s story has all the elements of listening to a crazy story told by someone suffering from ADHD without the benefit of medicated control of focus.
“The Celebrating Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” would sound even more like of Abe Simpson’s dickety-hundred stories that take off in a direction leading to nowhere near where they started if the highly anthologized version that is the ultimate final draft was instead replaced by the first draft with which Twain was never satisfied. The first two completed versions of the tall tale about a frog-jumping contest actually arrived at its conclusion before the teller of the story ever quite got around to actually describing the homespun entertainment that would eventually give the story both of its alternate titles. While you may not necessarily be one of them, rest assured that there is a certain type of person out there would prefer reading “The Celebrated Jumping of Calaveras County” without ever actually getting to the part where the frog takes center stage.