The closest thing to a sure bet to be found anywhere within the vicinity of Mark Twain’s short story “The Celebrating Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is almost certain the wage placed in support of the contention that not one single story that Simon Wheeler relates about Jim Smiley’s gambling addiction aligns 100% with all known facts of the case. And yet it would be misleading to characterize Wheeler as a liar or even as someone engaging in mild deception. The honest and accurate characterization of Simon Wheeler is also the simplest: he is a human being.
If Twain’s story is really about anything above all else, it is about the wonderful gift endowed to the human race that is universally shared across geography and culture. That gift is the ability to tell a story. Facts are all your need if your goal is to become a contestant on Jeopardy! But for nearly every other single endeavor that humans regularly undertake, mere accumulation of facts falls well short of being sufficient.
Wheeler takes the facts of Jim Smiley’s career as a gambler and adds information that provides nuance, meaning, interconnectedness and, above all else, interest. Without this strange innate ability of humans to take the information about what happened and create a story that can enlighten, educate or merely hold the attention of others, civilization would likely still be stalled in the Stone Age. Stories urge us to seek out adventure, learn something, build upon the achievements of others, not to mention dare to dream the impossible.
Twain, of course, was on his way to becoming one of America’s all time great storytellers when he wrote this shorty story and was already by then attuned enough to know that presenting his tall tale specifically as a celebration of the invention of language would alienate his audience and cast aspersions upon his ambition. Twain was an ironic hipster long before such a thing ever existed and so his celebration of the art of storytelling ends on a note as far from celebration as possible:
Situating himself as a character by name directly into the narrative he—Mark Twain—finds Wheeler’s rambling digressions neither enlightening nor educational nor even entertaining enough hold his attention. And so he does the single worst possible thing that can be done to a storyteller: he leaves before the story is over.