“The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was originally published in the Saturday Press in 1865 before appearing two years later in Mark Twain’s Sketches, New and Old. The story can present something of a prickly problem for old-fashioned search engines—human effort—as the story is also often published under the slightly altered title “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” The story itself has the power to bring to mind to certain readers those occasions when one Grandpa Simpson would go off on a digressive tangent about life in dickety-four when nickels had pictures of bumblebees on them and you’d say give me five bees for a quarter...and so on. The story within the story has a haphazardly constructed, go-nowhere sort of feeling to it like one Abe Simpson’s long-winded stories. The story that Twain constructed to relate the digressive tale within, however, actually benefits from the kind of tightly wound precision that is the mark of a great writer.
Close scrutiny to Simon Wheeler’s narrative methodology reveals a repetitive pattern of starting from a situation of the ordinary and workout progressively outward to that which is more and more out of the ordinary. This pattern is replicated in his descriptions of the animals in which the details become more abundant in direct ratio to the farther away from the prosaic his subject moves. Even the betting obsession of Jim Smiley move in a progressively forward manner from the definitively commonplace wagering on horses to the obsessively outrageous act of staking a claim on the mortality of Parson Walker’s wife.
Rest assured that the attention to detail even extends to the seemingly silly names of the participants in the competitions. A little knowledge of America’s political history—notably that of the Whig Party, its greatest representative and its most vociferous opponents—as well as a familiarity with Twain’s own political leanings endows the story with a more expansive meaning through the seemingly merely idiosyncratic names given to a couple of those animals ripe for placing a wager upon.
All the staggering genius that would be exhibited for display throughout the rest of Twain’s career can be found intact in miniature form in the story that, ultimately, is about neither a notorious jumping frog nor a celebrating jumping frog. While Twain’s subsequent maturation has tended to relegate this story to that of mere entertainment lacking much of the deeper substance of later works—especially his novels—the truth is that for what content is contained in the digressive nature of this amusing little piece of fluff, the astute reader can easily extricate quite a bit more than just a few hearty chuckles.