The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County Symbols, Allegory and Motifs
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Written by Timothy Sexton
One of the themes of the story is the culture clash between East and the West. Easterners like to think of themselves as sophisticated, intellectual and cultured while the westerners saw these exact same attributes as snobbery, elitism and prejudice toward those on the frontier. The character in the story named “Mark Twain” may—as the saying goes—bear only an coincidental resemblance to the man who wrote the story or he may be an exact replication of how Twain saw himself. “Mark Twain” is the symbol of everything that those back east liked about themselves. No coincidentally at all, he also symbolizes everything that westerners thought about the highfalutin’ folks on the opposite side of the country.
By contrast, Simon Wheeler is a symbol of everything that easterners thought about those living on the frontier, but just as he flips the table on eastern prejudices about themselves through “Mark Twain” so does he tweak the image of the uncouth rube easily bamboozled by the superior education of those traveling from the east. Wheeler is uncouth, crude, loud, boisterous, ungainly and far from a dandy, but it is he who seems to have gotten the better of the rube.
The dog is named after one of the most famous Presidents in American history to this day, of course, and he was even more well-known at the time of publication, naturally. Jackson the dog is given the characteristics of tenaciousness, flexibility and a tendency to purposefully downplay his strengths until the right moment. That the dog is intended to be a symbolic personification of the man goes without saying. Worth nothing, however, is that the dog’s ultimate legacy is to be humiliated and shamed. Twain, it should also be noted, did not share the widespread conviction that Andrew Jackson was one of America’s greatest Presidents. Nevertheless, the symbolism is so subtle as to perhaps go entirely unnoticed by contemporary readers.
Daniel Webster was a noted politician, lawyer and orator whose greatest claim to literary fame actually came much later when he goes up against the Satan in a trial and wins in “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Although it may seem kind of strange now, Jackson and Webster were at the time another indication of the East v. West theme. While Jackson’s birth in the Carolinas and famous plantation in Tennessee may not qualify as “the west” now, at the time it most definitely was and Jackson was, indeed, considered a kind of Wheeler-like counterpart to the sophisticated New Englander Webster. While “Andrew Jackson” does not get the best of “Dan’l Webster” the notorious jumping frog is nevertheless bested in a way that would seem to belie his elevated status. Worth nothing is that Webster ran for President and lost to what were viewed as “lesser intellects” all three times.
The Melting Pot Before There was a Melting Pot
Twain was exploring the idea of America’s strength resulting from its status as melting pot of various culture, histories and ideologies even before it became a thing. The story was published in 1865 and while immigrants had always been a vital component of American growth, the long lines at Ellis Island was still a very long way off. In revealing that the prejudices of both the East and West may be unwarranted and in showing that the frontier Americans could be trusted with spreading the literal concept and the symbolic weight of America as a grand experiment in democracy, Twain’s story can be read as an allegory of the American melting pot. It takes all kinds and all kinds are going to be necessary to make this idea work across such an enormous expanse of geography, the story says. At a time when much of the East’s negative perception of those settling the frontier was informed by the very real possibility that much of that land might be lost to Mexicans, Indians or some foreign power, one can only assume that the optimistic name of the westerner who gets the better of the easterner was not chosen randomly.
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