Twain, Smiley, Frogs

November 18: On this day in 1865 Mark Twain published "Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog" in the New York Saturday Press. The story was immediately popular nationally and then internationally, establishing Twain's yarn-spinner persona and giving him the centerpiece for his first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches. As a sometime-reporter, Twain had been publishing such tall tales and hoaxes for several years—writing them as "Josh" until, in 1863, he became "Mark Twain"—but his frog story was an old chestnut, first heard from fellow prospectors while sitting around the saloon stove in Angel's Mining Camp, outside San Francisco:

..."What might it be that you've got in the box?"

And Smiley says, sorter indifferent like, "It might be a parrot, or it might be a canary, may be, but it ain't—it's only just a frog."

And the feller took it, and looked at it careful, and turned it round this way and that, and says, "H'm—so 'tis. Well, what's he good for?"

"Well," Smiley says, easy and careless, "He's good enough for one thing, I should judge—he can out-jump any frog in Calaveras county."

The feller took the box again, and took another long, particular look, and give it back to Smiley, and says, very deliberate, "Well—I don't see no p'ints about that frog that's any better'n any other frog."

"Maybe you don't," Smiley says. "Maybe you understand frogs, and maybe you don't understand 'em; maybe you've had experience, and maybe you ain't only a amature, as it were. Anyways, I've got my opinion, and I'll resk forty dollars that he can outjump any frog in Calaveras county."

And the feller studied a minute, and then says, kinder sad, like, "Well, I'm only a stranger here, and I ain't got no frog—but if I had a frog, I'd bet you...."

The frog-jumping continues at Angels Camp, now as part of a 4-day Calaveras County Fair. The first Frog Jump competition was held there in 1928, the first winning frog jumping 3.5 feet. Modern frogs, aided by improved diets, scientific training methods and the 5K prize, customarily jump 15-20 feet, with the all-time Calaveras record, set in 1986, belonging to "Rosie the Ribiter" for her leap of 21ft., 5.75 inches.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.