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.

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