Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Celebrated – or Notorious – Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

I confess no great love for Mark Twain.

Lord knows I’ve tried. I’ve tried reading many of his books – actually got all the way through “A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court” – but I just can’t get the knack of Mark Twain. That isn’t to say he’s not a good writer, nor one of the icons of American letters. He is all that. I just don’t care for him much.

It’s not that he’s cranky, or cynical – those are his defining characteristics as an author. I just cannot form a connection with the guy, nor his books. There’s got to be something wrong with me.

Not so with his short story, inspiration to this blog post, and first stop in the World of Twain in the Treasury of Laughter. Twain’s ear for catching dialogue – and the insouciant relationship with the truth that many a spieler possesses – are endearing:
He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal'klated to edercate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump. And you bet you he did learn him, too. He'd give him a little hunch behind, and the next minute you'd see that frog whirling in the air like a doughnut -- see him turn one summerset, or may be a couple, if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right, like a cat. He got him up so in the matter of ketching flies, and kept him in practice so constant, that he'd nail a fly every time as far as he could see him. Smiley said all a frog wanted was education, and he could do most anything -- and I believe him. Why, I've seen him set Dan'l Webster down here on this floor -- Dan'l Webster was the name of the frog -- and sing out, "Flies, Dan'l, flies!" and quicker'n you could wink, he'd spring straight up, and snake a fly off'n the counter there, and flop down on the floor again as solid as a gob of mud, and fall to scratching the side of his head with his hind foot as indifferent as if he hadn't no idea he'd been doin' any more'n any frog might do. You never see a frog so modest and straightfor'ard as he was, for all he was so gifted. And when it come to fair-and-square jumping on a dead level, he could get over more ground at one straddle than any animal of his breed you ever see. Jumping on a dead level was his strong suit, you understand, and when it come to that, Smiley would ante up money on him as long as he had a red. Smiley was monstrous proud of his frog, and well he might be, for fellers that had traveled and ben everywheres, all said he laid over any frog that ever they see.
Full text here. Though it’s hard to say full text with Twain, a notorious reviser – who once revised the story’s title to be “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” thus the occasional use you see of that term associated with the story.
Modern journalism tends to eradicate such linguistic treasure as uneducated – though there are some who practice its use with the ease that Twain shows here because they make the lingo as big and subtle a character as the person speaking it.

Good thing is that this story might open my indifferent mind to the Magic of Twain. Maybe I’ll try ol’ Huck Finn one more time . . .

1 comment:

  1. Life on the Mississippi took me by surprise after all the Twain I had read. It is the more-or-less true story of Samuel Clemens training to be a pilot on the river. He writes in an entirely different style from his fiction. Absorbing story.