The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

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The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches, Mark Twain, 1867

Here he is, ladies and gentleman: Mark Twain.

An author I had not read before I started this project.

That’s not accurate. I read The Prince and The Pauper as a child, but I mostly forgot it. I have not read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. I simply haven’t. That’s why this project exists: to remedy such problems. So, here we go, scratching the surface of Mark Twain’s oeuvre.

Before we get started, can I just say that it this series of photos was not easy to achieve. This frog was difficult to knit. Tossing the frog was good fun. Focusing the camera on the flying frog was near impossible. My wonderful friend, Connor, assisted me. We did our best. Here are some blurry pictures of a “jumping frog.”

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I will not repeat the incredibly long title of Mark Twain’s first collected book of short stories. Suffice it to say that in 1867 he had accumulated enough acclaim as a journalist and short story writer (Wait, stop, that’s what George Saunders is doing. He’s a contemporary Mark Twain. People often ask me which contemporary writers I admire, and George Saunders is in my top three. I just realized he’s doing a Mark Twain thing with his short stories/journalism//children’s stories/brand new novel. I see you, George Saunders, trying to be Mark Twain. You even did travel journalism with that Dubai piece for GQ, which I loved even though I wanted it to condemn Dubai’s capitalism more openly.) to publish a book of satirical journalism and short stories. Whoa, went on a tangent there. If you’re reading this, you are amazing for putting up with the mind-vomitorium response to English literature that is my blog.

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Anyhway, Mark Twain was a funny guy who made fun of everybody. I seriously don’t have anything interesting or profound to say about Mark Twain’s first publication. The things he chose to satirize in this first volume seem…lacking in importance. We like to imagine that our political satirists will change perception, but they just preach to the choir and change nothing. “The Daily Show” doesn’t have the ear of Trump voters. Its only function is to make us laugh. The feeling that our opponents will watch and suddenly understand their own hypocrisy is false and we know it.

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My point is that Twain pokes fun at rustics almost exclusively (oh, shit, we are doing that right now, in the post-election frenzy?) and it seems empty to me. Ok, we are post-the-post-election-frenzy now, but we weren’t when I started writing this review. Yes, Mark Twain is funny. His stories are still quite entertaining. He’s a funny, funny guy. But in this first set of stories, I don’t see his merit as a satirist, unless he was satirizing contemporary journalism, which I haven’t read enough of to understand what he’s satirizing. Seriously, I’m not a history professor, so I have no reason to read lots of late 1800s newspapers. In another life, perhaps I would.

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The title story is a humorous allegory about a gambling man and his trained frog and his hubris. It’s worth a read. At some point, a literature reviewer translated the story into French to back up his claim that Twain’s reputation as a humorist was overblown. Twain translated the French translation back into English, or as he phrased it “clawed [it] into a civilized language once more by, patient, unremunerated toil.” This is all very funny and would probably be funnier if I could fully understand the French translation. Twain’s translation is a bit silly. He pokes fun at French grammar with phrases like “I no me recollect not exactly.” Which is good for a brief chuckle, but the fact that French uses double negatives while English does not is hardly an inexhaustible mine of humor. Twain does drive home his point that his humor is colloquial and untranslatable. Therefore he should not be judged based on a French translation. Fair enough, Mr. Twain, fair enough.

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“The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief” refutes childhood boogeyman tales of the horrors that befall boys who behave badly. A boy is naughty, never gets caught, grows up to be “universally respected” and belong “to the Legislature” despite his litany of deplorable crimes. Sound familiar? There’s a funny tale about being ejected from your lodgings because you are trying to learn an instrument. Twain also pokes fun at the parables we teach children. He responds with extreme vitriol to questions submitted to newspapers. There are plenty of funny moments in Twain’s first anthology. There are many other moments as well.

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You might like The Celebrated Jumping Frog and Other Sketches if:

  • honestly, you’d need a scholarly reason to read this entire volume when you could just skip to later and greater works. Just read the title story and move on to Tom Sawyer.

You might not like The Celebrated Jumping Frog and Other Sketches if:

  • I think I covered it already.

Final thoughts: I’m eager to move on to the more acclaimed parts of Twain’s oeuvre. This bit is quite good, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. The Celebrated Jumping Frog is a great story and if you’re dedicated to literature enough to read this blog, you should certainly read those few pages. Seriously, don’t skip it. You can skip the Other Sketches. Download the pdf and read it right now.

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