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.

Louisa May Alcott’s Scandalous Romance Novel

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A Long Fatal Love Chase Louisa May Alcott, 1866

Dear readers, kindly join me welcoming the one and only Louisa May Alcott to the blog. She has arrived, ladies and gentlemen. She has arrived. We will arrive at Little Women in short order. But first, we delve into Louisa May’s dark and mysterious early literary life as a writer of scandalous, sensational novels.

Before she wrote Little Women, Alcott authored a smattering of romance novels. It’s not quite what you think. They are a far cry from the throbbing members of contemporary romance writing, but they are passionate and dramatic. When her family encountered some financial struggles, Alcott wrote A Long Fatal Love Chase for a publisher who wanted more of the same. However, he deemed the manuscript too sensational and too long for publication. She edited it, but it was still rejected for its racy content. A Long Fatal Love Chase remained unpublished until 1995.

What makes the novel so scandalous that it had to be locked away for 130 years? Extra-marital sex! Shocking. Well, no, extra-marital sex occurs in previous Victorian novels that weren’t locked away. Adam Bede is far more shocking. The thing is that female characters who engage in extra-marital sex must repent and die of shame immediately. The main character, Rosamond fails to do so. Alcott’s unforgivable authorial decision was to portray a fallen woman as blameless and worthy of our sympathy and attention.

I’m going to tell you the whole plot, because you honestly don’t need to read this one yourself. I have done it for you. Twice. Because I’m thorough.

Young, beautiful Rosamond is trapped in some sort of rocky tower scenario, surrounded by crashing waves, with no company but her grumpy and loveless grandfather. A devilishly handsome stranger named Tempest comes to visit Grampy. Yes, his name is actually Tempest. He looks just like the painting of Mephistopheles hanging in her weird grandfather’s weird horror mansion. Tempest is a rascal and a villain! He lives for pleasure and cares for no one but himself. He is taken with fair Rosamond and wins her grandfather’s consent to their marriage in a poker game. Yep.

Tempest tries to abduct Rosamond in his yacht once, but changes his mind. He sticks around until the innocent maiden falls in love with him. Her choices were Tempest or eternal misery with Grandpa, so of course finally agrees to go away with him. Tempest tries to convince her to live with him unwed, but good Rosamond threatens to throw herself into the sea if he doesn’t either marry her or take her home. She could have drowned herself right then and saved everyone a lot of trouble, because she does end up perishing in that exact stretch of ocean a few years later. Did I give it away? So did the title.

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Tempest arranges a quickie marriage and the two of them experience a year or so of wedded bliss until a mysterious woman shows up and starts making trouble. Turns out she’s Tempest’s actual wife; he’s a bigamist. That charming young boy he keeps around is his son. Instead of dying immediately, Rosamond runs away and tries to hide from Tempest with a French actor. He finds her. She flees. He finds her. She flees. He finds her and so on and so forth.

While Rosamond determinedly evades her stalker, a monk falls in love with her. Yes, a dreamy, heroic monk. Nothing ever happens between them, because he will not forsake his vows and she will not ask him to. They are both so noble and virtuous. Tempest is driven mad with jealousy. He attempts to kill the monk, but he accidentally drowns Rosamond instead. He clutches her corpse and declares that Father Ignatius will never have her. Ignatius, the monk/lover, is sure that he will love no other and that he and Rosamond will join each other in heaven while Tempest burns in hell.

They’ll-be-together-in-heaven is my second least favorite ending for a story. There’s no consolation in that for an atheist. For the record, my absolute least favorite ending is he-may-be-dead-but-at-least-she’s-carrying-his-child.

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What makes the story too scandalous for 1866 is the depiction of Rosamond as innocent, virtuous and pure after she has had sex out of wedlock. How silly Victorian morals were. She was the innocent victim of an immoral man’s trick. She did nothing wrong, but the fact that other characters consider her to be pure and virtuous just could not be tolerated by Victorian society. We just can’t allow a way back into good society for women who have had sex outside of marriage. We simply can’t.

You might like A Long Fatal Love Chase if:

  • you just love Louisa May Alcott and Jo March so much you can’t resist checking it out
  • you need a rest from complex thoughts

You might not like A Long Fatal Love Chase if:

  • you can’t tolerate sentimental writing

Final Thoughts: A Long Fatal Love Chase is not a good work of literature. The language is dramatic and overly adjectived. It’s a bit trite and tawdry, but I’m glad I read it, if for no other reason than because it provides some context for the moments in Little Women when Jo is up in the attic scribbling her stories.

Oh, Those Quaint and Wacky Dutch

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Hans Brinker, or, the Silver Skates, Mary Mapes Dodge, 1865

I was surprised to see Hans Brinker, or, the Silver Skates pop up on Wikipedia’s list of literature published in 1865. I remember watching the movie as a kid, but I never knew it was based on a book. If I had known, I would have assumed that the book was written by a Dutch person. Nope, it’s a romanticized vision of the Netherlands written by an American.

Why? To teach children about the strange, charming habits of the Dutch with their windmills, dikes and such. Mary Mapes Dodge invites us to “take a rocking-chair trip with me to that far country where you may see, perhaps for the first time, some curious things that Hans and Gretel saw every day.” Yes, she really did name her two main characters Hans and Gretel. Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published 43 years earlier, just so we’re clear on that. Mapes considers Holland “one of the queerest countries under the sun.” So, that’s the tone of the novel. Look-at-those-whacky-Dutch.

It’s pretty charming to imagine Victorian children sitting around the fire at night listening to Pa or Ma read to them from Hans Brinker from the rocking chair, though, even if the tone is. . .not ideal.

The story contains two plotlines. First we have the Brinker family: Dame Brinker, Raff Brinker, Hans and Gretel. Years before the start of our story, Raff was called to the dikes to make emergency repairs during a bad storm. Whilst battling back the sea, which threatens to flood Holland constantly (Did you know that? I guess I should have known that, because of the dikes. Will climate change eliminate the Netherlands? Kind of a scary place to live. I’m so glad I don’t live in a place that will be underwater soon.), Raff falls and strikes his head. His TBI causes him to lose his memory and most of his intellect. Also, he has a watch in his pocket that is not his and he can’t explain where he got it. Also, the night before his accident Raff suspected that a frenemy of his was plotting to steal the pile of gold he and Dame Brinker had diligently saved for their children’s education. Unfortunately, Raff moved the gold and did not have time to tell his wife, because he was called to the dikes. Without Raff’s earning power, the Brinkers have descended into poverty. They bear it nobly, but the poor children have become social pariahs, because no one wants to hang out with poorly clothed children.

The second story line involves a group of boys who decide to skate between several Dutch cities along the canals. Hans is not included, because he doesn’t have the money for food and lodging and no one likes him, because he’s poor. Of course, one boy has an English cousin visiting who needs everything explained to him so he can comment on how weird the Dutch are. The boys’ trip is a vehicle for description of Dutch history, geography, architecture and culture. Sadly, there’s a heavy dose of fat shaming. Mapes paused every few pages to poke fun at the good natured, pudgy kid in the group who can’t keep up and continually needs a nap and more food.

Both stories culminate in a race to see who is the fastest kid in this particular Dutch town. The prize is a pair of silver skates.

If you’re a sentimental sort, like me, you will find the resolution of the Brinker family’s strife quite touching.

I don’t have much else to say about this book, because there’s not much to it. Considering that the genre of children’s literature did not exist as we know it when this book was written, it’s not a bad first foray. It’s not great either.

You might like Hans Brinker, or, the Silver Skates if:

  • you’re dutchophile (Is that a thing. Surely it is.)

You might not like Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates if:

  • you’re not even a little bit sappy

Final thoughts: While Hans Brinker is an influential work of literature, it popularized the speed skating and the story of the Dutch boy plugging the dike with his finger, it is forgettable as literature. Some aspects are well done, but it’s a bit tiresome overall.