Twain, Smiley, Frogs

November 18: Onthis day in 1865 Mark Twain published “Jim Smiley and his JumpingFrog” 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 forhis first book, The Celebrated JumpingFrog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches. As a sometime-reporter, Twainhad been publishing such tall tales and hoaxes for several years—writing themas “Josh” until, in 1863, he became “Mark Twain”—but hisfrog story was an old chestnut, first heard from fellow prospectors whilesitting 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 bea parrot, or it might be a canary, may be, but it ain’t—it’s only just afrog.”

And the feller took it, and looked at it careful, and turnedit round this way and that, and says, “H’m—so ’tis. Well, what’s he goodfor?”

“Well,” Smiley says, easy and careless, “He’sgood enough for one thing, I should judge—he can out-jump any frog in Calaverascounty.”

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 otherfrog.”

“Maybe you don’t,” Smiley says. “Maybe youunderstand frogs, and maybe you don’t understand ‘em; maybe you’ve hadexperience, and maybe you ain’t only a amature, as it were. Anyways, I’ve gotmy opinion, and I’ll resk forty dollars that he can outjump any frog inCalaveras 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 Ihad a frog, I’d bet you….”

The frog-jumping continues at Angels Camp, now as part of a4-day Calaveras County Fair. The first Frog Jump competition was held there in1928, the first winning frog jumping 3.5 feet. Modern frogs, aided by improveddiets, scientific training methods and the 5K prize, customarily jump 15-20feet, with the all-time Calaveras record, set in 1986, belonging to “Rosiethe 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.