The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County & Other Stories

You know how some authors belong to a national literature just by virtue of where they were born, or so it seems, while others seem essentially national? Mark Twain belongs to the second category; he is essentially American.

I note this impression though the three stories in this pocket-size edition aren’t really essentially American. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is set in California but is foremost an instance of a genre, not an evocation of a place; the genre is the yarn. The story’s narrator goes looking for a man named Leonidas Smiley but is waylaid by the elderly yarn-spinner, who knew a Smiley in his time. This Jim Smiley had a fervor for betting and a knack for training animals to win bets for him. The jumping frog is Smiley’s great success–but then a clever stranger comes by…

The tale is hilarious, and this has everything to do with the telling, too, by all three tellers: Simon Wheeler, who knew Jim Smiley; the narrator, Wheeler’s captive audience; and Twain, our American treasure. In general, a written yarn does seem to require a mediating narrator to be most effective; in this case, the narrator notes that Wheeler tells the tale with great sincerity and no change in expression, which makes the whole picture funnier for the reader, if not for the narrator himself: he is, after all, captive not in the sense of being entranced but in the sense of being trapped. Though the narrator flees “the interminable narrative” at the first chance he gets, he does so “good-naturedly.” Indeed, I think good-naturedness might be an inherent quality of the yarn, which also seems an inclusive, even democratizing, genre: everyone’s in on the same joke–unless the joke involves a gullible listener…

“The Million-Pound Banknote” is yarn-like but is better called a romance. (It’s got some satire too, viz. on the upper echelons of English society.) An American washes up in London, penniless and ragged; two wealthy old resident brothers spot him through a window and light on him to settle a question they’ve been debating: Can an honest, intelligent stranger, who has neither a friend in the city nor a penny in his pocket, survive for thirty days in London with no money, except–forget pennies–for a million-pound banknote (but no way to account for having it)? One brother says no, the other yes, and they make a bet of it. They don’t, of course, tell the American narrator/guinea pig what they are up to; they simply invite him in, give him an envelope, tell him to open it later, and send him off.

That’s the setup. The romance comes in in the form of a story-world which helps the narrator along at every turn: for all that he is continually ready for the inevitable crash in his fortunes, it never comes; rather, it’s up, up, and up all the way. We neither resent this providential trajectory, because the narrator is honest and scrappy and likable, nor disbelieve it, because/if we have already accepted the story’s setup, its premise, and–this is all to say–its genre. The narrator not only survives, he thrives, and the end of the escapade sees him happily situated and–gasp–married! He gets romance in the contemporary sense too!

What I’ve left out of my remarks on these two stories is the sheer confidence and verve with which they are told; Twain is a literary treasure not least because of his control of tone and dialogue and pace, all in the service of comedy. But the third and last story in this collection, “Luck,” is not comic. A great military genius, a hero of the Crimean War, is…not. That’s the story. The title tells you what he really is instead, or what he has; and Twain tells us in a prefatory note that the story is true.

Aside from “Luck,” which is neutral/indeterminable on this count, these stories left me with an impression of Twain’s eminent good sense. It’s an odd thing to say after reading two truly outlandish tales, but on more thought it’s not so odd: Twain’s good sense grounds the stories and also their hilariousness–it’s something to do with contrast, and something to do with authorial authority. Twain’s got oodles of the latter.

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