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Once Upon a Time in the West

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jumping frog.jpg

On November 18, 1865, the New York Saturday Press published a short sketch called “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” about a frog-jumping contest in rural California. It “set all New York in a roar,” reported one journalist, and soon went viral, reprinted in papers from San Francisco to Memphis. The story’s author was Mark Twain, the pseudonym of a twenty-nine-year-old writer born Samuel Clemens. At the time, Twain was living in California, enjoying provincial renown as a Western humorist. The success of “Jim Smiley” made him nationally famous. “No reputation was ever more rapidly won,” observed the New York Tribune.

Twain’s stature quickly grew. Within a decade, he would publish his bestselling book The Innocents Abroad, perform to sold-out audiences at home and overseas, and build a mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, staffed with servants and outfitted with indulgences like a telephone, a billiard table, and a battery-powered burglar alarm. By the time of his death in 1910, he had become a legend—“the Lincoln of our literature,” in the words of Twain’s friend the author and critic William Dean Howells—and in the century since, he has been hailed by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer as the father of modern American fiction.

“Jim Smiley,” subsequently retitled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” lifted Twain to fame and laid the foundation for his later triumphs, but it isn’t especially funny anymore. What once made bankers in New York and boatmen in Baton Rouge laugh out loud would now at best elicit a halfhearted chuckle from a generous reader. It’s hard to say exactly why. Humor eludes elaborate theorizing, but it usually relies on context: on shared assumptions about the permissible and the taboo, the familiar and the strange. Some humor stays funny because its underlying truths remain in force—the flirty banter in The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, or the dick jokes in Tristram Shandy. A large part of the pleasure in laughing at old material is realizing how little has changed. Other humor, by contrast, loses its power as its context fades.

“Jim Smiley” drew upon a context that has changed beyond recognition: the American West. More than just a place, the West was an idea; it spawned national legends, bestselling authors, and a menagerie of pop-culture entertainments, from the nineteenth century “horse operas” performed on Broadway to the dime novels featuring frontier outlaws. What made “Jim Smiley” such a hit was Twain’s upending of the conventions of this world, with a picture of the West at once recognizable and not.

The precise boundaries of the West were constantly changing, but the term always referred to the place where white men ran up against an alien continent. This collision destroyed native populations. It also created new myths and metaphors and slang, and the makings of a national identity. In 1750, the inhabitants of colonial America numbered little more than a million, and the West was the wilderness beyond the Allegheny Mountains. By 1850, the United States was home to twenty-three million people, and the West stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The hunters and homesteaders who ventured into Ohio and Oregon didn’t simply transform the wilderness. They were themselves transformed by an unfamiliar, unforgiving landscape.

To survive, they had to adapt. For hordes of westward-bound whites from the colonial era onward, this was a delicate task. Eastern elites viewed the West with suspicion and scorn, a lawless backwater of heathen Indians and howling wilderness. Settlers ran the risk of losing their manners. In his Letters from an American Farmer, published in 1782, J. Hector St. John de Crévecoeur described frontiersmen as “a mongrel breed, half civilized, half savage,” and the prejudice remained firm into the nineteenth century.

No one struck a better balance between Western savagery and Eastern civility than America’s first frontier icon, Daniel Boone. The real Boone was a Revolutionary War veteran and an early settler of Kentucky. The mythic Boone was nothing less than a superhero. He slaughtered Indians, protected settlers, feasted on buffalo, and blazed trails through the backcountry. Remarkably, he remained a gentleman. Between bouts of wrestling bears and outlaws, Boone always found time to be polite to women. The architects of his legend were careful to lend him an air of gentility for his presentation to respectable readers.

If the West lent itself to myth making, to the transposition of fact and fiction, it also proved fertile ground for humor. Western comedy grew out of an omnipresent feature of frontier life: its hardness. As Daniel Boone knew, there was no shortage of ways for a man to die in the West. He could die slowly from starvation or exposure, or suddenly, from an encounter with a Shawnee brave or a bear or a bobcat. He could also tangle with his fellow frontiersmen, often the greatest threat of all. The backwoods were full of brutal men. They picked fights with each other on the slimmest pretexts, solely for the pleasure of hurting and humiliating their opponents.

These macho rituals generated their own special language. A Tennessee trapper or a Mississippi boatman might thump his chest and claim that he was a snapping turtle, or that he was endowed with a bear’s claws and the Devil’s tail. The boasts were meant to make the man as fearsome as the landscape he inhabited. They were also self-consciously silly, exaggerated to the point of absurdity. They converted the cruelty of frontier life into a source of cathartic laughter. In a society of strangers, Westerners could gather around the campfire and enjoy a fleeting sense of community as they spun the unfunny facts of their surroundings into surreal comic fictions. These “tall tales” became the basis for America’s first folk art: a set of oral traditions known as frontier humor. The yarns often featured a gristly frontiersman, engaging in fantastical feats of violence and speaking strange, gorgeous slang.

Mark Twain loved frontier humor, the impish wit and yeasty vernacular, its fondness for the gargantuan and the grotesque. He also understood its deeper value: not merely as entertainment but as a survival tactic. Twain once defined humor as the “kindly veil” that makes life endurable. “The hard and sordid things of life are too hard and too sordid and too cruel for us to know and touch them year after year without some mitigating influence,” he said, and he spoke from experience. In his early thirties, he put a gun to his head and almost pulled the trigger; in his seventies, he was still wondering whether he’d made the right choice.

The dark comedy of the frontier fit his temperament and his talent. Tall talk showed him how to make language more expressive, by embracing a vernacular that reflected the regional varieties of American speech and gave words a more imaginative relationship to the things they described. One famous frontier humorist put it this way: you could ladle out “words at randum, like a calf kickin’ at yaller-jackids,” or you could roll “em out tu the pint, like a feller a-layin bricks—every one fits.” The point was to avoid being a mere bricklayer of language, to break free from the patterns prescribed by tradition and congealed by cliché and to find more original ways to build sentences. What distinguished Twain was his willingness to do so, and by so doing to turn frontier humor into literature.

It wasn’t easy. The notion that literature could emerge from the frontier’s barbaric yawp encountered violent resistance from America’s literary establishment. It didn’t help that tall tales abounded in vulgarity, drunkenness, and depravity, not to mention perversions of proper English that would make a schoolteacher gasp. Proving the literary power of the frontier would be a central part of Twain’s legacy, and a pie in the face of the New England dons who had dominated the country’s high culture for much of the nineteenth century. He wasn’t immune to wanting their approval, but he came from a very different tradition. His ear hadn’t been trained at Harvard or Yale; it was tuned to the myriad voices of slaves and scoundrels, boatmen and gamblers.

Twain’s escape into literature began with a bar fight. He had a friend named Steve Gillis, a squarely built Southerner who loved a good scrap. One night in November 1864, Gillis was walking by a saloon on Howard Street in San Francisco when he saw a scuffle inside. He decided to lend a hand—and ended up smashing a pitcher across the bartender’s head, nearly killing him. Gillis was arrested, posted bail with Twain’s help, and then fled before facing charges. Twain lacked the money to pay the forfeited bond, and so he followed suit. Gillis went to Virginia City, Nevada, and Twain to Jackass Hill, a mining camp about a hundred miles from San Francisco where Gillis’ brother Jim owned a cabin.

The change of scenery was abrupt. In San Francisco, Twain had enjoyed oysters, champagne and the company of young and ambitious writers like Bret Harte. At Jackass Hill, the food was simpler, the society less sophisticated. In the glory days of ’49, the region had been the heart of the gold rush. By 1864, the mines were mostly spent, and the old boomtowns had gone bust. Only a “forlorn remnant of marooned miners” remained, Twain wrote, swapping tall tales in their drawling, graphic talk at the tavern, recalling great gold strikes and fights and curious incidents of any kind.

One day, a man told a story about a jumping frog. Twain jotted down the plot in his notebook:

Coleman with his jumping frog—bet stranger $50—stranger had no frog, & C got him one—in the meantime stranger filled C’s frog full of shot & he couldn’t jump—the stranger’s frog won.

What struck Twain was the narrator’s seriousness: the man spun the ludicrous yarn as if it were “the gravest sort of history,” a series of “austere facts” that his listeners received as solemnly as if the story were delivered from a pulpit. Nobody in the tavern seemed “aware that a first-rate story had been told in a first-rate way, and that it was brimful of a quality whose presence they never suspected—humor,” Twain wrote.

Twain wanted to reproduce the effect in prose. A friend later remembered him saying that he would make that frog “jump around the world,” if only he could write the tale the way the man told it. An opportunity soon arose. When Twain returned to San Francisco in February 1865, he found a letter waiting for him from Artemus Ward, America’s reigning king of comedy. Ward asked if Twain wanted to contribute a piece to a new book he was putting together, and Twain, replying months later, suggested the jumping frog story. “Write it,” Ward responded. “There is still time to get it into my volume of sketches.”

The story emerged only gradually, and by October 1865, eight months after his return from mining country, Twain still wasn’t done. He wrote a long letter to his brother and his sister-in-law that helped to explain why:

I never had but two powerful ambitions in my life. One was to be a pilot, & the other a preacher of the gospel. I accomplished the one & failed in the other, because I could not supply myself with the necessary stock in trade—i.e., religion. I have given it up forever. I never had a “call” in that direction, anyhow, & my aspirations were the very ecstasy of presumption. But I have had a “call” to literature, of a low order—i.e., humorous. It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit, & if I were to listen to that maxim of stern duty which says that to do right you must multiply the one or the two or the three talents which the Almighty entrusts to your keeping, I would long ago have ceased to meddle with things for which I was by nature unfitted & turned my attention to seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures. Poor, pitiful business!

The confession offers a glimpse of the crisis behind the jumping frog. Twain could make people laugh, but he felt ashamed of the fact, since humor was a lowbrow pursuit. He didn’t want to be a clown for the rest of his life, yapping and hollering for people’s amusement. Yet he also recognized that humor was what he did best: his “strongest suit,” a talent, a calling, bestowed by the Almighty. He couldn’t abandon it, despite his misgivings about its crudeness.

In this ambivalence he differed from Artemus Ward, who had fewer scruples about his vocation. Twain and Ward had met during Ward’s trip to the far West in 1863. They hit it off immediately: drinking, trawling dance halls, and ribbing each other relentlessly. Ward was only a year older but much further along in his career. His given name was Charles Farrar Browne, and like Twain he had started out as a typesetter before cranking out the comic sketches that made him famous. He also worked as a standup comedian, delivering non sequiturs and puns in a mock-serious vernacular that had his audience rolling in the aisles. His admirers included Abraham Lincoln, who read one of Ward’s pieces aloud to his cabinet before presenting the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. Secretary of State William H. Seward thought it was hilarious; Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase did not. “Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh?” Stanton later recalled Lincoln saying. “With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.” Like Twain, Lincoln took humor’s medicinal properties seriously.

Ward’s success set him apart, but he wasn’t alone. He belonged to a generation of humorists who emerged around the time of the Civil War. They wrote under a variety of pseudonyms—Petroleum V. Nasby, Josh Billings, Orpheus C. Kerr—and helped popularize the telling of funny stories. They did little to elevate humor into art. Their comedy largely relied on misspelled words and malapropisms, illuminated by the occasional witticism. While there was plenty of quaint American slang on offer in their work, these writers didn’t try to develop the deeper potential of vernacular language into anything approximating “good square American literatoor,” as Ward called it.

That task fell to Twain. His anxiety about humor’s lowness worked to his advantage, pushing him to improve on the more buffoonish antics of predecessors like Ward and find a more literary key for his work. Since he couldn’t renounce humor, he enriched it. To do so he drew on the particular strain of frontier storytelling that he had encountered in his youth: Southwestern humor, named for a loosely defined region that included Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Missouri.

Starting in the 1830s, a handful of newspapermen began documenting life in the Southwestern hinterlands—mostly members of the educated Whig elite who caricatured their subjects as dumb yokels. The central Southwestern device was the “frame”: a genteel narrator placed between the reader and the barbarous backwoods society. The gentleman was always in control, a guide pointing out specimens of frontier humanity like he might animals in a zoo.

Although originally published in the region’s own papers, Southwestern humor soon moved north. Characters like Simon Suggs and Sut Lovingood started appearing in Eastern magazines, raising hell and spouting dialect for an urban audience. Readers in New York City and Boston learned about frontier rituals like the camp meeting, the coon hunt, and the horse race; they became acquainted with the confidence man and the Indian killer.

Despite their coarseness, these lowlifes possessed a certain charm, inhabiting a realm beyond law, morality, or logic—a place where the usual rules didn’t apply. Their days weren’t organized around the miseries of wage labor, as they were for the urban masses of the industrializing East. The backwoodsman lived in a “borderland of fable,” as the historian Bernard DeVoto later called it, where the beets grew as big as cedar stumps and the grasshoppers were so thick they could be barbecued as steaks. This phantasmagoria reflected the terrifying powers of a newfound land, filtered through the fevered mind of the frontiersman. The strange language of the frontier grew out of the need to describe something new, to create word pictures commensurate with the otherworldliness of the West.

These homespun bits of brilliance inspired Twain, who mined them for maximum literary effect. As 1865 drew to a close, he found a way out of his crisis and into the jumping frog. He immersed himself in the manuscript, and constructed a tale that closely resembled the Southwestern humor sketches of his Missouri childhood. But by the time Twain finally finished “Jim Smiley,” Ward’s book had already gone to press. The missed deadline was fortuitous: the publisher passed the item along to the editor of the Saturday Press, who wasted little time in printing it.

The premise is simple. The narrator enters a tavern looking for a reverend named Leonidas W. Smiley. Simon Wheeler, a drowsy patron, says that he once knew a Jim Smiley, and proceeds to box the bewildered stranger into a corner and unspool a bizarre, meandering yarn. This Smiley had a bit of a gambling problem, says Wheeler. He even trained a frog to jump on command, for the purpose of betting on him. He took such pride in his pet that when a stranger came to town, Smiley challenged him to a frog-jumping contest. The stranger accepted, but first he would need a frog of his own. While Smiley went to procure one for him, the stranger grabbed Smiley’s frog, pried its mouth open, and filled it with quail shot. When the moment came, Smiley’s frog couldn’t move—“planted as solid as a anvil”—while the other frog “hopped off lively.” The stranger collected his winnings and took off, leaving Smiley stunned.

The narrator isn’t sure how to react to this story. Wheeler never smiles, despite the ridiculousness of the incident he relates. He drifts “serenely” through his “queer yarn” in the same quiet, “gently flowing key”—and probably would have kept drifting on indefinitely if someone at the other side of the bar hadn’t called him away, giving the narrator a chance to escape. He makes for the door, only to be buttonholed by Wheeler at the last minute. Wheeler wants to spin another yarn, this time about Smiley’s “yaller one-eyed cow.” The narrator stomps out, yelling, “O, curse Smiley and his afflicted cow!”

Americans found the tale uproariously funny. For decades, readers had laughed at Southwestern sketches that presented the frontiersman as a clown. Now they were treated to the opposite: the joke isn’t on the illiterate Westerner who can’t talk straight, but is instead on the genteel narrator, who gets lured in and barraged with a series of absurdities that leaves him flummoxed and frustrated, no closer to meeting his sought-after clergyman. When he first meets Wheeler, he sees “winning gentleness and simplicity” in his face—whereas a savvier onlooker would discern a con man about to take a city slicker for a ride. Wheeler is by far the smarter of the two, despite his lack of education. He speaks in vivid images: a dog’s jaw sticks out like “the fo’castle of a steamboat,” his teeth “shine savage like the furnaces.” He creates lovely word music from syncopated verbal rhythms, as when he describes how Smiley’s frog “hysted up his shoulders—so—like a Frenchman, but it wasn’t no use—he couldn’t budge…”

Wheeler embodies the “mongrel breed” despised by Crévecoeur, yet he breaks the cage of Eastern condescension and shows his uncanny skill as a storyteller. By contrast, the narrator’s language is flat, secondhand, soggy with the sentimental clichés of Eastern respectability. In the face-off between East and West, the West wins—not with violence, which is how a similar encounter ends in an earlier Twain sketch, “The Dandy Frightening the Squatter”—but with a confidence trick, another favorite frontier pastime.

Twain had taken a popular genre and turned it inside out. His inversion of the Southwestern form drew loud laughter from a country deeply familiar with the conventions of frontier humor. But “Jim Smiley” represented more than just a clever sendup of the Southwestern school. It also marked a transition for Twain: the moment when he discovered the literary power of the frontier. If it’s harder to see the humor in the story today, that’s partly because Twain had ambitions beyond being funny. The piece’s devilish irony, lyrical slang, and rambling flow aren’t purely for comic effect; they are the building blocks of a distinctive narrative style, one that would shape later masterpieces like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Twain had set out to tell a tall tale and ended up with a work of art. He used the veil of humor to smuggle in a serious point about the purpose of American literature, challenging the entrenched belief in Eastern superiority and Western barbarism. In “Jim Smiley,” the frontier isn’t an inferior stage of civilization awaiting the enlightening influence of the Atlantic Coast, but a densely detailed universe demanding to be understood on its own terms. In the coming decades, Twain would explore this universe in greater detail—in Roughing It, his chronicle of Nevada and California; in Life on the Mississippi, his account of his piloting days; and, above all, in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, grounded in his boyhood memories of Hannibal, Missouri. The jumping frog opened the vein of literary creation that would sustain his best work, and helped him build a legacy far beyond any of his fellow humorists. Twain had wanted to do more than just make people laugh. He succeeded.

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About the Author

Ben Tarnoff is the author of A Counterfeiter’s Paradise. His second book, The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, will be published by the Penguin Press in March. His last essay for Lapham’s Quarterly appeared in the Fall 2011 issue, The Future.

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