Monday, November 18, 2019
November 18, 2019: Local Color Stories: “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”
[On November 18, 1865, Mark Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was first published in The New York Saturday Press (under its original title, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog”). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy “Frog” and four other local color short stories, leading up to a special weekend post on teaching such American texts.]
On what frame narratives and narrators help us understand about storytelling and humor.
As I noted in this post on Washington Irving’s fictional historian Diedrich Knickerbocker and his role in how Irving presents short stories like “Rip Van Winkle,” complicated meta-fictions and frame narratives can be found in American literature at least as early as the first decades of the 19th century. But it was with the rise of local color writing in the middle of that century that such framing devices and narrators became a fixture in American fiction. While of course you can’t reduce that entire, multi-decade and continent-wide literary movement to any single element, it’s fair to say that one of the most consistent tropes in American local color writing is a framing structure in which an outsider narrator arrives in a particular community, encounters a storyteller therein, and then both listen to and reports for us what that local voice has to say. Sometimes (as in Sarah Orne Jewett’s magisterial The Country of the Pointed Firs) that narrator remains an important character throughout the text; but often, as in Mark Twain’s “Jumping Frog,” the narrator only appears in the opening and closing frames, ceding the text over to the storytelling voice for the bulk of his pages.
In many ways, Twain’s outside narrator and frame structure feel very similar to the typical uses of those consistent local color elements. He is clearly an outsider, or at least a recent arrival, to the story’s local community, “the ancient [and fictional] mining camp of Angel’s”; as he tells us in the opening sentence, introducing both that outsider past and his present relationship to this new community, it is upon the request of “a friend of mine, who wrote me from the East” that the narrator seeks out “good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler.” What the narrator needs from Wheeler is a story, a narrative not just on his request’s ostensible subject—his Eastern friend’s “cherished companion of his boyhood named Leonidas W. Smiley, … who he had heard was at one time a resident of Angel’s Camp”—but also one that depicts the specific and distinctive world of this post-Gold Rush frontier mining community. And when he gets from Wheeler a version of that story (if one focused not on Leonidas at all, but rather on the clearly distinct character Jim Smiley), he includes it at the center of his text in an overly meta-fictional way, as “the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph.”
That crucial adjective “monotonous” highlights a divergence in Twain’s local color story from many of those published over the next few decades, however. Although Twain’s narrator seems to transcribe Wheeler’s story faithfully, he also calls it (in the same framing paragraph) an “interminable narrative” and “such a queer yarn”; when he returns as our narrator in the brief closing frame, it’s in order to literally run away from Wheeler lest he break into another such tale. These details of “Jumping Frog” are closely tied to Twain’s emerging voice and career as a humorist, one for whom eliciting an audience’s laughter is a primary artistic goal. On a broader level, local color stories could likewise frequently be described as humorous, but with a key and complex follow-up question: who is, ultimately, the butt of the joke? Is it the storyteller, oblivious to his or her silliness (as Simon Wheeler seems to be)? Is it the narrator, subjected to the silliness (as Twain’s narrator also is)? Or is it the reader? Are we laughing, that is, as much at our own gullibility as readers as at the multi-layered humor present in the text in front of us? All questions raised by Twain’s influential framing structure and narrator.
Next short story tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this story? Other local color stories you’d highlight?