Along with his Enterprise work, Clemens continued to write occasionally for the Californian, but for some reason he did not offer the story of the jumping frog. For one thing, he did not regard it highly as literary material. He knew that he had enjoyed it himself, but the humor and fashion of its telling seemed to him of too simple and mild a variety in that day of boisterous incident and exaggerated form. By and by Artemus Ward turned up in San Francisco, and one night Mark Twain told him his experiences with Jim Gillis, and in Angel’s Camp; also of Ben Coon and his tale of the Calaveras frog. Ward was delighted.
“Write it,” he said. “There is still time to get it into my volume of sketches. Send it to Carleton, my publisher in New York.”39
39 [This is in accordance with Mr. Clemens’s recollection of the matter. The author can find no positive evidence that Ward was on the Pacific coast again in 1865. It seems likely, therefore, that the telling of the frog story and his approval of it were accomplished by exchange of letters.]
Clemens promised to do this, but delayed fulfilment somewhat, and by the time the sketch reached Carleton, Ward’s book was about ready for the press. It did not seem worth while to Carleton to make any change of plans that would include the frog story. The publisher handed it over to Henry Clapp, editor of the Saturday Press, a perishing sheet, saying: “Here, Clapp, here’s something you can use in your paper.” Clapp took it thankfully enough, we may believe.
“Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” 40 appeared in the Saturday Press of November 18, 1865, and was immediately copied and quoted far and near. It brought the name of Mark Twain across the mountains, bore it up and down the Atlantic coast, and out over the prairies of the Middle West. Away from the Pacific slope only a reader here and there had known the name before. Now every one who took a newspaper was treated to the tale of the wonderful Calaveras frog, and received a mental impress of the author’s signature. The name Mark Twain became hardly an institution, as yet, but it made a strong bid for national acceptance.
40 [This was the original title.]
As for its owner, he had no suspicion of these momentous happenings for a considerable time. The telegraph did not carry such news in those days, and it took a good while for the echo of his victory to travel to the Coast. When at last a lagging word of it did arrive, it would seem to have brought disappointment, rather than exaltation, to the author. Even Artemus Ward’s opinion of the story had not increased Mark Twain’s regard for it as literature. That it had struck the popular note meant, as he believed, failure for his more highly regarded work. In a letter written January 20, 1866, he says these things for himself:
I do not know what to write; my life is so uneventful. I wish I was back there piloting up and down the river again. Verily, all is vanity and little worth — save piloting.
To think that, after writing many an article a man might be excused for thinking tolerably good, those New York people should single out a villainous backwoods sketch to compliment me on! “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog”— a squib which would never have been written but to please Artemus Ward, and then it reached New York too late to appear in his book.
But no matter. His book was a wretchedly poor one, generally speaking, and it could be no credit to either of us to appear between its covers.
This paragraph is from the New York correspondence of the San Francisco Alta:
“Mark Twain’s story in the Saturday Press of November 18th, called “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” has set all New York in a roar, and he may be said to have made his mark. I have been asked fifty times about it and its author, and the papers are copying it far and near. It is voted the best thing of the day. Cannot the ‘Californian’ afford to keep Mark all to itself? It should not let him scintillate so widely without first being filtered through the California press.”
The New York publishing house of Carleton & Co. gave the sketch to the Saturday Press when they found it was too late for the book.
It is difficult to judge the jumping Frog story to-day. It has the intrinsic fundamental value of one of AEsop’s Fables. 41 It contains a basic idea which is essentially ludicrous, and the quaint simplicity of its telling is convincing and full of charm. It appeared in print at a time when American humor was chaotic, the public taste unformed. We had a vast appreciation for what was comic, with no great number of opportunities for showing it. We were so ready to laugh that when a real opportunity came along we improved it and kept on laughing and repeating the cause of our merriment, directing the attention of our friends to it. Whether the story of “Jim Smiley’s Frog,” offered for the first time today, would capture the public, and become the initial block of a towering fame, is another matter. That the author himself underrated it is certain. That the public, receiving it at what we now term the psychological moment, may have overrated it is by no means impossible. In any case, it does not matter now. The stone rejected by the builder was made the corner-stone of his literary edifice. As such it is immortal.
41 [The resemblance of the frog story to the early Greek tales must have been noted by Prof. Henry Sidgwick, who synopsized it in Greek form and phrase for his book, Greek Prose Composition. Through this originated the impression that the story was of Athenian root. Mark Twain himself was deceived, until in 1899, when he met Professor Sidgwick, who explained that the Greek version was the translation and Mark Twain’s the original; that he had thought it unnecessary to give credit for a story so well known. See The Jumping Frog, Harper & Bros., 1903, p. 64.]
In the letter already quoted, Clemens speaks of both Bret Harte and himself as having quit the ‘Californian’ in future expecting to write for Eastern papers. He adds:
Though I am generally placed at the head of my breed of scribblers in this part of the country, the place properly belongs to Bret Harte, I think, though he denies it, along with the rest. He wants me to club a lot of old sketches together with a lot of his, and publish a book. I wouldn’t do it, only he agrees to take all the trouble. But I want to know whether we are going to make anything out of it, first. However, he has written to a New York publisher, and if we are offered a bargain that will pay for a month’s labor we will go to work and prepare the volume for the press.
Nothing came of the proposed volume, or of other joint literary schemes these two had then in mind. Neither of them would seem to have been optimistic as to their future place in American literature; certainly in their most exalted moments they could hardly have dreamed that within half a dozen years they would be the head and front of a new school of letters — the two most talked-of men in America.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00