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"It couldn't be robbery to steal that": artistic appropriation and Twain's "Jumping Frog".

In "The Private History of the 'Jumping Frog' Story" (1894), Mark Twain prefaces his account of the provenance of the famous story that launched his career with two anecdotes about artistic theft. Rereading the "Jumping Frog" in light of these anecdotes and the theory of originality Twain espouses in the "Private History," this essay disputes the widespread interpretation that credits the internal, vernacular narrator, Simon Wheeler, with a subversive deadpan humor. On the contrary, this frame necessarily identifies the fictional Wheeler as a genuine simpleton. Twain similarly framed his historical source for the "Jumping Frog" story; his possession accrued not from exercising artistic originality but through publication and accreditation.


Mark Twain's essay "The Private History of the 'Jumping Frog' Story," first published in the North American Review in 1894, prefaces his account of the provenance of the "celebrated" story that launched his career with two anecdotes about purported artistic theft. The first involved a story that he acknowledged having borrowed from his friend Francis Hopkinson Smith, about a "Negro" cook compelled to explain why a roast goose is missing a leg. The story turned out to have a suspicious resemblance to one published over five hundred years earlier: in Boccaccio's Decameron. Similarly, in the second anecdote Twain relates that his famous story about a compulsive gambler who loses a bet on a frog-jumping contest to a stranger (who surreptitiously spoon-feeds birdshot to the champion frog) had an apparent precedent in classical Greek literature: the fable of the "Athenian and the Frog." Accordingly, Twain playfully sets out to vindicate himself from the charge of "'robbing the ancient dead alongside of Hopkinson Smith'" (1894, 446).

Twain's argument about each of these incidents of apparent artistic theft is that originality, and therefore artistic proprietorship, is a matter of style rather than content. In the case of "The One-Legged Goose," he claims that Boccaccio's version was style-free, and therefore freely available for Hopkinson Smith's use. In the case of the "Jumping Frog," he asserts that the classical precedent was unrelated and that his actual source material was an unembellished factual account from a completely unartistic oral historian in a mining camp. Notably, these incidents parallel the plot of the "Jumping Frog" story itself, according to which the narrator ("Mark Twain," in Twain's first published version) heard the tale from an unimaginative, monotonous denizen of the tavern at Angel's Camp, Simon Wheeler. That is, a straightforward reading of Twain's breakthrough publication corresponds to his explicit theory of artistic originality, as well as, specifically, to his account of the story's genesis. Why, then, do so many interpreters insist that Wheeler is to be understood not as the simpleton he appears to be but rather a deadpan humorist, a masterful artistic performer?

This coauthored essay makes a case for a face value understanding of Twain's portrayal of Wheeler as a naive, unwitting storyteller, and therefore for the intellectual and artistic superiority of the educated outsider. Pursuing leads suggested by the "Private History," our argument may, like Wheeler's narrative, digress a little bit. We hope that along the way it will make contributions not only to the considerable scholarship on "The Jumping Frog" but also to larger discussions about artistic originality and property, issues that preoccupied Twain during the late phase of his career. (1) Thus we investigate Twain's account of "The One-Legged Goose" incident as well as Flopkinson Smith's published version of that story; as a frame narrative appearing in the generic context of plantation fiction, it is not subject to the same benefit of the doubt that readers have given Twain's "Jumping Frog." In our own reading of the frog story, we attribute the perception that Simon Wheeler is using comic deadpan to a problem of textual representation: inside the frame, deadpan and genuine naivete are identical. In light of Twain's self-serving theory, however, it is unlikely that the story deliberately subverts its frame structure. Moreover, we raise questions about Twain's "private" story about his story, suggesting that the anecdote about the "Athenian and the Frog" is a diversion from more troubling charges of plagiarism, and concluding, on the basis of external evidence, that Twain enacted a sleight upon his source for "The Jumping Frog" that is analogous to the one the stranger pulled on Jim Smiley, grounding the local performer's "Frog" with the rhetorical equivalent of birdshot.


Twain's opening to the "Private History" recounts how "a lady from Finland"--the author and suffragette Baroness Alexandra Gripenburg--asked him to "tell her a story in our negro dialect." He therefore "told her one of Hopkinson Smith's negro stories, and gave her a copy of Harper's Monthly containing it." According to Twain, he got a "good lashing in the Swedish press" when Gripenburg published an account of her encounter with Clemens in a Swedish newspaper and erroneously attributed the story to him instead of Francis Hopkinson Smith: "for it was shown that Boccaccio had told that very story, in his curt and meager fashion, five hundred years before Smith took hold of it and made a good and tellable thing out of it" (1894, 446).

Gripenberg's account of the incident offers more detail. In her A Half Tear in the New World (1889), she recounts a meeting with Mark Twain ("it is absolutely necessary not to call him Mr. Clemens but Mark Twain") in Hartford (1954, 68). As the "conversation led from Negroes to Negro songs and anecdotes," Twain told the story of the one-legged goose, "in an authentic Virginia dialect, with incomparable humor." According to Gripenberg, Twain "talked with a kind of slow eloquence, not unlike that of the Finnish peasant. His face at the beginning of a story was very reserved, but by the end of his tale humor and good-heartedness shone from every wrinkle" (70). In other words, Twain's delivery, like the "Finnish peasant," embodied the romantic ideal of unlettered primitive eloquence. (2) For Gripenberg, the ultimate expression of this ideal were "Negro songs," which Twain demurely (he "mumbled something about hoarseness and a nasty cold") agreed to perform: "even though they were monotonous and sad, they were endowed with emotional, wild poetry, which Mark Twain interpreted very well" (70-71).

The anecdote Twain told, rendered by Gripenberg as quoted speech, concerns the predicament of a "colored cook" who cuts off a leg of a roast goose destined for his master's dinner party and gives it to his "ladylove." Confronted by his "'massa'," the cook maintained that the living goose, as was often typical of the species, had had only one leg to begin with. The master accordingly brought the cook out to the poultry yard, where "'several dozing geese stood on one leg.'" Not to be fooled, the master "'clapped his hands together and shouted, "Shoo!" "'causing the geese to put down both legs and flee. Seemingly caught in his lie, the servant turns to impudent humor: "'Well, but--I guess massa didn't shout "shoo" to the roast.'" Having delivered this punch line, according to Gripenberg, "Mark Twain stopped, peered at us roguishly and became silent. His whole face, with all its innumerable wrinkles, was covered with a smile" (1954, 70-71).

Apparently, Twain was willing enough to have the Baroness think the story of the one-legged goose was his work until her published translation in a Swedish newspaper stirred a small controversy. She wrote to him: "Now somebody in Sweden has written in the same paper that this anecdote is not composed by you or an American at all, but is taken from Boccacio's Decameron" (1888). Twain was the embodiment of Americana, and the notion that the treasured anecdote that Gripenberg had proudly brought home and published was not only unoriginal but not even American must have been unsettling. It was as if she had been told that the weather-beaten countenance she had so admired had been an effect of make-up and lighting. "I confess it made me very angry" (1888). Implicitly, her anger was directed at Twain's accusers.

Gripenberg's letter requested "a word or two" from Twain, explaining "where you got this story from," and promised to forward it for publication. "Every newspaper in Sweden--almost--published your anecdote and they would be delighted to publish your answer" (1888). Twain's response first made clear that he was not himself guilty of plagiarism because his story was borrowed, not stolen; "he got it from Hopkinson Smith," referring to Francis Hopkinson Smith, the well known artist, writer, and engineer, best known today for designing the foundation for the Statue of Liberty. Twain then averred that his "old & special friend" is also innocent, because even if the story had originated with Boccaccio, Boccaccio had no claim to ownership because artistic property inheres in "the teller's art" and Boccaccio's version was without artistic merit: "Now examine the story as it is told in Boccacio. Is there any literary art in the telling? None at all. Then it does not depend upon its literary workmanship for its merit; it couldn't be robbery to steal that; it isn't property; it doesn't rise to that size." Twain explained that "nothing about a story is 'original,' and en-titled to be regarded as private property and valuable, except the art which the teller puts into the telling of it" (Clemens 1888, 177). In this letter he previewed the argument of his famous essay "How to Tell a Story," first published in The Youth's Companion in 1895; within the quintessential^ American genre of the "humorous story," the highest art was the impersonation of artlessness, when "simplicity and innocence and sincerity and unconsciousness" are "perfectly simulated and the result is a performance which is thoroughly charming and delicious. This is art and fine and beautiful, and only a master can compass it; but a machine could tell the other story" (Twain 1909, 11).

Twain's dismissal of Boccaccio contrasts with a comment he made in his Autobiography, in which he good-naturedly recounts the literary theft and republication of an anecdote he originally published as "Jim Wolf and the Tom Cats" (1867). It was first plagiarized by a humorist in Tennessee, and then by a conman whom Twain told the story to in England. "So that small tale was sold three times," concluded Twain. "I am selling it again, now. It is one of the best properties I have come across" (2010, 1:163).

So is literary property something that is "come across," or is it fashioned by the artist? (3) There is a third factor too: recognition. The case of "Jim Wolf and the Tom Cats" suggests that there is no value in discovery (the story was a personal anecdote arising from Twain's own experience), nor in precedence (he was the first to publish it), so long as the public attributes a property to someone else. The Tennessee artist's version superseded Twain's because he "had a wide reputation in the West, and was exceedingly popular." Accordingly, as Twain's rising fame brought about the reappearance of his version of the story, he was accused of stealing it from "the Tennessee man," rather than vice versa: "I got a merciless basting, but I did not mind it. It's all in the game." In his Autobiography, Twain plays the long game; his reputation has by far eclipsed that of his erstwhile rival ("His name has passed out of my memory"), and "Jim Wolf and the Tom Cats," as well as the story about the story, unambiguously belongs to him (2010, 1:161).

As we will discuss below, a similar process played out in the case of the "Jumping Frog" story. As for the "One-Legged Goose," he recognized it as Smith's not because he credited Smith with its discovery, nor because Smith had shaped it into a story, but because, as he wrote to Gripenberg, he "often heard" Smith "tell that story in private and public gatherings" (Clemens 1888, 176). Thus when he saw "Ginger and the Goose" published in Harper's Magazine (1882), he mistakenly attributed it to Smith even though the byline, "P. Y. P.," in no way indicated Smith's authorship, and the rendition of dialect was notably different from the one Smith later used in Colonel Carter of CartersviUe (1891). (4) Twain's error in attribution somewhat belies his argument to Gripenberg that a story is only marked as "private property" by the teller's artistry.

It is unclear whether P. Y. P., Smith, or another artist was the first to adapt the Boccaccio formula to a plantation setting. As a fable about master-servant relationships, it was readily adaptable to that context, and thus worked as a set piece in Smith's work of plantation fiction, Colonel Carter of CartersviUe. Twain had evidently informed Smith about the incident with Gripenberg, which prompted a somewhat chagrined footnote acknowledging that the "'One Legged Goose' is as old as the 'Decameron'" (Smith 1891, 68 n1). Smith's use of the motif, unlike that by P. Y. P. and others, actually hearkened back to the Decameron because he incorporated it into a narrative frame. (5)

Because the chapter "Chad's Story of the Goose" depicts the transmission of the story from the uneducated former slave to the educated northern narrator, it pertains directly to the issue of artistic property and provides an apt comparison to Twain's "Jumping Frog." Like Gripenberg's Finnish peasant and, arguably, like Simon Wheeler, Chad fits the paradigm of the artless performer, while the external narrator, as a proxy for Hopkinson Smith, can be credited for the artful impersonation of artlessness. The story thus simulates the phenomenon that Siva Vaidhyanathan associates with the developments in copyright law spurred by Twain and others, the appropriation and commodification of material from out of "the commons of African American aesthetic traditions" (2001, 12).

As is characteristic of the plantation fiction genre, the aged cook Chad pines for the "old plantation days," an era when he was incapable of owning property because he was contentedly the property of another (1891, 66). The story centers on a domestic waterfowl and equates the former slaves to livestock or domestic animals: in preparing for guests, "Mammyjane" ran around "same as a chicken wid its head off" (60); Chad's girlfriend Henny, like a dog, "'dis'pears round the kitchen corner wid de leg in her mouf'" (63); in telling the story Chad himself emulates the goose, perching "on one leg, balancing himself by my chair, the tears running down his cheeks" (66). Against this depiction of the slaves as brutes, the story highlights the enlightened status of the old master, General John Carter. Chad informs the narrator that the General never hit nor whipped his slaves, but instead summoned those who misbehaved to "'de little room in de big house whar de walls was all books an' whar his desk was,"' where he admonished them in a voice "'like de thunder'" (Smith 1891, 62). (6) The story thus aligns power and proprietorship with literacy. It enforces this alignment through a culminating illustration of the General's benevolence, essentially upstaging the story's humor with sentimentality by shifting the final note from the subordinate's wit to the master's benevolence. Instead of punishing Chad and Henny, he purchases her and arranges for their marriage: "'Chad,' he says, handin' me de reins, 'I bought yo' Henny dis afternoon from Colonel Barbour, an' she's cornin' ober tomorrow, an' you can bofe git married next Sunday'" (70). The chapter then concludes with the voice of the external narrator, whose conversation with Chad was punctuated by the arrival of the Colonel, requiring a transition from dialog to narration.

As the use of external and interior quotation marks indicates, Chad's vernacular narration concludes with his impersonation of his former master. If we zoom outwards to see all the frames at once, we might characterize this passage as an adaptation by a marginally southern gentleman (Hopkinson Smith was from Baltimore) of a spoken-word set piece of dialect humor for a literary narrative published (by Houghton Mifflin in Boston) for northeastern audiences. Within the chapter, a northern narrator impersonates a former slave's impersonation of his former master. Each frame mediated and authorized its contents. Only through the literate, standard diction and syntax of the Northern external narrator could the dialect speaker reach this audience; only through the authentic dialect voice of the former slave could the slave master express his benevolence. The slave master's voice, entirely cloaked, is the tail that wags the dog. In the terms of the Internet age, Hopkinson Smith has set up a chain of "sockpuppets" to convey a view of slavery as a benevolent institution. (7)

The implementation of the frame narrative device within plantation fiction is the fullest instantiation of its ideological work. It is this work that Charles Chesnutt exposes and subverts so brilliantly in his Conjure Tales. For example, "Dave's Neckliss" (1889) shares many elements with "Chad's Story of the Goose," including the identification of the slaves with meat and the paternalistic arranged marriage. However, instead of the vernacular narrator emulating livestock, as Chad did when he perches on one leg, Chessnut provides for the inference that his vernacular narrator, Uncle Julius, uses his story in order to acquire the delicious ham that occasioned it. In other words, the reader can deduce that Julius subverts and capitalizes upon the low expectations of the educated frame narrator, John. Stories like "Chad's Story of the Goose" and "Dave's Neckliss" illustrate how the questions of authenticity and ownership surrounding Twain's seemingly innocuous tale of the "Jumping Frog" may involve greater stakes than may first appear. The "Jumping Frog" story does not seem to be about race, but when you read it with race in mind--as Twain unwittingly invites us to do when he mentions his own performance of "one of Hopkinson Smith's negro stories"--it is at least relevant to the interpretation.

So, is Simon Wheeler more like Hopkinson Smith's Chad (or Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus), or more like Chesnutt's Uncle Julius? (8)


In Chesnutt's "Dave's Neckliss," after the close of Julius's vernacular narration, the frame narrator witnesses "Julius disappearing down the lane, with a basket on his arm" (1889, 508). In "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog," there is no evidence as suggestive of the vernacular narrator's subversion as Julius's appropriation of the ham. In Twain's story, the blatant appropriation, and victorious departure, occur within the frame, when "the stranger" walks off with Jim Smiley's forty dollars. Structurally, it is suggestive of the frame narrator's superiority over Simon Wheeler, rather than vice versa. At the close of the story, it is the narrator, also a "stranger," who departs--with Simon Wheeler's story.

Nevertheless, many readers have maintained that the story turns the tables on "Mark Twain," who has unwittingly told a tale about an encounter with a master impersonator of rustic cluelessness. Or, perhaps, both characters were in on the joke, but neither let on. Still others have maintained that Simon Wheeler is what he appears to be, and that "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" is a literary representation of Mark Twain's deadpan impersonation of a genuine mining country bumpkin. Indeed, the question of whether Wheeler is genuinely or artfully naive has been the central issue in the criticism on the "Jumping Frog" story. (9) According to Paul Rodgers's summary of "Jumping Frog" criticism from the early to mid twentieth-century, scholars have either identified Twain's breakthrough publication as a "superb latter-day example of the traditional Southwestern frame story"--in which the educated external narrator establishes his superiority over the dialect-speaking local--or as a "historic reversal," in which the external narrator is "telling a joke on himself, and not the Clown" and "the Southwestern tradition ... has been stood on its head" (1973, 273, 275).

Yet as Gerd Hurm points out, "the question whether Simon Wheeler is a bore or deadpan virtuoso masquerading as a bore cannot be settled on the basis of internal evidence from the vernacular narrative"; nor is there conclusive evidence pertaining to this question in the narrative frame (2003, 92). This indeterminacy arises not, as Sacvan Bercovitch suggests, because "all clues are repressed, strategically concealed" through Twain's employment of comic deadpan (2002, 92). Instead, the indications that Wheeler might also be employing deadpan are simply absent. The ambiguity is not a deliberate rhetorical effect but rather a consequence of the difficulty of distinguishing between artistic deadpan and authentic naivete in literary representation. Rendered in descriptive language, they are identical. However, this unintended ambiguity is cleared up when we approach the story from outside the frame, in light of Twain's views on artistic originality and property and the foregoing discussion of "Chad's Story of the Goose." Just as Hopkinson Smith repurposes the story of the one-legged goose by bringing it within the framework of plantation fiction--shifting the emphasis, essentially, from humor to pathos--so Twain framed the yarn about the jumping frog, transforming it from a story about a gambler and his frog into one about a storyteller who did not recognize the value of his own material.

As several critics have noted, the story's first 1865 incarnation "as an epistolary piece in which the regional wit 'Mark Twain' addresses his nationally renowned colleague 'Artemus Ward'" supports the identification of the unnamed external narrator of subsequent versions with the persona of Mark Twain (Hurm 2003, 81). Ward, who solicited the story for inclusion in Artemus Ward: His Travels (1865), along with his savvy readers, would have recognized this narrator as mirroring "Ward's deadpan platform manner" (Rodgers 1973, 280). A good way to understand Clemens's aims in his literary performance of the "Jumping Frog" story is through Gripenberg's account of his performance of the "One-Legged Goose" story. In that instance, Twain framed his deadpan, letting his audience in on the joke by "peering" at them "roguishly" and then breaking into a smile. Of course, Twain's audience already knew he was employing deadpan; after all, he was Mark Twain, the famous humorist. His change of expression was actually his way of breaking from character, or from the character of the "authentic" slave into the performance persona, Mark Twain.

In the 1865 story "Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog" and the subsequent editions, the deadpan of the authorial persona is a donnee. When this external narrator discovers the "enterprising vagabond" Simon Wheeler "dozing comfortably by the bar-room stove" with "an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity upon his tranquil countenance," this description is a cue for imagining the expression of Samuel Clemens, as Mark Twain, assuming the character of Simon Wheeler. The external narrator drops his mock exasperation and incredulity to impersonate Wheeler's placid obtuseness. According to the narrator, Wheeler never "betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm; but all through the interminable narrative there ran a vein of impressive earnestness and sincerity." He adds: "the spectacle of a man drifting serenely through such a queer yarn without ever smiling was exquisitely absurd" (1865, 248). Paul Baender points out that Twain omitted this statement in later versions, for it "was to insist on the humorous criterion too explicitly," diminishing what Baender construes as the comic effect of "double deadpan" (1963, 284). According to Baender, for the story to be truly funny, neither narrator must let on that they see its humor. Rodgers sees the "Jumping Frog" story as a "dead-pan tour de force: the spectacle of a deadpan humorist solemnly recalling how a second deadpan humorist recalled how one deadpan gambler was outwitted by a second" (1973, 284). However, unlike the external narrator, whose deadpan is framed by Twain's authorial persona, the figure of the unlettered dialect-speaker is necessarily mediated, and his use of deadpan as a deliberate affect can only be construed through interpretation.

The problem, according to Susan Gillman, is that "Wheeler never breaks his own deadpan presentation," and therefore "we never know exactly who is the duper and who is the duped" (1989, 22). That is, we never know if Wheeler's expression is genuine deadpan (fake naivete) or not. Yet the basis for construing Wheeler as the "duper" seems to be that he imposes upon the narrator by telling a long, boring, trivial story. Wheeler's "Jumping Frog" story is not a scam like the "Royal Nonesuch" in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), in which the Duke and the Dauphin collected their entrance fees upfront. Wheeler does not come away with any material gains, but the narrator, a deadpan humorist, gains material. He leaves Boomerang with a story, and a story about that story. In his representation, the artless "Wheeler" sees no value in his account of Jim Smiley, but the narrator only pretends not to; he nevertheless finds it worthwhile to parlay it to readers back East. Wheeler's mistake with the "Jumping Frog" story is not unlike the one he and his neighbors make in Twain's short sketch about Boomerang; they sell "their birthright"--a "network of the richest gold-bearing lodes in California"--to a "New York company" for a "mess of pottage" (1981, 277-88).

When Smiley realizes that he has been taken in by the "stranger," he "set the frog down and took off after that feller, but he never ketched him" (Twain 1865, 249). If Wheeler is understood as genuinely na'ive, then his relationship with "Twain" does not quite parallel that between Smiley and the "stranger." Instead, as we will argue in the next section, the protagonist and antagonist in Wheeler's narrative present another, hidden parallel: with a small-time humorist in Angel's Camp who tells the "Jumping Frog" story and Twain, who parlays it into national publication. In Wheeler's narration, he expresses admiration for Smiley--who "most always come out winner"--but the reader can easily discern that Smiley is not a worthy object of admiration (248). Smiley's contest with the stranger is one with a superior deadpan con artist. Smiley attempts to set up his mark by feigning indifference and indirection: "And Smiley says {to the stranger}, sorter indifferent like, 'It might be a parrot, or it might be a canary, maybe, but it ain't--it's only just a frog.'" The stranger, with deadpanned obtuseness, "says, very deliberate, 'Well, I don't see no points about that frog that's any better'n any other frog'" (249). That's just what Smiley wants to hear--before the wager. He depends on his animals being underestimated. But when the stranger repeats the comment afterwards, verbatim, it is unmistakably deadpan, because the stranger knows precisely how the frog is different from the rest of the species: he's full of shot. There is no ambiguity concerning the outcome of the contest; the stranger walks away, still maintaining his deadpan, with Smiley's money.

The strongest evidence that Wheeler and Smiley are not just playing dumb is their faith in the ability of animals to transcend their environment. Of Andrew Jackson, the fighting pup that lost out to "a dog that hadn't no hind legs for him to take holt of," Wheeler eulogizes: he "would have made a name for hisself if he'd lived, for the stuff was in him, and he had genius--I know it, because he hadn't had no opportunities to speak of, and it don't stand to reason that a dog could make such a fight as he could under them circumstances, if he hadn't no talent." Thus the fault lay in the "circumstances," and not in the dog's nature. Of "Dan'l Webster," Wheeler admiringly paraphrases Smiley's meritocratic beliefs: "Smiley said all a frog wanted was education, and he could do most anything--and I believe him" (Twain 1865, 249). But education cannot make a frog into Daniel Webster, a historical epitome of the northeastern educated elite. It is on this point that the story resonates with nineteenth-century racism, because it ridicules Wheeler's, and Smiley's, discourse about opportunity and education. Dan'l's ultimate failure--even his susceptibility to a frog's supposed penchant to eat shot--suggests that one can take the frog out of the swamp, but not the swamp out of the frog. The stranger's comment, '"Well, I don't see no p'ints about that frog that's any better'n any other frog,'" puts Dan'l back in its place. (10)

The instance of Dan'l Webster renders the confusion between deadpan and stupidity "exquisitely absurd." As much as we know that the external narrator, as a representation of Twain's performance persona, must be in on the joke despite appearances to the contrary, we know that a frog is incapable of affectation. The joke is on Wheeler, who observes that after a prodigious leap Dan'l would "flop down on the floor again as solid as a glob of mud, and fall to scratching the side of his head with his hind foot as indifferent as if he hadn't no idea he'd been doin' any more'n any frog might do. You never see a frog so modest and straightforward as he was, for all he was so gifted" (Twain 1894, 453). Wheeler's attribution of deadpan to a frog is evidence of his own naivete. But it remains internal evidence, embedded within a narrative pronounced by one fictional narrator as impersonated by another. It is always possible to construe the "Jumping Frog" story as satirizing or subverting the prejudices it seems to express. But when it is read in light of Twain's "Private History" and his theory of originality, it is difficult to credit him with such an intention.


Twain's pretext for composing "The Private History" was the apparent discovery of an ancient antecedent for his "Jumping Frog" story. Princeton professor Henry Van Dyke told Clemens that there was a version of the story in classical Greek, and provided him with Arthur Sidgwick's Introduction to Greek Prose Composition, first published in 1876, the textbook containing "The Athenian and the Frog." To vindicate himself from the charge of "robbing the ancient dead along-side of Hopkinson Smith," Twain provided his version of "the private and public history of the jumping frog of Calaveras County" (1894, 453).

Twain's premise for composing the "Private History" turned out to be a misunderstanding. He later learned, as he noted in a 1903 addendum to the "Private History," that Sidgwick had adapted the story from Twain, instead of vice versa, "believing that the story's origin was so well known as to make formal mention of it unnecessary." When readers did not recognize the Greek version as a self-evident homage to Twain's "celebrated" story, Sidgwick himself, according to Twain, became subject to imputations of plagiarism. "I was very sorry for the censure," concluded Twain, "but it was not I that applied it. I would not have done it" (1903, 66). It is likely, indeed, that once his confusion was cleared up, Clemens was able to accept "The Athenian and the Frog" in the spirit it was presented, insofar as it was predicated on his celebrity and was, as it were, an instance of fair-use. (Another of Sidgwick's homages led George Orwell to mistakenly accuse Charles Dickens of plagiarism. (11))

Before he arrived at this simple and unobjectionable explanation for the "curiously exact" "resemblances" between his story and "The Athenian and the Frog," however, Twain attempted an unlikely one (1894, 450). His essay proposes that both stories are true. Pronouncing himself "perfectly sure" that the oral history of the jumping frog he had collected in Angel's Camp was a faithful record of an event that had occurred in 1849, he averred that he was likewise "sure" that "its duplicate happened in Boeotia a couple thousand years ago." According to Twain, it was "a case of history actually repeating itself and not a case of a good story floating down through the ages and surviving because too good to be allowed to perish" (1894, 447-48). The story was "original when it happened two thousand years ago, and was again original when it happened in California in our own time" (453). This usage of the term "original" is inconsistent with Twain's theory of originality, according to which Boccaccio's story about a cook and a one-legged crane was unoriginal, but Hopkinson Smith's performance "puts a new quality into it, a quality of his own, a quality which it did not possess before in any valuable sense--that is to say, the quality of 'originality'" (Clemens 1888, 177). In effect, Twain proposed a different defense for himself than he had for Hopkinson Smith; the latter was innocent of plagiarism because his originality lay in "his way of telling" the story, while Twain was innocent because both the "Jumping Frog" story and the "Athenian and the Frog" were inherently "original."

Yet Twain did not discover the "Jumping Frog" by witnessing the event, which he dates to the "spring of '49." Instead, he claims that he heard an account of it in Angel's Camp in the "fall of 1865"; his originality therefore lay in transforming it from an oral "history" into a story, intended for entertainment. According to Twain, the historian "was not telling it to his hearers as a thing new to them, but as a thing which they had witnessed and would remember." The historian "was a dull person, and ignorant; he had no gift as a story-teller, and no invention." With great paratactic emphasis, Twain establishes the utter obliviousness of both teller and audience--"neither he nor they ever smile or laughed"--to the account's entertainment value. For Twain, the obtuseness of historian and audience augmented the story's worth, since it contributed to the "spectacle" he depicted in "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" (1894, 447; 1865, 248).

Scholars have generally looked to "The Private History" as the principle source for the origin of Twain's "Jumping Frog" story. It supplemented a meager 1865 journal entry on "Coleman with his jumping frog" that summarizes the story without referring to its source: "bet a stranger $50--stranger had no frog and C got him one--in the meantime stranger filled C's frog full of shot & he couldn't jump--the stranger's frog won" (Twain 1975, 80). For example, Edgar M. Branch, the editor of Early Tales and Sketches, introduces an excerpt from the "Private History" by writing: "in 1894 Clemens again recalled the occasion, this time in somewhat greater detail" (Twain 1981, 263). Yet the "Private History" is not simply Clemens's recollection; it is Twain's representation, a story about a story about a story, presented in persona, intended to entertain, certainly, with the ostensible rhetorical purpose of self-exoneration.

The likelihood that the "solemn conference" he describes in the "Private History" is a mischaracterization of the performance he witnessed is reinforced by a surprising discrepancy in his account. He claims that for the humorless oral historian and the miners who formed his audience "there were just two things in the story that were worth considering. One was, the smartness of its hero, Jim Smiley, in taking in the stranger with a loaded frog; and the other was Smiley's deep knowledge of a frog's nature--for he knew (as the narrator asserted and the listeners conceded) that a frog likes shot and is always ready to eat it. Those men discussed those two points, and those only" (1894, 447). But in Twain's "Jumping Frog," Smiley does not take in the stranger, it is the other way around--and therefore Smiley doesn't evince "deep knowledge of a frog's nature," the stranger does. Isn't that the whole premise of the story? Twain incorporates an accurate summary of the story later in the "Private History," but this widely reproduced error has been seemingly overlooked by scholars. (12)

Twain's inconsistency is an indication that the supposed matter of fact discussion about Smiley and the frog was apocryphal. But his point in the "Private History" is that the story as he heard it was not a humorous performance, which would be proprietary, but a recitation of oral history, which belongs to the public domain. Accordingly, both the anonymous speaker (Twain's omission of his name is a further denial of authorship) and the audience took the antagonists in the jumping frog contest quite seriously: "They were hearty in their admiration of them, and none of the party was aware that a first rate story had been told, in a first-rate way, and it was brimful of a quality whose presence they never suspected--humor" (1894, 447). Similarly, in the published story, Wheeler did not recognize its comedy at all: "far from his imagining that there was any thing ridiculous or funny about his story, he regarded it as a really important matter, and admired its two heroes as men of transcendent genius in finesse" (Twain 1865, 248).

Twain's original notebook entry was scant, and the "Private History" was written long after the "Jumping Frog" story's tremendously successful publication; it seems likely that the speaker Twain describes was modeled after Simon Wheeler, as much as vice versa. Yet the assertion that this man believed himself to be a simple "reporter"--a term used by Clemens in his letter to Gripenberg--was important to Twain's case that he was the true artistic creator of the "Jumping Frog" story (1888, 177). It is difficult to believe, however, that Clemens actually thought that the "Jumping Frog" story he had heard was historical. The most incredible part of his account of the "Jumping Frog" story is the notion that both teller and audience believed the story to be true. Yet according to Twain, its truthfulness lay in the very circumstance that outsiders would find most preposterous--a frog's willing consumption of birdshot. Misconstruing the dynamic of the story, he reported that the "gold miners" were impressed with "Smiley's deep knowledge of a frog's nature--for he knew (as the narrator asserted and the listeners conceded) that a frog likes shot and is always ready to eat it" (1894, 447). In his 1903 addendum to the "Private History," Twain claimed that actually he hadn't been so altogether persuaded that the "Athenian and the Frog" was an authentic account: "I could not help being suspicious of the Greek frog because he was willing to be fed with gravel. One can't beguile the modern frog with that product" (1903, 65).

These statements seem like teases for his literate audience, who were unlikely to be able to gainsay the "deep knowledge of a frog's nature" that the Missourian Twain apparently shared with the forty-niners. Do frogs really "like shot"? Do they really distinguish between birdshot and gravel? We asked a herpetologist, William Duellman, coauthor of The Biology of Amphibians (1985). In an email to the authors dated December 6, 2010, Duellman recalled an incident that occurred when he was doing fieldwork in Panama. He was sitting with a colleague at night, watching "large toads sitting on the ground beneath a reflector light attached to a building. As flying insects, some of them moderate-sized beetles flew into the night and dropped to the ground, the toads immediately flicked their tongues and swallowed the insects. Just for the fun of it, we rolled some small pebbles (beetle-size) to the toads; some of the pebbles were swallowed by the toads" (pers. comm.). Thus it seems possible that the "Jumping Frog" story grows out of a premise from nature--but it is only a premise, in the same sense that the "One-Legged Goose" story grows out of the more readily observable phenomenon of waterfowl standing on one leg and tucking the other under wing. (13) A published precedent for the version of the story that Twain heard in Angel's Camp, written by Sam Seabough for the San Andreas Independent in 1858, retains a sort of biological plausibility by specifying that the unfortunate frog had swallowed the birdshot "mistaking them for flies" (Lewis 1931, 34).

The existence of the Seabough version, and a preceding, anonymous version published in the Sonora Herald in 1853, indicates that the "Jumping Frog" story was a tall tale that was in oral circulation in that region during that period. The different versions are structurally similar, but they involve different characters and even species (the 1853 version is "A Toad Story"). (14) They do not purport to be true accounts of actual events. Still another version involves grasshoppers instead of amphibians, and chloroform instead of birdshot (Morrissey 1921, 143). In 1929 William Gillis, "the only living person who was a friend of Mark Twain's while Mark Twain was living in California in the early sixties," told a reporter for the Overland Monthly a story he claimed was the basis for the California "Jumping Frog" story--he heard it from an Arkansas old-timer who heard it from a circus owner "who used to tell the story in his circus work." It was "an old negro story" in which the counterparts to Jim Smiley and the stranger were an "Old Nigger man" and "an old Cullah'd man." According to Gillis, the story was brought from the "levees of the Mississippi" to "Calaveras County," and Seabough adapted it to the California mining community and put it into print; "the new version of it became very popular up and down the mother lode" (Older 1929, 101). If the so-called "Negro Version" of the "Jumping Frog" story was indeed the ancestor of the Californian strain, then at some point in the transmission the conceit was turned inside out, because in the story recounted by Gillis the "Cullah'd Man" plays the part of the stranger (his mixed blood may imply some pretensions to superiority), and the "Nigger Man" is the local trickster who outwits him.

There is no reason to think that Twain was aware of the published versions of the "Jumping Frog" story, which appeared well before his arrival in California, but he surely recognized a tall tale when he heard one. In his "Private History," however, he insisted that both the storyteller and the audience treated the "Jumping Frog" story not as a tall tale but rather as a narrative account of an actual event. Tales and narrative accounts are distinct genres of oral tradition, with different protocols for performance. As the Africanist Jan Vansina explains in his influential study Oral Tradition as History, "in the case of tales, innovation on a stable scheme is at a premium," while with narrative accounts "the performers intend to stick as closely as possible to the message related and to avoid lapses of memory or distortions" (1985, 41). Accordingly, the conceit that the performer in Angel's camp "was drawing on his memory, not his mind" reaffirms his lack of artistic innovation, while Twain's appropriation of the narrative account as a tale licensed improvisation. Twain's innovations evidently included the development of the character of Simon Wheeler and, most importantly, the construction of a frame.

In taking up an existing story and improvising upon its structure, like a jazz musician working with a standard, Twain was acting within the norms of traditional oral culture. Seabough and the anonymous contributor to the Sonoma Herald had signaled that the story was a specimen of oral tradition through the use of framing quotation marks, indicating that the whole work was quoted vernacular speech. The problem arises with Twain's attempt to make it proprietary, subjecting what in effect belonged to the traditional vernacular commons to copyright, insisting that it hadn't even been a story until he discovered it and made it into one through his art. In order to make this case, he had to deny that the story as he first heard it had been intended as entertainment. The "simplicity and innocence" of the fictional dialect narrator and his real-life counterpart are necessary to this denial and to Twain's claim to the artistry of his literary narrative, in which these qualities are "perfectly simulated" (Twain 1909, n). Wheeler fits the paradigm of the artless, unlettered local, like the farmer in "How to Tell a Story," or Gripenberg's Finnish peasant, or the slave whose "authentic Virginia dialect" Twain artfully impersonates in telling what he considered to be Hopkinson Smith's story of the "One-Legged Goose."

In Twain's representation his source for the "Jumping Frog" story was no Hopkinson Smith--a friend and peer from whom he might borrow material (albeit with a belated and backhanded acknowledgement). Instead, the person who told the story may have had a status Twain could not possibly acknowledge: as a rival. Or, at least, a witty attention-drawing, small-time showoff. Scholars have inconclusively but with relative consensus identified the teller as Ben (or Ross) Coon, the "Ill river pilot" whom Clemens mentions in his notebook (Twain 1975, 75, 75n21). They have equated this Coon with "ex corporal Coon," the "nice bald headed man at the hotel at Angel's camp" who figures in Twain's earlier Angel's Camp sketch, "An Unbiased Criticism" (1981, 138). Accordingly, they have attributed to the historical personage all the unflattering features that characterize the unnamed source in the "Private History" and the fictional Simon Wheeler, describing Coon as a "solemn, old river pilot" (Cohen 1963, 17); a "literal-minded dullard" (Rodgers 1973, 280); a naive raconteur who "did not suspect the humorous possibilities of the anecdote" (Cuff 1952, 155). But neither Simon Wheeler nor the oral historian Twain describes in the "Private History" bear any resemblance to the historical Benjamin Ross Coon, whose photograph on the frontispiece of Edna Bryan Buckbee's Pioneer Days of Angel's Camp (1932) shows a trim, well-groomed figure posed studiously before a chessboard. According to Buckbee, Coon was a lieutenant in the Angel's Camp Home Guards (2005, 195). Twain's "Coon," in "An Unbiased Criticism," suffers a demotion to "ex-Corporal." Buckbee's Coon was not a "dull person, and ignorant," but a "raconteur of the first order," a self-conscious entertainer who would definitely have been in on his own joke when he told Twain and his friends the story of the jumping frog with a deadpan delivery (Twain 1894, 447; Buckbee 2005,195).

Buckbee's account of the occasion is suspect, because it is apparently informed by Twain's own story. Just as the narrator describes how Simon Wheeler "backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair," Buckbee recounts how Coon "drew his chair close to tell {Clemens} about a frog that belonged to a fellow townsman, Jim Smiley, who had trained it to jump, but, had failed to win a wager because a New York Bowery boy, Pete Stag, had surreptitiously loaded Jim's frog, Dan'l Webster, with shot" (Twain 1865, 248; Buckbee 1932, 22). In unpublished portions of her Calaveras County Goldrush Stories typescript, Buckbee even claims that "Lieutenant Benjamin Ross Coon ... whose flair for a tall yarn was known all the way from the Cosumnes to the Mariposa rivers, was openly accused of having furnished Pete Stag with both the idea and the buckshot," and that Sam Seabough had been present to witness the event, thus giving rise to the story. Buckbee's oral history source was another supposed witness to the contest, Judge Victor Gottschalk (Buckbee 1925, 247). The idea that the jumping frog contest actually took place is inconsistent with the content of the published precedents to Twain's story, and with the evidence that it was an orally transmitted tall tale. Yet if Buckbee's account of the origin of the "Jumping Frog" story is unreliable, there is no reason to distrust her identification of Benjamin Ross Coon as the man in the picture, nor her description of his local reputation. Her inconsistency with Mark Twain's version in her description of Coon is a point in its favor, since it shows it is clear of his influence.

The notion that Twain heard the "Jumping Frog" story from a skilled storyteller of local renown lends new significance to the encounter between Jim Smiley and "the stranger." In addition to identifying the "stranger" in the internal narrative with the external narrator, we can identify him with Clemens--the parallels carry beyond the frame. In the contest between the local storyteller who has been identified as "Coon" and Samuel Clemens, Clemens (as Twain) came away the winner. Coon's "Jumping Frog," loaded with shot, stayed "planted" to the tavern floor in Angel's Camp: "he couldn't no more stir than if he was anchored out" (Twain 1865, 249). Twain's "Jumping Frog" soared. An oral tale can jump from place to place, but once it leaves the person of its performer it also leaves his possession. By contrast, a printed tale can reinforce its author's claim to ownership through its very proliferation. (15) In this regard, Twain's proprietorship of the "Jumping Frog" story was at least as much an effect of his access to Eastern print culture as of his talent. As he rose to fame on the back of a frog story gone viral, he effectively expropriated all other performers of the "Jumping Frog" story, including the authors of the versions published in California papers, which remained local and ephemeral. (16) Only Twain's "Frog" was able to make the leap into the canon, achieving relative ubiquity and timelessness.

Yet the "Jumping Frog" was not the ticket Clemens would have chosen. "To think that after writing many an article a man might be excused for thinking tolerably good," he complained to his mother and sister in January 1866, "those New York people should single out a villainous backwoods sketch to compliment me on!--Jim Smiley & His Jumping Frog'--a squib which would never have been written but to please Artemus Ward, & then it reached New York too late to appear in his book" (Clemens 1866). In this comment we can glimpse his ambivalence about the scene of performance on which he had based the story, as well as the persona he had delivered to the public. Coon's "Jumping Frog" was low art. It was funny. Coon was not the sort of artist Clemens wanted to emulate; he was no Artemus Ward, with his national renown, nor was he ajim Gillis, whose "learned counterfeit yarns" were undergirded by deep English and classical erudition (Hurm 2003, 79). Twain's audience back East wanted the western vernacular, and it did not matter whether it was authentic or counterfeit. They found Twain's "Jumping Frog" hilarious, but despite Twain's rationalizations about originality it is unclear how much of that humor is attributable to his embellishments. Twain's brilliance lay in adding a layer of consciousness to the story, imbuing it with a surprising complexity that, along with its place in literary history, warrants the critical attention it has received. But the most "original" and compelling element in the story remains the notion of a frog losing a jumping contest because a conman fed it birdshot. The frame needs the story more than vice versa.

After his initial diffidence, Clemens embraced the story's success, and the resulting emergence of Mark Twain. (17) He may have even come to believe that it was his own invention. (18) By the time he composed the "Private History," the "Jumping Frog" had long since become a copyright, and Mark Twain had become a trademark, that were worth protecting. Already in 1867, Clemens had bragged to his family that James Russell Lowell "says the Jumping Frog is the finest piece of humorous writing ever produced in America" (Clemens 1867). (19) But it was not simply a piece of "writing"--it was a tale with deep, albeit severed roots in an oral storytelling tradition--nor was it wholly the work of Mark Twain.

ANDREW NEWMAN is Associate Professor of English at Stony Brook University. He is the author of On Records: Delaware Indians, Colonists, and the Media of History and Memory (2012), and is currently completing a second book, Captive on the Literacy Frontier.

BRANDI SO recently completed her Ph.D. at Stony Brook University where she was an American Association of University Women Fellow and a New York Council for the Humanities Fellow. Her research focuses on American literary regionalism, the sister arts, and ekphrasis.


(1) The scholarship on Twain and artistic property includes: Buinicki's Negotiating Copyright: Authorship and the Discourse of Literary Property Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (2006, 141-198); Doyno's Writing Huck Finn: Mark Twain's Creative Process (1991, 174-219); Gillman's Dark Twins (1989); Glass's "Trademark Twain" (2001); Hoffman's Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1997, 195-96, 215-16, 282-83, 219-20, 478-80); Scharnhorst's Twain in his Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of his Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates (2010, xv-xvi, 224, 277-8); and Vaidhyanathan's Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (2001, 35-80).

(2) Friedrich Schiller's "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry," argues that the necessary condition for the sublime in nature is artlessness, whereas the Romantic "sentimental" poet, through "reason and liberty," may "lead us back again to a more exalted and more cultivated state of nature" (1861, 549).

(3) Martin Buinicki likens Clemens to a "literary prospector"; literary properties are therefore lodes that are subject to reappropriation if they are not developed (2006, 141-49). See especially his discussion of "Jim Wolf and the Tom Cats" (146-48).

(4) Others have followed Twain's misattribution, which is indeed responsible for plucking "Ginger and the Goose" from archival obscurity. See Gripenberg (1954, 375n17); Blair and McDavid (1983, 208). Hopkinson Smith was a contributor to Harper's Magazine during that period, but he used his own name. Harper's electronic archives indicates that "Ginger and the Goose" is the only contribution with the byline P. Y. P., and the only goose-themed fiction ever published in the magazine.

(5) Boccaccio was probably not the originator of the tale, but rather only the first to adapt a preexisting oral tradition to written literature. According to Florence Nightingale Jones, Boccaccio's version of the one-legged goose (actually, crane), although "not particularly well written, counts more than twenty imitations" (1910, 3). Choice Readings (1873) includes a poem, "The One-Legged Goose," that pits "A wealthy gentleman in Herefordshire" against a dialect-speaking cook (Diehl 1883, 100-103). The "goose without a leg" is listed as K402.1 in the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Thompson 1953, 286).

(6) As Heather Tirado Gilligan notes, plantation fiction relies on a "compensatory orality" to offset the impossibility of eyewitness testimony to a bygone era, and alphabetic literacy "was the marker of cultural status in plantation tales" (2007, 201).

(7) Wikipedia defines "sockpuppets" as "misleading online identities ... created to praise, defend or support a third party or organization" (Wikipedia 2015).

(8) On the relationship between Harris and Chessnut, see Cowan 1999.

(9) Randall Knoper describes this question as the "traditional argument in the criticism of Twain's story, whether Simon Wheeler is being a trickster or an innocent, manipulative or unselfconscious" (1995, 62).

(10) Debra Shein, discussing the environmental and animal rights implications of Twain's story and the identification of the title character as a California Red-Legged Frog, points out that the more successful contestants in the annual, commemorative Frog Jumping Jubilee at the Calaveras County Fair are brought directly from their natural habitat--they cannot be trained to jump (2009, 243, 233).

(11) On Sidgwick and Orwell, see Swan 2011.

(12) Both Branch (Twain 1981, 264) and Hurm (2003, 78) include block quotes containing this passage from the "Private History" without noting Twain's mischaracterization of the story. The uniform editions correct this error but circulated editions are to this day published with the error intact.

(13) Shein points to "the probability that if such a dastardly act were ever carried out in actual practice, the victim of such misuse would surely die" (2009, 236).

(14) Oscar Lewis's The Origin of the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1931) republishes a version of the story from the Sonora Herald of June II, 1853 ("A Toad Story"), and Sam Seabough's version from the San Andreas Independent of December 11, 1838 (1931, 30-34).

(15) Paul K. Saint Amour discusses authorial privilege: the "enterprising writer, having transcribed and published the speech of others, possesses intangible property rights in an expression whose original value dwelt in an oral context of expenditure and free circulation" (2003, 164).

(16) Buinicki points out that despite Twain's later campaigns against literary piracy, he recognized that his career benefited from the piracy of his "Jumping Frog." So long as it carried his byline, it helped to build his trademark (2006, 143).

(17) This success also sealed Clemens's pen name; Clemens published under many names until he began using Mark Twain in 1863. The success of "Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog" followed shortly thereafter, in 1865 (Rasmussen 2007). For current, and opposing, viewpoints on the source of Clemens's penname, see Mac Donnell (2012) and Eichin (2014).

(18) In 1889, Twain complained to an interviewer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that an "ambitious individual in the West still claims to have written the 'Jumping Frog of Calaveras County'" (2006, 98). According to Oscar Lewis, "After Mark Twain had made the 'Jumping Frog' famous, friends of Seabough occasionally put forward the claim that Twain had 'stolen' the story from him. There is no record, however, that Seabough gave any encouragement to such accusations. He is quoted as having once remarked: 'Twain was entirely privileged to make use of the incident. He made the story world-famous, mine was only for a few in Calaveras County.' Mark Twain, of course, never claimed to have originated the story" (1931, unpaginated).

(19) As the editors of the Mark Twain Project Online point out in their "Explanatory Notes/Textual Commentary" for this letter, this comment by Lowell has not been independently documented.


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