“Well, thish-yer Smiley had a yaller one-eyed cow that didn’t have no tail, only just a short stump like a bannanner, and—”
However, lacking both time and inclination, I did not wait to hear about the afflicted cow, but took my leave.
I’ve decided to revamp my Annual Featured Author feature (redundant, I know). For the last two years, I’ve read a short story each month by the same author – in 2015 it was Ray Bradbury and in 2016 it was Alice Munro. I’ve never thought the name of the feature sounded right, so I’ve decided to change it to A Year With… and in 2017, it’s going to be A Year With Mark Twain. My ultimate goal is to read the rest of his short stories in 2017.
So I’m starting this off with one of his more famous stories “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. This is roughly the third time I’ve read this story with the first being somewhere around junior high.
What I didn’t remember from previous readings is that the story of the frog is just one of a number of stories that Simon Wheeler is telling about his acquaintance, persistent gambler Jim Smiley. He’s telling these stories to the unnamed narrator – perhaps a fictional version of Twain, himself – who isn’t really in the mood to hear all of these tall tales.
I also didn’t remember that in Wheeler’s versions of these stories, the various animals for which Smiley is making his bets have names of famous people. A puppy is named Andrew Jackson while the frog from the title is named Dan’l Webster. Something about this enhances the incredibility of the stories – as does the way Twain uses a narrator listening to a narrator telling stories from another narrator. It’s not a surprise to anyone – the fictional Twain or the reader – that these stories might not be true.
Finally, the tall tales make the story funny. I’ve known parents who don’t like their children to read stories in which characters lie. While I fully respect parents teaching morals to their children and I can think of worse things for parents to do than be involved in their children’s reading, lying has been a staple of fictional comedy since – well, probably at least since 1865 when “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published.