Private History of the Jumping Frog Story

Mark Twain

North American Review/April, 1894

FIVE or six years ago a lady from Finland asked me to tell her a story in our negro dialect, so that she could get an idea of what that variety of speech was like. I told her one of Hopkinson Smith’s negro stories, and gave her a copy of Harper’s Monthly containing it. She translated it for a Swedish newspaper, but by an oversight named me as the author of it instead of Smith. I was very sorry for that, because I got a good lashing in the Swedish press, which would have fallen to his share but for that mistake; for it was shown that Boccaccio had told that very story, in his curt and meagre fashion, five hundred years before Smith took hold of it and made a good and tellable thing out of it.

I have always been sorry for Smith. But my own turn has come now. A few weeks ago Professor Van Dyke, of Princeton, asked this question:

“Do you know how old your Jumping Frog story is?”

And I answered:

“Yes—forty-five years. The thing happened in Calaveras County in the spring of 1849.”

“No; it happened earlier—a couple of thousand years earlier; it is a Greek story.”

I was astonished—and hurt. I said:

“I am willing to be a literary thief if it has been so ordained; I am even willing to be caught robbing the ancient dead alongside of Hopkinson Smith, for he is my friend and a good fellow, and I think would be as honest as anyone if he could do it without occasioning remark; but I am not willing to antedate his crimes by fifteen hundred years. I must ask you to knock off part of that.”

But the professor was not chaffing; he was in earnest and could not abate a century. He named the Greek author, and offered to get the book and send it to me and the college textbook containing the English translation also. I thought I would like the translation best, because Greek makes me tired. January 30th he sent me the English version, and I will presently insert it in this article. It is my Jumping Frog tale in every essential. It is not strung out as I have strung it out, but it is all there.

To me this is very curious and interesting. Curious, for several reasons. For instance:

I heard the story told by a man who was not telling it to his hearers as a thing new to them, but as a thing which they had witnessed and would remember. He was a dull person, and ignorant; he had no gift as a story-teller, and no invention; in his mouth this episode was merely history—history and statistics; and the gravest sort of history, too; he was entirely serious, for he was dealing with what to him were austere facts, and they interested him solely because they were facts; he was drawing on his memory, not his mind ; he saw no humor in his tale, neither did his listeners; neither he nor they ever smiled or laughed; in my time I have not attended a more solemn conference. To him and to his fellow gold-miners there were just two things in the story that were worth considering. One was, the smartness of its hero, Jim Smiley, in taking the stranger in 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. 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 that it was brimful of a quality whose presence they never suspected—humor.

Now, then, the interesting question is, did the frog episode happen in Angel’s Camp in the spring of ’49, as told in my hearing that day in the fall of 1865? I am perfectly sure that it did. I am also sure that its duplicate happened in Boeotia a couple of thousand years ago. I think it must be a case of history actually repeating itself, and not a case of a good story floating down the ages and surviving because too good to be allowed to perish.

I would now like to have the reader examine the Greek story and the story told by the dull and solemn Californian, and observe how exactly alike they are in essentials.

[Translation I]


An Athenian once fell in with a Boeotian who was sitting by the roadside looking at a frog. Seeing the other approach, the Boeotian said his was a remarkable frog, and asked if he would agree to start a contest of frogs, on condition that he whose frog jumped farthest should receive a large sum of money. The Athenian replied that he would if the other would fetch him a frog, for the lake was near. To this he agreed, and when he was gone the Athenian took the frog, and opening its mouth poured some stones into its stomach, so that it did not indeed seem larger than before, but could not jump. The Boeotian soon returned with the other frog, and the contest began. The second frog first was pinched and jumped moderately; then they pinched the Boeotian frog. And he gathered himself for a leap, and used the utmost effort, but he could not move his body the least. So the Athenian departed with the money. When he was gone the Boeotian, wondering what was the matter with the frog, lifted him up and examined him. And being turned upside down, he opened his mouth and vomited out the stones.

And here is the way it happened in California:


Well, thish-yer Smiley had rat-tarriers, and chicken cocks, and tomcats, and all them kind of things, till you couldn’t rest, and you couldn’t fetch nothing for him to bet on but he’d match you. He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’lated to educate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his backyard and learn that frog to jump. And you bet you he did learn him, too. He’d give him a little punch behind, and the next minute you’d see that frog whirling in the air like a doughnut—see him turn one summerset, or maybe a couple if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right, like a cat. He got him up so in the matter of ketching flies, and kep’him in practice so constant, that he’d nail a fly every time as fur as he could see him. Smiley said all a frog wanted was education, and he could do ‘most anything—and I believe him. Why, I’ve seen him set Dan’l Webster down here on this floor—Dan’l Webster was the name of the frog—and sing out “Flies, Dan’l, flies!” and quicker’n you could wink he’d spring straight up and snake a fly offn the counter there, and flop down on the floor ag’in as solid as a gob of mud, and fall to scratching the side of his head with his hind foot as indiff’erent 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 straighttor’ard as he was, for all he was so gifted. And when it come to fair and square jumping on a dead level, he could get over more ground at one straddle than any animal of his breed you ever see. Jumping on a dead level was his strong suit, you understand; and when it come to that, Smiley would ante up money on him as long as he had a red. Smiley was monstrous proud of his frog, and well he might be, for fellers that had travelled and been everywheres, all said he laid over any frog that ever they see.

Well, Smiley kep’ the beast in a little lattice box, and he used to fetch him downtown sometimes and lay for a bet. One day a feller—a stranger In the camp, he was—come acrost him with his box, and says:

“What might it be that you’ve got in the box?”

And Smiley says, 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.”

And the feller took it, and looked at it careful, and turned it round this way and that, and says,

“H’m—so ’tis. Well, what’s he good for?”

“Well,” Smiley says, easy and careless, “he’s good enough for one thing, I should judge—he can outjump any frog in Calaveras County.”

The feller took the box again and took another long, particular look, and give it back to Smiley and says very deliberate,

“Well,” he says, “I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog.”

“Maybe you don’t,” Smiley says. “Maybe you understand frogs and maybe you don’t understand ’em; maybe you’ve had experience, and maybe you ain’t only a amature, as it were. Anyways, I’ve got my opinion and I’ll resk forty dollars that he can outjump any frog in Calaveras County.”

And the feller studies a minute and then says, kinder sad like,

“Well, I’m only a stranger here, and I ain’t got no frog, but if I had a frog I’d bet you.”

And then Smiley says: “That’s all right—that’s all right—if you’ll hold my box a minute, I’ll go and get you a frog.” And so the feller took the box and put up his forty dollars along with Smiley’s and set down to wait.

So he set there a good while thinking and thinking to hisself, and then he got the frog out and prized his mouth open and took a teaspoon and filled him full of quail shot—filled him pretty near up to his chin—and set him on the floor. Smiley he went to the swamp and slopped around in the mud for a long time, and finally he ketched a frog and fetched him in and give him to this feller, and says:

“Now, if you’re ready, set him alongside of Dan’l, with his fore-paws just even with Dan’l’s, and I’ll give the word.” Then he says, ” One—two —three—git.'” and him and the feller touched up the frogs from behind, and the new frog hopped off lively; but Dan’l give a heave, and hysted up his shoulders—so—like a Frenchman, but it warn’t no use—he couldn’t budge; he was planted as solid as a church, and he couldn’t no more stir than if he was anchored out. Smiley was a good deal surprised, and he was disgusted, too, but he didn’t have no idea what the matter was, of course.

The feller took the money and started away; and when he was going out at the door, he sorter jerked his thumb over his shoulder—so—at Dan’l, and says again, very deliberate : “Well,” he says, “I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog.”

Smiley he stood scratching his head and looking down at Dan’l a long time, and at last he says, “I do wonder what in the nation that frog throw’d off for—I wonder if there ain’t something the matter with him—he ‘pears to look mighty baggy, somehow,” And he ketched Dan’l by the nap of the neck, and hefted him, and says, “Why, blame my cats if he don’t weigh five poundI” and turned him upside down and he belched out a double handful of shot. And then he see how it was, and he was the maddest man—he set the frog down and took out after that feller, but he never ketched him.

The resemblances are deliciously exact. There you have the wily Boeotian and the wily Jim Smiley waiting—two thousand years apart—and waiting, each equipped with his frog and “laying” for the stranger. A contest is proposed—for money. The Athenian would take a chance “if the other would fetch him a frog “; the Yankee says: “I’m only a stranger here and I ain’t got no frog ; but if I had a frog I’d bet you.” The wily Boeotian and the wily Californian, with that vast gulf of two thousand years between, retire eagerly and go frogging in the marsh; the Athenian and the Yankee remain behind and work a base advantage, the one with pebbles, the other with shot. Presently the contest began. In the one case “they pinched the Boeotian frog”; in the other, “him and the feller touched up the frogs from behind.” The Boeotian frog “gathered himself for a leap” (you can Just see him!), but ” could not move his body in the least”; the Californian frog “give a heave, but it warn’t no use— he couldn’t budge.” In both the ancient and the modern cases the strangers departed with the money. The Boeotian and the Californian wonder what is the matter with their frogs; they lift them and examine; they turn them upside down and out spills the informing ballast.

Yes, the resemblances are curiously exact. I used to tell the story of the Jumping Frog in San Francisco, and presently Artemus Ward came along and wanted it to help fill out a little book which he was about to publish; so I wrote it out and sent it to his publisher, Carleton; but Carleton thought the book had enough matter in it, so he gave the story to Henry Clapp as a present, and Clapp put it in his Saturday Press, and it killed that paper with a suddenness that was beyond praise. At least the paper died with that issue, and none but envious people have ever tried to rob me of the honor and credit of killing it. The ” Jumping Frog” was the first piece of writing of mine that spread itself through the newspapers and brought me into public notice. Consequently, the Saturday Press was a cocoon and I the worm in it; also, I was the gay-colored literary moth which its death set free. This simile has been used before.

Early in ’66 the “Jumping Frog” was issued in book form with other sketches of mine. A year or two later Madame Blano translated it into French and published it in the Revue des Deux Mondes, but the result was not what should have been expected, for the Revue struggled along and pulled through, and is alive yet. I think the fault must have been in the translation. I ought to have translated it myself. I think so because I examined into the matter and finally retranslated the sketch from the French back into English, to see what the trouble was; that is, to see just what sort of a focus the French people got upon it. Then the mystery was explained. In French the story is too confused, and chaotic, and unreposeful, and ungrammatical, and insane; consequently it could only cause grief and sickness—it could not kill. A glance at my retranslation will show the reader that this must be true.

[My Retranslation.]


Eh bien! this Smiley nourished some terriers & rats, and some cocks of combat, and some cats, and all sort of things; and with his rage of betting one no had more of repose. He trapped one day a frog and him imported with him (et I’emporta chez lui) saying that he pretended to make his education. You me believe if you will, but during three months he not has nothing done but to him apprehend to jump (apprendre a sauter) in a court retired of her mansion (de sa maison). And I you respond that he have succeeded. He him gives a small blow by behind, and the instant after you shall see the frog turn in the air like a grease-biscuit, make one summersault, sometimes two, when she was well started, and re-fall upon his feet like a cat. He him had accomplished in the art of to gobble the flies (gober des mouches), and him there exercised continually—so well that a fly at the most far that she appeared was a fly lost. Smiley had custom to say that all which lacked to a frog it was the education, but with the education she could do nearly all—and I him believe. Tenez, I him have seen pose Daniel Webster there upon this plank—Daniel Webster was the name of the frog— and to him sing, “Some flies, Daniel, some flies!”—in a flash of the eye Daniel had bounded and seized a fly here upon the counter, then jumped anew at the earth, where he rested truly to himself scratch the head with his behind-foot, as if he no had not the least idea of his superiority. Never you not have seen frog as modest, as natural, sweet as she was. And when he himself agitated to jump purely and simply upon plain earth, she does more ground in one jump than any beast of his species than you can know.

To jump plain—this was his strong. When he himself agitated for that Smiley multiplied the bets upon her as long as there to him remained a red. It must to know, Smiley was monstrously proud of his frog, and he of it was right, for some men who were traveled, who had all seen, said that they to him would be injurious to him compare to another frog. Smiley guarded Daniel in a little box latticed which he carried by times to the village for some bet.

One day an individual stranger at the camp him arrested with his box and him said:

“What is this that you have then shut up there within?”

Smiley said, with an air indifferent:

“That could be a paroquet, or a syringe (ou un serin), but this no is nothing of such, it not is but a frog.”

The individual it took, it regarded with care, it turned from one side and from the other, then he said:

Tiens in effectI —At what is she good ?”

“My God!” respond Smiley, always with an air disengaged, “she is good for one thing, to my notice, (a mon avis), she can batter in jumping (elle peut batter en sautant) all frogs of the county of Calaveras.”

The individual re-took the box, it examined of new longly, and it rendered to Smiley in saying with an air deliberate:

Eh bien! I no saw not that that frog had nothing of better than each frog.” (Je ne vois pas que cette grenouille ait rien de mieux qu’aucune grenouille). [If that isn’t grammar gone to seed, then I count myself no judge.—M. T.]

“Possible that you not it saw not,” said Smiley, “possible that you—you comprehend frogs; possible that you not you there comprehend nothing; possible that you had of the experience, and possible that you not be but an amateur. Of all manner (de toute maniere) I bet forty dollars that she batter in jumping no matter which frog of the county of Calaveras.”

The individual reflected a second, and said like sad:

“I not am but a stranger here, I no have not a frog; but if I of it had one, I would embrace the bet.”

“Strong, well!” respond Smiley; “nothing of more facility. If you will hold my box a minute, I go you to search a frog (j’irai vous chercher).”

Behold, then, the individual, who guards the box, who puts his forty dollars upon those of Smiley, and who attends (et qui attend). He attended enough longtimes, reflecting all solely. And figure you that he takes Daniel, him opens the mouth by force and with a tea-spoon him fills with shot of the hunt, even him fills just to the chin, then he him puts by the earth. Smiley during these times was at slopping in a swamp. Finally he trapped (attrape) a frog, him carried to that individual, and said:

“Now if you be ready, put him all against Daniel, with their before feet upon the same line, and I give the signal”—then he added: “One, two, three—advance!”

Him and the individual touched their frogs by behind, and the frog new put to jump smartly, but Daniel himself lifted ponderously, exalted the shoulders thus, like a Frenchman—to what good? he could not budge, he is planted solid like a church, he not advance no more than if one him had put at the anchor.

Smiley was surprised and disgusted, but he not himself doubted not of the turn being intended (mais il ne se doutait pas du tour bien entendu). The individual empocketed the silver, himself with it went, and of it himself in going is that he no gives not a jerk of thumb over the shoulder—like that—at the poor Daniel, in saying with his air deliberate—{L’individu empoche l’argent s’en va et en s’en allant est ce qu’il ne donne pas un coup de pouce par-dessus I’epaule, comme ca, au pauvre Daniel, en disant de sen air delibere.)

“Eh bien! I no see not that that frog has nothing of better than another.”

Smiley himself scratched longtimes the head, the eyes fixed upon Daniel, until that which at last he said:

“I me demand how the devil it makes itself that this beast has refused. Is it that she had something? One would believe that she is stuffed.”

He grasped Daniel by the skin of the neck, him lifted and said:

“The wolf me bite ft he no weigh not five pounds.”

He him reversed and the unhappy belched two handfuls of shot (et le malheureux, etc).—When Smiley recognized how it was, he was like mad. He deposited his frog by the earth and ran after that Individual, but he not him caught never.

It may be that there are people who can translate better than I can, but I am not acquainted with them.

So ends the private and public history of the jumping frog of Calaveras County, an incident which has this unique feature about it—that it is both old and new, a “chestnut” and not a ” chestnut”; for it was original when it happened two thousand years ago, and was again original when it happened in California in our own time.



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