On November 18th 1865, a New York based publication called The Saturday Press published “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” . This was a story written by a relatively unknown writer called Mark Twain.
Mark Twain was the pseudonym of Samuel Clemens. Clemens was born in 1835 in Florida, Missouri. He was largely self educated as his father died when he was just eleven years old. He read voraciously in public libraries and was a keen observer of society. As a consequence he became renowned for his light, humorous fiction and played a pivotal role in the development of American letters. He drew on the memories of his childhood, the rugged nature of the landscape and the bluff characters who lived in such surroundings.
When he left school he acquired an apprenticeship on a steamboat. He later took the pen name “mark twain” as an homage to his boating days. This was a term used to denote the safe navigational depth of the river, which was two fathoms. His career as a steamboat pilot ended when the American Civil War broke out. Twain briefly enlisted for the Confederacy but he was not suited to military life and left after two weeks. At the same time he attempted to break into journalism.
He led a peripatetic life, travelling across most of the American West and supplemented his journalistic career with various odd jobs. This included a stint as a miner in Nevada. Although this was short lived he was fascinated by the people who worked alongside him. The harsh existence that these men endured was tempered by a shared sense of ribald humour and a genuine feeling of camaraderie, both necessary tools for survival.
The experience of living and working amongst the Nevada miners inspired the story of the “celebrated jumping frog”. The story is based on an anecdote told to a visitor about a compulsive gambler. The gambler was willing to bet on a pair of jumping frogs, unaware that the rival frog had been fed lead shot to make it sluggish. The scam is revealed when the frog supposedly regurgitates before the contest. The visitor does not believe the story and is about to leave, but the storyteller persuades him to stay as he has another story about a one eyed cow.
The story became wildly popular across America, as the characters seemed so real and familiar. This warm and affectionate tale made Twain a household name and also a literary phenomenon. Twain published further works of fiction in his lifetime including “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” . Twain`s gift was his ability to capture the raw essence of the American sensibility but in a way that was never condescending or insulting.