Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Stories by Mark Twain

Source of book: I own this.

This is one of the weirder book-reading situations I have had since I started blogging. We actually started reading this book last March, while we were camping in the Gold Country. I brought it along because we would start the trip at New Melones Lake, in Calaveras County, just a few miles south of Angels Camp, where the incident allegedly took place. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were literally across the road from where Twain’s cabin stood - just up at the top of the hill overlooking the canyon which is now the lake. Angels Camp, by the way, has little going for it other than Twain, which is why frog imagery is everywhere. This story IS the identity of this town, and they milk it for all it is worth. And who can blame them? But, while you are there checking out the frogs, the museum is really very nice and worth the few bucks to get in. Plenty of history.

So why write this review now? Well, we got busy on other things, and have had difficulty finishing it. I feel bad that I don’t read to the kids as much as I used to - although we have done a lot of audiobooks. The problem is that we have ended up using our evenings while my wife works to focus on science, and that has left less time for reading. Too much to do, too little time.

But anyway, the kids loved this book.

This book comes from my Reader’s Digest World’s Best Reading collection. These are decent quality hardbacks that I have painstakingly collected at library sales, used bookstores, and online (with help from my lovely wife) over the last 20+ years. Since it contains a number of stories of various length, I am going to address each one separately.

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”

This is the best known Twain short story - and one of the best known stories in literature. Thus, I think it is no spoiler to discuss the plot. This tall tale, supposedly heard by Twain from an old miner in Angel’s Camp, is a classic in the American tradition of “tall tales.” While I have run across a few stories in this vein from elsewhere, this is a predominantly American literary form, and reflects part of our national character. (One of the better parts, I would say.) The idea too of the rambling teller of tales that never comes to the point, no matter how much the listener tries to prod him is also an American archetype. Likewise, the idea of sandbagging a contest is quite American. We have always had a soft spot for the loveable cheater, the man sharp enough to rip off the Devil himself.

Twain was probably the best author of tall tales, but others arose at the same time. I would recommend, for example, Bret Harte (who, like Twain, lived in the Gold Country and wrote about its denizens) and Ring Lardner. The kids did find the story amusing, and it fit well with visiting the reconstructed cabin up on Gold Hill.

“The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”

My second daughter (the cynical and macabre one) really loved this story. To be honest, I liked it too when I first read it as a kid - and it seems darkly appropriate these days.

A stranger passes through Hadleyburg, a town renowned for its uprightness, where its citizens are trained from birth to be honest and upright. Something happens, though, and the stranger is offended - the story never tells us exactly how, but hints that Hadleyburg didn’t care about the opinion of others. I kind of presume that the offense was self-righteousness in some form. The stranger swears revenge, and hatches an elaborate plot to make the town destroy itself.

He sends a bag containing a fortune in money, and instructions that it is for the man who did him a kindness. The person who did the kindness, of course, must identify himself by naming the kindness - in fact the specific words he said to the stranger - in order to claim the money. After a delay, the stranger then sent a letter to each of the leading citizens in town supposedly giving them the secret key to the mystery. However, it is incomplete, and the townspeople are exposed as liars as they each claim to know the phrase. However that phrase is incomplete.

One couple, however, is not exposed, due to an accident of fate. Their consciences are torn, but they cannot bring themselves to confess that they too were lying. They get the money, but it gives them no pleasure, they become paranoid, and they die soon after finally confessing their guilt.

The phrase, by the way, is, “"You are far from being a bad man—go, and reform—or, mark my words—some day, for your sins you will die and go to hell or Hadleyburg—try and make it the former.”

There is another line in this story, however, that I really love. John & Mary Richards - the couple that will eventually be driven mad by their guilt - are discussing the potential windfall. They are poor, and really could use the money. They are, unlike most of the citizens of Hadleyburg, acutely self aware, and it is impossible to not pity them as they too succumb. Early on, they discuss the problem that the town faces: it has been trained in honesty, but are weak, unprepared to face real ethical temptation.

“But Mary, you know how we have been trained all our lives long, like the whole village, till it is absolutely second nature to us to stop not a single moment to think when there’s an honest thing to be done--”
“Oh, I know it, I know it -- it’s been one everlasting training and training and training in honesty -- honesty shielded, from the very cradle, against every possible temptation, and so it’s artificial honesty, and weak as water when temptation comes, as we have seen this night. God knows I never had shade nor shadow of a doubt of my petrified and indestructible honesty until now -- and now, under the very first big and real temptation, I -- Edward, it is my belief that this town’s honesty is as rotten as mine is; as rotten as yours is. It is a mean town, a hard and stingy town, and hasn’t a virtue in the world but this honesty it is so celebrated for and so conceited about; and so help me, I do believe that if ever the day comes that its honesty falls under great temptation, its grand reputation will go to ruin like a house of cards.”

During my days in a certain cult group - and indeed in Homeschool culture as it later developed - it was obvious that Twain, like Hawthorne, was persona non grata for his skewering of religious hypocrisy. But Twain got what many of the religious of his day - and ours - did not. When Huck Finn struggles with his conscience as to whether to turn in his friend Jim, a runaway slave, his religion tells him to follow the law and betray Jim. Huck rejects this, and decides he would rather go to hell than betray his own compassionate values. And I think this is what Twain is getting at here. Hadleyburg has spent its years breeding self-righteous “honesty” at the expense of compassion. “A mean town, a hard and stingy town,” as Mary realizes.

And, as I also have noted over my years in this life, building walls around ourselves to keep from temptation doesn’t in fact make us strong. The more we try to protect ourselves - and our children - from contamination, the less truly moral we become. And the more we keep ourselves from the “undesireables,” the more we substitute self-righteousness for compassion. I would argue that this last election is merely the final step in that conversion.

This is definitely one of Twain’s finest stories, and one that stays with you forever after you read it.

“A Dog’s Tale”

Oh boy, this one is a doozy. I did not remember this one at all, and got part way in before realizing this story may or may not be appropriate for children. Twain was vehemently opposed to vivisection, and wrote this story in an attempt to expose the horrors. Basically, this is a mother dog’s viewpoint of her puppy having hits brains pulped while it is alive. Yes, we finished the story. My kids are pretty used to difficult topics, and I would rather they be aware that sheltered. But caution on this one, your kids might not handle it well.

“A Fable”

This short, well, fable in the vein of Aesop, is about the nature of perception and the way our own biases affect it. A group of animals discover a mirror lying on the ground, and think it is a hole. But they cannot agree about what is in the hole, because they see themselves reflected. As the cat, the only one crafty enough to understand what has happened, gives the moral, “You can find in a text whatever you bring, if you will stand between it and the mirror of your imagination.”

As many have noted about the Bible, if you want to burn witches, you’ll find justification. If you want to feed the hungry and welcome the immigrant, that is there too. What you choose says more about yourself than anything else….

“The Story of the Good Little Boy” and “The Story of the Bad Little Boy”

These two are a matched set. To best understand them requires a knowledge of the popular moralist genre from the Victorian Era. Twain skewers the genre, while also satirizing the times in which he lived. The “Good Little Boy” is a Pharisee - he wants nothing more than to have his picture in a Sunday School book someday as a hero. And instead of rising, everything goes wrong, and bad things happen to him. That’s fairly typical Twain - goody-goody little brother Sid from Tom Sawyer is perhaps the best portrayal of that sort of person.

The Bad Little Boy is a bit more complex, however. Twain doesn’t appear to approve of him either, even though he succeeds. Rather, Twain takes an opportunity to point out that being a horrible person was a pretty good way to succeed in the Gilded Age. Corruption, dishonesty, bullying, and general atrocious behavior was a path to success, not censure. Sounds a bit familiar.

“The £1,000,000 Bank Note”

This is another of Twain’s humorous yet pointed tales. Two wealthy London brothers decide to make a bet as to what would happen if they gave a random person a million pound bank note with the instructions that he was to pay it back in 30 days. The note and instructions were handed to the narrator, and the agent for the brothers disappeared without a trace. Also in the instructions was the mention of the bet (but no clue as to what the bet was) and a promise that if the recipient caused the one brother to win the bet, then the recipient would be given a job of his choice.

With a gigantic bit of currency in his pocket - but no way of spending it - the narrator sets out to figure out how to leverage this bit of good or bad luck. After all, showing up with a single bill worth about $100 million in today’s money isn’t helpful. Nobody can give you change, and walking up to a bank with it may get you arrested.

How the narrator turns the bill to his advantage is both humorous and perceptive, as it is the leverage of human nature that will cause success or failure. To a degree, Twain is pointing out that appearing wealthy can get you almost as far as being wealthy - and that privilege itself is more of an advantage than we appreciate.

“Jim Baker’s Bluejay Yarn”

My kids (with the exception of the cynical child) liked this story best. Another tall tale, it has endured in various forms throughout our culture. (Most notable is the Chip and Dale cartoon.) A blue jay sees a knothole in some wood, and tries to fill it with acorns for the winter. But it never seems to get full. Because, of course, it is a hole in the side of a cabin - and even a hundred jays probably couldn’t fill that up.

A few years back, we actually saw something similar. Out here, we have Acorn Woodpeckers (among the dozen or so species of woodpeckers), who peck out holes in dead trees and store acorns in there. While camping, a bird kept filling up this hole in the side of a metal power pole. You could hear it rattle down to the bottom. Over and over. But filling a hollow pole a foot wide and 40 feet tall is tough.

“A Medieval Romance”

This is an unusual story, to say the least. It is a twist on the inheritance drama, and a statement on gender roles.

Two brothers wish to have their progeny inherit the throne. The older brother’s child will get the job, unless she is female and the younger brother’s child is male.

So, the younger brother names his daughter Conrad and raises her as a male. The two of them grow up, and things happen. Constance, the rightful heir to the throne, falls in love with a man who abandons her after impregnating her. Before this comes to light, Constance falls in love with Conrad, but Conrad spurns her for obvious reasons.

Then, when the illegitimate child comes to light, Constance will be subject to the death penalty. Unless, and only if the king pardons her. Conrad takes the risk of assuming the Ducal throne to pronounce judgment - it can only be done from there - knowing that if she is exposed as female, she will die. Conrad offers pardon if Constance will name the father. Constance, still smarting from her rejection by Conrad, names Conrad as the father.

Twain ends the story with Conrad fainting, and leaves it to the reader to extricate the parties from the mess Twain got them in.

“The $30,000 Bequest”

Twain was fascinated with money and its effects. Like Hadleyburg and the million pound note, this story explores the way money changes people. A hardworking middle class woman is told by a rich relative that he will leave them $30,000 on his death. Provided, however, that she could prove to the executors that she had not mentioned the gift to anyone, had not inquired about his health, and did not attend the funeral. This would be a boon to her and her family, and they are excited, but of course cannot tell anyone.

Unfortunately, this “wealth” changes them. They begin to build castles in the sky and imaginary investments that eventually build to an impossible sum. It is a stock market bubble in their own minds. And it crashes in their own minds too. But in real life, they begin to live as if they were rich, no longer living below their means, or content to be ordinary people.

When the bequest ultimately turns out to be a fraud, their world crashes down.

“The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm”

Another tall tale, about the burglar alarm from hell. After meeting a burglar in his house, the McWilliamses decide to get an alarm, which turns out to wake them up at night and yet literally allows the burglars to use the top floor as their base of operations.

This is Twain in his slapstick mode, taking things to a ridiculous extreme. But also, it is hilarious for another reason: the formal dialogue between Mr. McWilliams and the burglars.

“Then one night we smelled smoke, and I was advised to get up and see what the matter was. I lit a candle, and started toward the stairs, and met a burglar coming out of a room with a basket of tinware, which he had mistaken for solid silver in the dark. He was smoking a pipe. I said, 'My friend, we do not allow smoking in this room.' He said he was a stranger, and could not be expected to know the rules of the house: said he had been in many houses just as good as this one, and it had never been objected to before. He added that as far as his experience went, such rules had never been considered to apply to burglars, anyway.
"I said: 'Smoke along, then, if it is the custom, though I think that the conceding of a privilege to a burglar which is denied to a bishop is a conspicuous sign of the looseness of the times. But waiving all that, what business have you to be entering this house in this furtive and clandestine way, without ringing the burglar alarm?'
"He looked confused and ashamed, and said, with embarrassment: 'I beg a thousand pardons. I did not know you had a burglar alarm, else I would have rung it. I beg you will not mention it where my parents may hear of it, for they are old and feeble, and such a seemingly wanton breach of the hallowed conventionalities of our Christian civilization might all too rudely sunder the frail bridge which hangs darkling between the pale and evanescent present and the solemn great deeps of the eternities. May I trouble you for a match?'__
"I said: 'Your sentiments do you honor, but if you will allow me to say it, metaphor is not your best hold. Spare your thigh; this kind light only on the box, and seldom there, in fact, if my experience may be trusted. But to return to business: how did you get in here?'
"'Through a second-story window.'
“It was even so. I redeemed the tinware at pawnbroker's rates, less cost of advertising, bade the burglar good-night, closed the window after him, and retired to headquarters to report.”

“Was It Heaven or Hell?”

This is kind of a “The Lady or the Tiger” sort of story, and a bit moralizing to boot. Basically, daughter is raised by mom and the aunts who are insistent that she never, ever lie no matter what the circumstances. Then mother and daughter both fall ill, and each is counting on the other to live to continue their fight. A moral dilemma ensues, and there is the question of heaven or hell for the participants.

This wasn’t my favorite story, as I felt Twain handled it with a heavier touch than most of his satire. It felt clumsy.

“Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven”

This one, on the other hand, is brilliant. It is a great takedown of common tropes about the afterlife, from the harps and clouds to the need of some to experience celebrity for their conversions. Twain is actually fairly respectful of religion in this one, but gently laughs at a lot of the silliness that it can inspire. Particularly perceptive is the distinction between those quietly good to others, such as a man who fed the poor without anyone knowing, and those whose ostentation of their virtue find themselves either disappointed in their reception or oblivious to the fact that others are laughing behind their backs at their silly pomp. Twain also makes the point - which I find quite good - is that you can’t escape yourself, even in heaven. Some can manage to make heaven itself their own hell.

Twain wrote a whole lot more stories than this - the complete collection would be a much bigger book. However, these are certainly among his best, and a good place to start. Mark Twain did a lot to shape my own thinking during my childhood. My mother read us Huckleberry Finn when we were pretty young, and we discussed the racial and religious issues as a result. If I were to trace my own views on many of these issues, they were inculcated by my parents at this time. A sense of justice, and the need for a Christian to have empathy for those outside of race and religion. Books by authors like Twain were an important part of developing empathy and seeing issues from the perspective of others. I also believe that Twain opened my eyes at a young age to the fact that those outside the Christian bubble see us differently. And, contrary to the “alternative facts” offered by the White Evangelical Persecution Industrial Complex, our poor reputation has nothing to do with our faith itself, but our tendency to be “mean, hard, and stingy” to those outside our tribe.



 Reconstructed Mark Twain cabin on Gold Hill

Water Wagon at the Angel's Camp Museum. 
Plenty of great vehicles and equipment on display.

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