The Story That Leapfrogged Twain to Literary Stardom

Today’s slide show: Images from Murphys. Today’s audio: Thousands of people come to Angel’s Camp for the frog sport. Today’s video: Angel’s Camp lawyer Ted Laskin on living with Mark Twain’s spirit in “Frogtown, U.S.A.”

Up and down California’s remarkable Highway 49 are formerly bustling mining towns now mostly abandoned. We took the road south from Placerville, stopped for lunch in a town called Nashville—all that is left of the town is the restaurant—and wound up, two hours later, in a beautifully preserved old mining village called Murphys. The trip was meant to be the purest pleasure, but three minutes into it, Tallulah noticed Dixie playing with her bargain Barbie—purchased five days ago from the rapacious snow chain salesman in Donner Pass—reached across the chasm between their car seats and took it back. For the next hour and a half, until we arrived in Calaveras County, Dixie wailed and Tallulah argued loudly with her mother about the principle of private property.

In theory at least, we are now traveling in much the same spirit as Twain traveled after he left Virginia City. He was no longer as immediately interested in gold as he was in literary material, and he was visiting places, doomed to extinction, in which the most interesting things had happened a decade earlier. Having quit Virginia City with vague plans to go to New York and trade mining shares, Twain had gotten himself no farther than San Francisco. There, still obscure, he had become a reporter on a daily paper, assigned to get the daily facts and to print them without passion or embellishment. (“Fearful drudgery, soulless drudgery, and almost destitute of interest,” is how he described the work.) He was no better at conventional newspaper reporting than he’d been at conventional newspaper editing, and he soon got himself fired. He had some success as a free-lance magazine writer, but not enough to live well on. His status by late 1864 sounds about the same as, say, a less-well-paid contributing editor to Details or Vanity Fair. When he landed himself in hot water (he’d offended the San Francisco police chief), he did his usual thing and ran away. This time, he struck out for the California gold country with three brothers named Gillis who had staked a claim on Jackass Hill, about 10 miles from where we are staying tonight.

Here in California gold country is where Twain made a national reputation for himself. He’d later write to his favorite Gillis brother, Jim, that his career really began in the one-room cabin on top of Jackass Hill when he wrote a story called “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.” He’d heard it when he was trapped with the Gillises one rainy night in a tavern in the nearby town of Angel’s Camp, from a bartender named Ben Coons. The youngest Gillis brother, Billy, later recalled:

When Sam [Twain] came back [to Jackass Hill] he went to work on the Jumping Frog story, staying in the cabin while we went out to work at our claims and writing with a pencil. He used to say: “If I can write that story the way Ben Coon told it, that frog will jump around the world.”

Twain himself, much later, described Ben Coon in a piece about his story for the North American Review:

A dull person, and ignorant; he has no gift as a storyteller. … [I]n his mouth this episode was merely history—history and statistics; and the gravest sort of history, too. … [H]e saw no humor in his tale, neither did his listeners; neither he nor they ever smiled or laughed.

I believe him—in this case. Twain’s humor is all about unearthing laughter where earlier prospectors discovered only gravity. And the teller’s failure to see the humor in the story of a jumping frog grounded by quail shot that had been shoved into it is what makes the jumping frog story so funny—and, no doubt, why Twain wanted to write it up in the first place. After the story appeared in a New York City paper, the New York correspondent for a San Francisco paper reported:

Mark Twain’s story in the Saturday Press of November 18th. Called “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” has set all New York in a roar, and he may be said to have made his mark. I have been asked fifty times about it and its author, and the papers are copying it far and near. It is voted the best thing of the day.

Twain tore that clipping out and pasted it to the next letter he sent his mother and sister, a sure sign that he was genuinely, and not ironically, proud of it. Here in Calaveras County, with a story about a frog, is where probably the most famous, and certainly the most representative, writer America has ever produced launched his career—and he knew it.

Arriving in Murphys, Tabitha and I ditched the children with the nanny—they deserved worse—and set off for the Angel’s Camp Tavern. We searched high and low for the place Twain had heard his frog story, and in the searching encountered, spliced between a dozen or so giant statues of frogs and maybe five times as many public frog paintings, the Jumping Frog Motel, Gold Frog Realty, Frogtown USA RV Camp, Frog Hollow Landscaping, and Froggy’s Auto Wash (“Celebrating 75 years of Frog Freedom”). When I asked a shopkeeper where I might find the legendary tavern where the jumping frog leapt into Mark Twain’s imagination, she said she’d never heard of it but told us we should come back for the annual frog-jumping competition, staged since 1928, which now draws tens of thousands of visitors and generates big revenues for the town. The obsession with frogs was going strong, but its origin was only dimly appreciated. The tavern, we discovered, had long ago been turned into an auto-body shop.

We headed out of town, and drove maybe 10 miles to Jackass Hill. “A living grave” Twain called the place, because the only people who lived there were old miners—like his friends the Gillis brothers—who didn’t know when to give up and were digging themselves into oblivion. From Twain’s Autobiography:

These friends of mine had been seeking that fortune daily for eighteen years; they had never found it but they were not at all discouraged; they were quite sure they would find it some day. During the three months I was with them they found nothing, but we had a fascinating and delightful good time trying.

Mark Twain’s cabin is barely there

We follow the signs to “Mark Twain’s cabin” and wind up the gentle hill, still pocked with old mining holes. Twain had spent just three months in this cabin, but it is where he first struck gold as a writer. It’s the one place of his I’d always wanted to see—more than his house in Hartford or his hotel rooms in San Francisco—because it was the last place he was nearly unself-conscious about what he was doing. Besides, a lot of people have lived in Virginia City and San Francisco. About five ever survived on top of Jackass Hill.

At length we round a bend and see the black iron fence that guards the … brand new cabin! No, the brand new fraction of a cabin. Under construction! There’s nothing here at all but a wall and part of a roof of gleaming new pine. And there’s a sign, “Please Pardon the Mess: The Mark Twain Cabin Is Under Reconstruction. Completion Is Expected in Fall of 2003.” As I stand slack-jawed, my wife howling with laughter, I hear an alarming sound.



I turn. Twenty yards away, in an empty field, unattended, brays a lone jackass.

Things to know before you go on the Mark Twain Trail.

Check out our earlier trips to Kashmir, Zambia, the Outlaw Trail, the Blues Highway, the Galápagos Islands, Costa Rica, Scandinavia, and Montreal.