Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

The Celebrated Jumping Frog
by Mark Twain

I recently met a former California native who is now living in the Boston area and is an avid Red Sox fan. During our conversation the discussion turned back to California and Calaveras County was mentioned - had I ever heard of it? I remembered the title of the famous Mark Twain story, so I said I did. This led to talk of the Calaveras County Fair, which continues to this day and present day life in California. I try to avoid mentioning today's politics in this blog, so I won't go down that road. But a look at Mark Twain, one of my favorite authors, is certainly called for.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in 1835 in Florida, Missouri. He is of course most famous for his years growing up in Hannibal, Missouri, years that he immortalized in his own writings. Living on the banks of the Mississippi, before the outbreak of the Civil War, was paradise for such an imaginative youth. Growing up on the river, playing at being Pirates with his friends or dreaming of becoming that god-like creature, a riverboat pilot, gave Samuel Clemens all of the inspiration he needed to complete his most important works. (Ray Bradbury is another great author that comes to mind who received so much of his inspiration from his childhood).

After first working as a typesetter/printer and a sometime newspaper reporter, Sam Clemens did achieve his dream of becoming a riverboat pilot. Serving his apprenticeship under Horace Bixby, he memorized some 2,000 miles of the Mississippi River, along with all of its twists, turns, snags and sandbars - both upstream and downstream. This amazing feat of memory was required of all riverboat pilots, for which they were well-paid. Unfortunately for Clemens the coming of war in 1861 disrupted river traffic and put him out of a job. It did, however, provide the inspiration for his pen name Mark Twain. (Mark Twain was the term used to denote two fathoms (12 feet) of water under the keel of a riverboat).

Samuel Clemens missed serving in the Civil War by going west with his brother Orion. Orion had been appointed Secretary of the territory of Nevada and Sam took the opportunity to join him. Clemens again picked up his writing career in the boomtown of Virginia City, Nevada by writing for local newspapers. (He also tried his hand at mining, at which he failed).

For a time he wrote for a newspaper in San Francisco and it was while he was in California that he experienced life in the gold mining camps. A story he heard in the camp of Angel, California led to his writing the short story that launched his literary career - The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. (The frog jumping tradition continues at the annual Calaveras County fair).

Some of Clemens happiest and most prolific years (1874-1891) were spent in the house he and his wife Olivia had built in Hartford, Connecticut. His two most famous novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, were completed while living here. The novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered his greatest work.

Samuel Clemens later years were unhappy years due to the premature deaths of two of his three daughters and by the death of his beloved wife Livy in 1904. Samuel Clemens died in 1910, while Halley's Comet was visible in the night sky - just as it was upon his birth in 1835.

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