twain and jumping frogs

Jumping frogBen Tarnoff at Lapham's Quarterly:

“Jim Smiley,” subsequently retitled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” lifted Twain to fame and laid the foundation for his later triumphs, but it isn’t especially funny anymore. What once made bankers in New York and boatmen in Baton Rouge laugh out loud would now at best elicit a halfhearted chuckle from a generous reader. It’s hard to say exactly why. Humor eludes elaborate theorizing, but it usually relies on context: on shared assumptions about the permissible and the taboo, the familiar and the strange. Some humor stays funny because its underlying truths remain in force—the flirty banter in The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, or the dick jokes inTristram Shandy. A large part of the pleasure in laughing at old material is realizing how little has changed. Other humor, by contrast, loses its power as its context fades.

“Jim Smiley” drew upon a context that has changed beyond recognition: the American West. More than just a place, the West was an idea; it spawned national legends, bestselling authors, and a menagerie of pop-culture entertainments, from the nineteenth century “horse operas” performed on Broadway to the dime novels featuring frontier outlaws. What made “Jim Smiley” such a hit was Twain’s upending of the conventions of this world, with a picture of the West at once recognizable and not.

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