Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910)
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171 Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910) The receding frontier was a shaping influence on both the life and career of Samuel Clemens as he reconfigured his persona into Mark Twain, the whitehaired and white-suited (in his final years) patriarch of American literary humor who voiced the spirit and character of the nation. Early on, however, his boyhood experiences in Hannibal, Missouri; his brief career as a steamboat pilot when he became acquainted, he wrote, “with all the different types of human nature that are found in fiction, biography, or history”; and his work as a miner in the frontier territory of Nevada—all contributed to his self-nurtured reputation as a wild man of the West, lately captured and civilized for the edification and entertainment of eastern audiences. Another side of his personality that emerged was one that aspired to respect from genteel literati, to success as a publisher and businessman, and to recognition as an accomplished novelist and author. It was while working for Mississippi valley and western newspapers that Clemens encountered the humor of the Old Southwest, where it was reprinted in their columns. He reviewed favorably Sut Lovingood: Yarns by George Washington Harris in a California newspaper in 1867, and he would borrow some scenes from a story in that collection, as well as a chapter from Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs by Johnson Jones Hooper, for use in two of his later books. Most importantly, Clemens learned how to write by trying his hand at imitating them. Most of the things that would characterize his contributions to American literature he borrowed from them: the effective use of first-person narrators, the use of American language and vernacular in fiction, and an accurate rendition of the brutal and mean nature of existence at the bottom of society. In a sense he was the culmination of the tradition of the humor of the Old Southwest, at once its brightest exemplar and its most important product. It is in that spirit that he is included here with some pieces that reflect his participation in that tradition. Texts:“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” from The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (New York: C. H.Webb, 1867).“The Story of the Old Ram” from Roughing It (Hartford: American, 1872). “Frescoes from the Past” from Life on the Mississippi (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1883). 172 Southern Frontier Humor The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County In compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me from the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler, and inquired after my friend’s friend, Leonidas W. Smiley, as requested to do, and I hereunto append the result. I have a lurking suspicion that Leonidas W. Smiley is a myth; that my friend never knew such a personage; and that he only conjectured that, if I asked old Wheeler about him, it would remind him of his infamous Jim Smiley, and he would go to work and bore me nearly to death with some infernal reminiscence of him as long and tedious as it should be useless to me. If that was the design, it certainly succeeded. I found Simon Wheeler dozing comfortably by the bar-room stove of the old, dilapidated tavern in the ancient mining camp of Angel’s, and I noticed that he was fat and bald-headed, and had an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity upon his tranquil countenance. He roused up and gave me good-day. I told him a friend of mine had commissioned me to make some inquiries about a cherished companion of his boyhood named Leonidas W. Smiley—Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley—a young minister of the Gospel, who he had heard was at one time a resident of Angel’s Camp. I added that, if Mr. Wheeler could tell me any thing about this Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, I would feel under many obligations to him. Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair, and then sat me down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph. He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned the initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm; but all through the interminable narrative there ran a vein of impressive earnestness and sincerity, which showed me plainly that, so far...


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