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Planet of the Frogs: Thoreau, Anderson, and Murakami

From: Narrative
Volume 21, Number 3, October 2013
pp. 346-356 | 10.1353/nar.2013.0018

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Frogs have consistently inspired the literary imagination, from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1849 black-comic tale “Hop-Frog,” featuring a “freak” seeking revenge on a harsh king, to Mark Twain’s 1865 hoax, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” based upon an incredible folktale from the heyday of the Gold Rush, to Loren Eiseley’s 1978 piece of nature writing “The Dance of the Frogs,” in which the “discovery of latent stores of energy and agility” (113) is transcendentally related to amphibia, down to Patrick Süskind’s 1985 magic realist novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, whose anti-hero, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (or “frog” in French), is endowed with hyperosmia, a keen sense of smell. Very recently, in her 2011 keynote lecture “Global America Revisited: Ezra Pound, Yone Noguchi, and Modernist Japonisme,” delivered at the fifth Nanzan American Studies Summer Seminar, Anita Patterson pointed out that Ezra Pound could not have launched the Imagist poetry movement without the trans-national impact of Yone Noguchi, a.k.a. Yonejiro Noguchi, the first Japanese poet to compose poems in English, and a figure who provided insight into links between American Renaissance poet Walt Whitman’s pathos and seventeenth-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho’s haiku. Basho’s haiku include the well-known masterpiece featuring frogs: “Furu ike ya / Kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto” (Into an ancient pond / a frog jumps / splash of water). However improbable it might seem at first sight, at some level, is it not true that without Basho’s fascination with the splash of a frog in the seventeenth century, Ezra Pound could not have shaped the modernist sensibility dominant throughout the first half of the twentieth century?

Be that as it may, what most inspires my present essay derives from Wai Chee Dimock’s recent lecture, “Thoreau’s Green Infrastructure” (2010), in which she points out the contrast between the frogs depicted in Chapter Four of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) and the frogs represented by Emily Yoffe’s New York Times Magazine article in a 1992 issue, “The Silence of the Frogs.” Let us begin by glancing at Thoreau’s pastoral characterization of the frogs in the chapter of Walden entitled “Sounds”:

A mink steals out of the marsh before my door and seizes a frog by the shore. . . . Late in the evening I heard the distant rumbling of wagons over bridges—a sound heard farther than almost any other at night—the baying of dogs, and sometimes again the lowing of some disconsolate cow in a distant barn-yard. In the mean-while all the shore rang with the trump of bullfrogs, the sturdy spirits of ancient wine-bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, trying to sing a catch in their Stygian lake—if the Walden nymphs will pardon the comparison, for though there are almost no weeds, there are frogs there—who would fain keep up the hilarious rules of their old festal tables, though their voices have waxed hoarse and solemnly grave, mocking at mirth, and the wine has lost its flavor, and become only liquor to distend their paunches, and sweet intoxication never comes to drown the memory of the past, but mere saturation and waterloggedness and distention. The most aldermanic, with his chin upon a heart-leaf, which serves for a napkin to his drooling chaps, under this northern shore quaffs a deep draught of the once scorned water, and passes round the cup with the ejaculation tr-r-r-oonk, tr-r-r—oonk, tr-r-r-oonk! and straightway comes over the water from some distant cove the same password repeated, where the next in seniority and girth has gulped down to his mark; and when this observance has made the circuit of the shores, then ejaculates the master of ceremonies, with satisfaction, tr-r-r-oonk! and each in his turn repeats the same down to the least distended, leakiest, and flabbiest paunched, that there be no mistake; and then the howl goes round again and again, until the sun disperses the morning mist, and only the patriarch is not under the pond, but vainly bellowing troonk from time to time, and pausing for a reply...



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