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Vernacular Realism The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and The Mysterious Stranger

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Samuel Longhorn Clemens, under the pseudonym Mark Twain, uses southwestern dialects and local vernaculars to create realistic characters that accurately reflect the people and familiar scenes of mid-nineteenth century Southern American life. In the stories “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and “The Mysterious Stranger” Twain uses dialect and the local vernacular as a powerful instrument for deflating hypocrisy and pretension. Out of respect for the simple things, Twain chooses a plain style of clear writings that incorporates the most prevalent dialect and most readily understood style of speaking common to the South.

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Dialect is one of the elements of local color that Twain is famous for incorporating into his writings in the name of realism. Local color involves not only the language of an area but also the clothes, customs, and traditions of a particular region. Twain is famous for using the aspects of local color to lend a realistic air to his characters, making the reader feel that they can identify where the characters are from and how they must be thinking and feeling. In addition to the Southern dialect, Twain also incorporates the voice of the East, the voice of education, a symbol for the civilized yet naïve Easterner.

The setting of “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is a mining town in the West. Because “Jumping Frog” is a framed narrative as well as a tall tale the initial story begins with a short introduction given by an Eastern narrator who announces he is looking for the boyhood companion of Leonidas W. Smiley. Although the Eastern narrator suspects the search for Smiley is nothing more than a ploy to allow Simon Wheeler to speak of “his infamous Jim Smiley” and “bore (him) to death with some exasperating reminiscence as long and as tedious as it should be useless” the narrator continues his search because he is complying “with the request of a friend” “who wrote . . . from the East” (Twain 1). The narrator uses words and phrases such as “In compliance with the request of a friend,” “hereto append the result,” “personage,” and “conjectured” in order to set himself apart from the Southern world the reader will soon be deeply immersed within. The choice of language for the narrator also helps to emphasize the frame built around the tall tale narrative. The use of Standard English by the narrator is intended to “indicate merited social, moral, and intellectual position” (Sewell 87). The narrator’s speech is free from grammatical errors of regionalisms, although this successfully draws attention to the narrator’s level of education and breeding, the narrator’s linguistic precision makes him less of a character and more of an opposite to Wheeler. While Wheeler’s “heavily shaded dialect . . . mark him as an occupant of the lowest rung of white society”, the narrator’s “correct and colorless speech guarantees his respectability” (87).

The narrator finds Wheeler “dozing” in front of a “dilapidated tavern in the decayed mining camp of Angel’s” (Twain 1). The narrator goes on to describe Wheeler as “fat and bald, and had an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity upon his tranquil countenance” (1). In these phrases Twain is able to convey his idea of the Eastern view of the Southern people. Moreover, it is obvious the narrator does not have a positive opinion of the mining camp nor does he consider Wheeler to be an educated man of a similar social status (Kuhnert). The narrator goes on to describe his distaste for Wheeler and his lack of confidence in the information Wheeler is about to impart upon him by saying Wheeler “Backed me into a corner and blockaded me with his chair, and then sat down and reeled off the monotonous narrative” (Twain 1).

As Wheeler takes control of the story the language changes from the more formal Standard English to Southern vernacular English filled with regionalisms. Wheeler’s monologue is riddled with colloquialisms and grammatical anomalies such as “fellar”, “the big flume warn’t finished when he first come to town”, “curiousest”, “so’s”, “uncommon lucky”, “come out winner”, “laying for”, “no solit’ry thing”, “Take ary side you please”, “you’d find him flush or you’d find him busted”, “reg’lar”, and “and so he was too”(2). By peppering nearly every sentence with Southern vernacular Twain exaggerates the vernacular spoken by Wheeler in order to devalue the background story told by the narrator and add value to the inner story told by Wheeler. In order to lend Wheeler credibility, Twain must convince his reader that Wheeler is an authentic Southerner. Twain presents Wheeler as the polar opposite of the Eastern narrator who began the story. By employing Americanisms and colloquialisms consciously, Twain brings the spoken language of America during its most American period into literature and adds validity to the people that spoke it. (Emberson 19).

Twain give Wheeler Southern inflection dropping the final consonant from the end of most words to create a more realistic southern sound. Twain has Wheeler say words like “doin’” and “kep’”(Twain 4), dropping the initial consonant in words like “’peared” or “’em” (5) and dropping the middle of words like “Dan’l”. To reinforce the southern vernacular spoken by Wheeler, Twain chose words carefully and frequently substituted the letter ‘n’ for the word ‘and’, slurring the n into the preceding word. Some examples of the slurred in would be “better’n” and “tis” (4). Twain also uses alternate spellings of certain words that does not change the actual pronunciation of the word but instead adds a Southern intonation such as “ketched” and “bannanner” to continually remind the reader that “a Southerner talks music”(6). Twain was always aware that Southern “words may lack charm to the eye, in print, but they have it to the ear (Emberson 12). Twain wanted to make the reader aware of the unique Southern intonation in addition to the familiar words and phrases commonly linked to Southerners.

Works Cited

Emberson, Frances Guthrie, PhD. “Mark Twain’s Vocabulary: A General Survey.” The University of Missouri Studies. X (1935) 5-35.

Kuhnert, Daniela. “Mark Twain: The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” American West Literature. 03 Jan. 2001. Technsche University Chemnitz. 30 May, 2004 /phil/amerikanistik/projekte/west/markt.htm

Twain, Mark. “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Kaplan, Justin., ed. The Signet Classic Book of Mark Twain’s Short Stories. New York: New American Library, 1985. 1-6.

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Sewell, David R. Mark Twain’s Languages: Discourse, Dialogue, and Linguistic Variety. Berkley: University of California Press, 1987.

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