Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Notorious Jumping Reader of Calaveras County: Twain, Blanchot, and a Dialectic of Storytelling

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Notorious Jumping Reader of Calaveras County: Twain, Blanchot, and a Dialectic of Storytelling

Article excerpt

Boredom! He smokes his hookah, while he dreams Of gibbets, weeping tears he cannot smother. You know this dainty monster, too, it seems--Hypocrite reader!--You!--My twin!--My brother!--Charles Baudelaire, "Au Lecteur" (trans. Roy Cambell)

Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.--Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller"

Mark Twain's well-known story, "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" unfolds as its framing narrator's recollection of a time when he finds himself cornered and bored to death by a tedious storyteller: "and he would go to work and bore me to death with some exasperating reminiscence of him as long and as tedious as it should be useless to me. If that was his design, he succeeded" (589). "Death" by boredom, however, does not bring about the end of the narrator's life, and in fact, our narrator ultimately manages to escape from his storyteller and pass along the entire "exasperating reminiscence" to us, the readers of Twain's story. Readers have long recognized that Twain's presentation of a storyteller who is himself unaware of the "ridiculous and funny" nature of his story makes the narrative result all the more humorous, and that the "Jumping Frog" illustrates the technique of calmly passing along the story of someone being bored to death by a story in order to transform boredom into humor. In this essay, I address the specific stages of this narrative process: What sort of death is meant by the phrase "bored to death," and what does the reframing of the original story do for readers of Twain's text?

Toward an answer, I argue that Twain's portrayal of humor-by-way-of-boredom suggests Maurice Blanchot's phenomenological view of freedom-by-way-of-death. As jokes may comprise the provocative object of Freud's investigation of the unconscious, so might Twain's popular, seemingly simple tale help to illuminate the subtle features of narrative theory. By reading Blanchot's essay, "Literature and the Right to Death," alongside Twain's "Jumping Frog," I trace the phenomenological nature of the story's humor as it dialectically encounters its negative other. This humorous experience of the negative, in turn, precipitates a "death" that stands between and defines the relationship of speaker and listener, or writer and reader. In short, this essay follows the experiences of a reader of Twain's story who discovers the implications of Blanchot's assertion that "speech is a warning that death is loose in the world, that it has suddenly appeared between me, as I speak, and the being I address" (43). For these two writers, death--the object of jokes and parody for as long as stories have been told--marks a narrative limit, the end of one state of consciousness and the beginning of another.

In "How to Tell a Story," Twain distinguishes the humorous American tale from both the comic English story and the witty French story: "The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter" (201). Specifically, while the comic and witty stories may feature a delighted storyteller with a clear punchline, "the humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it" (201). For such a story the audience plays an active, central role: "Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub" (201-2).

The "Jumping Frog," with its story-within-a-story, foregrounds this concern for narrative agency and the alert, if captive audience. The tale's narrator meets "good natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler" and asks him about a third person, Leonidas W. …

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