Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: Mark Twain and American Humor

Created March 16, 2006

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Mark Twain, perhaps the most renowned American humorist.

Mark Twain, perhaps the most renowned American humorist.

Credit: Image courtesy of American memory

When Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" first appeared in 1865, it was hailed by James Russell Lowell, the Boston-based leader of the literary elite, as "the finest piece of humorous literature yet produced in America." This was high praise for a tall-tale from a hitherto little known San Francisco newspaper humorist, but Lowell aimed precisely at the most distinguishing feature of Twain's first nationally acclaimed work of fiction: its transforming relationship to the long tradition of American humor. In this brief masterpiece, Twain combines the vibrant, loquacious storytelling tradition rooted in folk tale, fable, and gossip with the more calculated literary tradition of satire, irony, and wit. This lesson plan frames "The Jumping Frog" in this context, introducing students to both aspects of American humor in order to deepen appreciation of Twain's achievement.

Guiding Questions

  • What place does Mark Twain have in the history of American literary humor?
  • How does "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" draw from earlier works of American humor in both form and content?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Analyze the use of literary conventions and devices to develop character and point of view in the short story
  • Discuss the purposes and significance of literary humor
  • Examine Mark Twain's storytelling style in relation to that of other American humorists

Background

The EDSITEment reviewed People in THE WEST provides a short profile highlighting Twain's (i.e., Samuel Clemens) experiences out West. The EDSITEment-reviewed Mark Twain in His Times website, which holds a wealth of material on Mark Twain, includes samples and reviews of his early days as a humorous lecturer in California. The selection Our Fellow Savages has the text of Twain's first lecture, an account of his visit to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), which he first performed in 1866. The Mark Twain on Stage page has 19th-century commentary on Twain's talents as what we might call a stand-up comedian today.

Additional background information is available in the Curriculum Unit Overview. Even if teaching this lesson plan as a single lesson, the material listed in the Overview contains valuable contextual material.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Additional background and preparatory information is available in the Curriculum Unit Overview. Even if teaching this lesson plan as a single lesson, the material listed in the Overview contains valuable contextual material.
  • Students can access the primary source materials and some of the activity materials via the EDSITEment LaunchPad.
  • The full text of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" is available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Mark Twain in His Times.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain

Begin by introducing students to Samuel Clemens and how he developed into the literary persona known as Mark Twain. Emphasize especially his formative years as a Western journalist, a stage in his career that can come as a surprise to those who "place" him as a Mississippi River writer. Ask students to consider how being a journalist might influence his fictional writing style. They might suggest, for example, an attention to detail, contextualizing information, or specificity to location (answers to the classic, "who, what, where, why" questions).

The Samuel Clemens as Mark Twain website, at the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at UVA, showcases the many ways that "Mark Twain's greatest fiction was 'Mark Twain.'" Show students his signature on the main webpage, in which he signs "Mark Twain" diagonally over "Yours truly, Samuel Clemens." As the website argues:

He was not only the nation's first literary celebrity; "Mark Twain," born in the Nevada Territory in 1863 of Sam Clemens' ambitions, nurtured by publishers, editors and other promoters, adopted by a grateful American public, "Mark Twain" became a kind of mythic hero.

Part of this mythos involves his humorous anecdotes, flowing mustache, and of course, the famous white suit. Though perhaps one of Mark Twain's most memorable trademarks, the white suit was a relatively late addition to his wardrobe, added in 1906. The following New York Times article, written in 1906, details the first time Mark Twain wore the suit at a Congressional hearing on copyright. If time allows, have students read (perhaps aloud in class) the newspaper article, both as a measure of Mark Twain's "character," as well as a point of discussion to compare the relationship between journalism and literature. There are three other articles available should the teacher wish to divide the class into groups. The Clemens as Twain website has a great deal of additional biographical information, photographs, and other material relevant to the persona of Mark Twain, should students desire further exploration.

Activity 2. Staging "The Celebrated Jumping Frog"

Have students read "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." An electronic text of the story is available at the EDSITEment-reviewed website Mark Twain in His Times. Students can either read the story in class, since it is relatively short, or instructors might consider assigning the reading the night before.

Begin discussing the story by focusing initially on the structure. Ask a small group of students to perform it as a skit. Have students assign parts and consider the roles that need to be filled. They will find that Twain has devised a story-within-a-story framing structure (also known as a frame or 'envelope' narrative) by making his narrator the reluctant audience for his storyteller, Simon Wheeler, and by distinguishing his storyteller from his protagonist, Jim Smiley. Students might stage the performance in separate areas of the classroom to represent the different framed interactions from the story.

Students can also use the “Structuring ‘Jumping Frog’” PDF to map out the interactions, which offers the following instructions: Use the worksheet to diagram the structure of Mark Twain’s story. Beginning with the narrator, fill in the names of the participants in the story and the addressee of the letter. Draw lines to indicate how information about these events passes from one set of characters to the next. Draw a box around the characters involved in the “envelope or frame narrative” and around those involved in the main story. Finally, use the line space to write out details about the characters – where they live, what their personality is like, what their background is, and how they connect to the others.

After students have performed the story, discuss how its structure contributes to the comic effect. Ask students to consider the following questions, either as a large group or in several small groups:

  • How does this structure influence our perception of Jim Smiley?
  • To what extent does he seem just a character in a story?
  • To what extent does he seem realistic, a picturesque inhabitant of the Old West?
  • To what extent does he seem a fantasy creation of the storyteller, Simon Wheeler?
  • How do these perspectives combine in our response to Smiley as a comic protagonist?

Go on to discuss the storyteller's contribution to the story's comic effect.

  • How does Simon Wheeler's voice influence our perception of Smiley?
  • To what extent does Wheeler's picturesque speaking style help bring Smiley's story to life?
  • To what extent does his distinctive style bring Wheeler himself to life as a comic character?
Activity 3. Targeting Humor

Humorists generally have a target; they make jokes at someone's expense. Ask students: Who is the target in the "Jumping Frog" story?

Have them list possible targets. Students will no doubt easily see that Jim Smiley is the primary target. He is a trickster who turns out to be too clever for his own good. Ask students for examples from fable and folklore of similar characters (e.g., Ananzi the spider in African folktales, Coyote in Navajo folktales, the hare in Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare). Are similar characters still getting laughs in our humor today? Ask students for examples from recent television sitcoms and movies.

In addition to Smiley, students might suggest that the narrator is also a target in Twain's story, a victim of the anonymous trickster who sent him to the garrulous Simon Wheeler. In fact, the narrator's eagerness to escape Wheeler at the end of the story suggests that he may be Wheeler's victim as well. Ask students for evidence from the story that Wheeler's tale of the jumping frog is a deliberate fiction, a "whopper" told with a straight face to "sucker in" a credulous listener.

Help students recognize that the story's structure enables Twain's humor to puncture the pretensions of two comic victims at the same time, both the fast-talking Jim Smiley and the literate narrator. Ask students to consider the following questions:

  • What are some similarities between Smiley and the narrator?
  • How do they reflect on one another and on their different social circumstances—the narrator a representative of "civilization" and Smiley a representative of the "frontier"?
Activity 4. Dialect in Perspective

Have students experiment with Twain's storytelling technique by taking up the tale where Simon Wheeler left it, with the story of Jim Smiley's "yaller one-eyed cow that didn't have no tail, only jest a short stump like a bannanner." Have students work in small groups to brainstorm story ideas about this memorable animal and its trickster owner. Then have each student write a story about Jim Smiley and his cow, imitating the dialect style of Simon Wheeler. When they have completed their stories, have students read them aloud, then discuss the experience of writing in dialect.

  • Is dialect a help or a hindrance? What resources does it make available for scene setting and characterization? Does it enlarge or restrict one's vocabulary?
  • How does dialect influence plot development and narration? Does it limit one to the "and then, and then" connection of incident to incident typical of oral storytelling? Does it open opportunities for sliding easily off on a tangent?
  • Have students comment on Twain's use of dialect, based on their own experience with this literary device. What goes into the dialect he creates—misspellings? grammatical mistakes? inventive punctuation? loose sentence structure? colloquial turns of phrase? Have students point out examples of each of these stylistic tricks and describe the tricks they used to create a dialect effect.

If time is short, have students use the above questions as part of the assessment piece that follows. Combining these two exercises into a single activity can accelerate the classroom experience.

Assessment

Ask students to use the MarcoPolo Printing Press to write a journalistic version of Mark Twain's humorous story. Have them adopt the role of a reporter and create several short articles about the events that occur. Ask them to finish with a brief "editorial" that reflects on the way that Mark Twain's journalist background contributes to the humor of the story through, for example, attention to detail. On the other hand, how does rewriting the frame of the narrative as a newspaper article affect the story's power and its outcome? Students can create the newspaper as a group, with each student individually then contributing an editorial.

Extending The Lesson

Students interested in learning more about the humor of the Old Southwest will find a rich repository of texts in the Library of Southern Literature collection at the Documenting the American South website. Encourage them to sample A. B. Longstreet's Georgia Scenes and T. B. Thorpe's The Hive of "The Bee-Hunter." For a different perspective on American dialect humor, students might visit the American Verse Project website to sample the poems of Robert W. Service, such as "The Cremation of Sam McGee" in Spell of the Yukon.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Student Resources
Media