Mark Twain Wishes “A Happy New Year” With 1876 Postcard


The above image, courtesy of The Mark Twain Project at UC-Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, comes from an engraved greeting card Twain circulated in January, 1876. William Dean Howells, upon receiving one, described the frog as “luridly hopping along, and looking as if he had just got out of a pond of hellfire.” The card was designed by True Williams, who offered it gratis to Twain and his publisher as thanks for the sustained employment they had recently provided him. Williams’s illustrations in Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published later that year, are nearly as beloved as the novel. He also illustrated Sketches, New and Old, a collection of short stories released in September 1875.

Frontispiece of Mark Twain's Sketches, New & Old, drawn by True Williams
Frontispiece of Mark Twain’s Sketches, New & Old, drawn by True Williams

The illustration on the greeting card clearly alludes to Twain’s most famous story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (the tale was also published under several other titles). As of November 1875 it had been a decade since Twain introduced Jim Smiley and his unexceptional frog to their adoring public. The author had graduated to more ambitious and profitable projects like The Innocents Abroad (1869) and The Gilded Age (1873). In 1898 he admitted that through much of this time he was trying to “properly claim recognition as a Literary Person.” “Jumping Frog” had appeared in “a mere newspaper” and young Twain “did not consider that that counted.” “I was aware that it was only the frog that was celebrated,” he wrote in 1906, “I was still an obscurity.” Yet, as he prepared Sketches, Twain reacquainted himself with the story that jumpstarted his career, as he would periodically for the remainder of his life (see, for instance, his “Private History of the ‘Jumping Frog’ Story,” published in 1894).

A few years earlier Twain had reacquired the copyright to “Jumping Frog.” While his current agent, Elisha Bliss of the American Publishing Company, felt the deal Twain had negotiated was unfavorable, the retention of copyrights would thereafter become the author’s habit and, over time, work to his tremendous advantage. This habit, and the much-publicized opinions which justified it, would contribute substantively to changing the standard practices and benefit future generations of writers.

In March of 1875 Twain decided to introduce a curious addendum to “The Jumping Frog” for inclusion in Sketches. The manuscript he submitted in July included a French translation of the story, which had been published without his consent in 1872, and his comedic attempt to translate the translation back into English. As he put it, this new version was “clawed back into a civilized language once more by patient, unremunerative toil.” “I cannot speak the French language, but I can translate it very well,” he joked, parodying the French critic who, by Twain’s account, had translated the story poorly in order “to prove to his nation that there is nothing so extravagantly funny about it.”

Via this process, famously folksy dialogue became awkward, wooden prose. For instance, “I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog” became “I no saw not that that frog had nothing of better than each frog?” Twain complained, “I never put together such an odious mixture of bad grammar and delirium tremens in my life.”

This was a decent joke at the expense of the French, something American audiences always appreciate. Twain was also subtly drawing attention to the absence of international protection for intellectual property, which justly enraged him. But, perhaps most importantly, the new version of “The Jumping Frog” was something of an advertising coup. APC’s salesman could not only promise an expanded version of Twain’s most famous story, but it made the book ten pages longer and created additional room for Williams’s illustrations. Only one story in Sketches has more illustrations, and it’s twice as long.

true-williams-jumping-frog

As Twain well knew from APC’s promotion of his four previous books, illustrations were a major selling point, as was the notoriety of the author. And every padded page was valuable because APC’s books were priced based on size. Longer books meant better commissions and thus were pitched more aggressively by salesmen.

Sketches proved to be something of a flop. APC sold less than half as many copies of it in the first year as they had Innocents Abroad and The Gilded Age. However, as Hamlin Hill reports in Mark Twain and Elisha Bliss, the initial sales were brisk. When APC delivered the jumping frog postcards to Twain on December 30th, both the author and his publisher believed they had successfully marketed a volume of largely recycled material, the royalties from which would help sustain Twain until the publication of Tom Sawyer, which all anticipated would be a massive hit.

Throughout his career, Twain’s feelings towards his resiliently popular first story would oscillate between pride and shame. He often remarked that he was not, nor had even considered becoming, a professional writer when it was published. It was merely a well-rehearsed joke he had written down as a favor to Artemus Ward. He recognized that the circumstances of its composition and circulation were incredibly coincidental, but also incredibly formative. And he had since worked much harder on many superior works which didn’t garner nearly the acclaim. But he couldn’t help being grateful to the frog also, particularly when it was paying his bills.