Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn

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Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn




"Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn," by Mark Twain, first appeared in 1880 in A Tramp Abroad, a book about an American traveling in Europe. "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn" is a fable of sorts, in that it features a talking blue jay, an unusual situation, and a comment about human nature. Yarns and tall tales were a popular form of humor writing in Twain's day, and many of his stories appeal to audiences who favor that genre.

The story centers on a determined blue jay who mistakenly believes that a hole in a roof is a hole he can fill with acorns. When a whole flock of blue jays arrive on the scene, they discover the first jay's folly and have a good laugh. The site becomes something of a tourist attraction in the blue jay community. Throughout the story, the narrator describes the language of blue jays and other animals in a matter-of-fact way that adds to the humor of the story.

"Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn" explores themes of determination and language. For readers in Twain's day, both themes were interesting and relevant. In the wake of the Civil War, two distinct cultures—those of the North and the South—struggled to unify into a single culture. Determination had led them into the war, and determination would have to bring them back together. Differing ways of expression and of handling conflict relate to the theme of language and communication as well.

Modern readers, who can find the story in a 1992 edition of the collection The Celebrated Jumping Frog, and Other Stories, may be unsettled by a simile that makes use of what is now a derogatory term for African Americans. In Twain's day, this was a common word that did not bear the offensive connotation it now carries. Just as in Twain's famous novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, readers must make their own decisions about their willingness to accept the story with the inclusion of this word. In some versions the word in question has been removed, but any version of the story in its original form will include it.


Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who would later take the pen name Mark Twain, was born on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. He was the sixth child of Jane Lampton and John Marshall Clemens (a lawyer). In 1839, John moved his family to the port town of Hannibal, Missouri. This move would shape the young Clemens in a deep way, giving rise to his unique voice in American literature. He loved the steamboats coming and going from such places as St. Louis and New Orleans, and his boyhood revolved around the trappings of life near the river, including homemade rafts, swimming, and exploring caves.

Twain ceased to attend private school at the age of twelve, when his father died of pneumonia. At thirteen, he secured a position as a printer's apprentice. Two years later, he became a printer and editorial assistant for his brother's newspaper. This was Twain's first taste of the writing life, and he liked it.

When he was seventeen, Twain began helping his brother manage several newspapers. Like their father, Twain and his brother lacked strong business skills, and the papers struggled. Twain spent three years traveling and writing before rejoining his brother in Keokuk, Iowa, to resume working on newspapers. In 1857, however, Twain left his brother's business with plans to travel to seek his fortune in South America. While traveling down the Mississippi, he became fascinated by life on the river, and he became a river pilot in 1859. It was here he heard the term "mark twain," which refers to a safe navigating depth of two fathoms. During his river travels, he submitted occasional pieces to various publications. More important, he drew inspiration for future novels and short stories. The Mississippi River and the lives of those on and around it inspired Twain in such a way that he would become one of the most important, and uniquely American, writers in English literature.

When the Civil War erupted, river trade slowed to a halt. Twain served briefly in the Confederate army and panned for gold in Nevada. When a fellow journalist challenged him to a duel, Twain fled to San Francisco, where he found newspaper work. He enjoyed his first taste of fame in 1865, when "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County" was published. This led to his first book of collected writings. More travel writing, short stories, novels, and essays followed as Twain's readership grew. A Tramp Abroad, in which "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn" first appeared, was published in 1880, between The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

In 1870, Twain married Olivia Langdon, whose father agreed to the marriage despite reservations about his son-in-law. Consequently, Olivia's father gave the couple a furnished home and gave Twain partial ownership of a newspaper in Buffalo. After Olivia's father died during the couple's first year of marriage, Twain and his pregnant wife moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where they stayed for twenty years. They had four children, although one died in infancy and two died in their twenties. Only Clara survived, and her only daughter had no children, ending the line of Twain's descendants.

Twain spent the rest of his career writing and traveling widely to lecture. By the 1890s, both he and his wife were in faltering health. After a trip to Florence, Italy, in 1903, Olivia died. In his final years, Twain was pessimistic and misanthropic. His wit became more malicious, but his admirers continued to buy his books and attend his lectures. In failing health, Twain died near Redding, Connecticut, on April 21, 1910.


"Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn" is told in the first person by a speaker who matter-of-factly and conversationally tells the reader about a friend of his, Jim Baker, who is able to understand animal talk. The speaker relates secondhand information from Baker, especially about how different kinds of animals talk and how their language and expressions differ. The bulk of the story relates an incident ostensibly witnessed by Baker.

The speaker begins by reiterating something he assumes the reader already knows, which is that animals talk to each other despite the fact that very few people are capable of understanding what they say. His friend Baker, however, is very capable in this area. According to Baker (who is quoted from here to the end of the story), animals speak differently in much the same way people speak differently. Varying degrees of education, vocabulary, and talkativeness are evident in the animal kingdom. Baker asserts that blue jays are among the best of the animal talkers. This is partly because the blue jay himself is more complex and sophisticated, possessing a range of moods and ability to express them. Not only does the blue jay enhance his expression with metaphor, but he possesses an unusual command of language and rarely resorts to bad grammar. Baker contrasts the blue jay's even temper with a cat's excitability, claiming that a cat tends to get overly excited and lets his grammar go.

Describing the blue jay further, Baker claims that he is almost human in his emotional and intellectual complexity. However, he notes, a blue jay is unprincipled and will not hesitate to lie, steal, or break a promise. Blue jays are also skilled at profanity. Again, he contrasts the blue jay with a cat, saying that although a cat can swear, a blue jay is far more skilled in this area. Having introduced the reader to the blue jay, Baker proceeds with a "perfectly true" story about a blue jay.

Seven years ago, the area was all but abandoned, and empty houses were left behind. As Baker sat in front of his cabin, where he could see one of these houses, a blue jay landed on the roof of the empty house. The blue jay had an acorn in its mouth, but when he spoke, the acorn fell. Then the blue jay noticed a knothole in the roof. He looked into it with one eye and declared that it was in fact a hole, and with great delight, he picked up his acorn and dropped it into the hole. He was happy until he realized that he did not hear the acorn fall and strained to look into the hole to see the acorn. When he was unable to see it, he got another acorn to see if he could hear or see it fall. When he fails, he continues to get more acorns, eventually concluding that this must be some new kind of hole. He is determined to fill it up, regardless of how long it takes or how many acorns he must find.

Baker describes the exhaustion of the blue jay as he keeps bringing acorns to the hole and dropping them in, trying to hear or see them fall. For all his hard work, he sees no sign of any of the acorns, which confuses and frustrates the blue jay. Taking a break, the blue jay leans against the chimney to rest and swear like Baker had never heard before. During this time, another blue jay comes along, and the first blue jay tells him about his trouble with the hole. The second blue jay investigates the hole and, seeing nothing, calls for more blue jays. None of them could see a sign of any of the acorns that the first blue jay had dropped in the hole.

The blue jays launch into debates and discussions about the mysterious hole and the fate of the acorns, calling in more blue jays and more opinions. Baker claims that there must have been five thousand birds working on the problem. They examined the house until finally a blue jay landed on the partially opened door and looked inside. He realized what had happened and called all the other blue jays to see how the first blue jay had foolishly been trying to fill an entire house with acorns. They all looked into the house and laughed very hard. Baker says that after that, the blue jays stayed for about an hour to laugh and talk about the situation. Baker notes that not only do blue jays have a great sense of humor, they also have a great memory. For the next three years during the summer, blue jays came back to that house to look down the hole in the roof. In fact, other birds started to visit the site to enjoy the story of what happened there. Baker concludes the story by telling the reader that all of the birds enjoyed their visits, except an owl from Nova Scotia who failed to see the humor in it. But the same owl was also disappointed in his visit to Yosemite.


Another Jay

A second blue jay happens by while the first blue jay is working so hard to fill the mysterious hole with acorns. Overhearing the colorful frustrated language of the main blue jay, the second jay stops to ask what he is doing. When he hears the first blue jay's story, he asks for more details and then calls for three more jays to come hear and discuss the problem of the acorn-swallowing hole. This, of course, leads to more jays being called in to investigate the problem.

Jim Baker

Jim Baker is the one who tells the story of the blue jay. The narrator describes him as "a middle-aged, simple-hearted miner who had lived in a lonely corner of California." Before he tells the story, though, he discusses his ability to understand what animals say when they speak. He explains how different kinds of animals, and different kinds of birds in particular, have different ways of speaking. It is clear that Baker has put a lot of time into observing the speech patterns of animals, and he has put a lot of thought into analyzing those patterns. According to Baker, some birds use proper grammar, while others do not; some use plain speech, while some use figurative language and long speeches; some curse more than others; and some are more likely to express their moods in language than others. Baker is very matter-of-fact in these explanations, and the reader almost feels that he is talking about people instead of animals. Baker never qualifies his assertions or apologizes if they sound ridiculous. When he begins the story of the blue jay, he does not editorialize much, instead letting the blue jay's personality carry the story. Interestingly, Baker remains detached from the events he witnesses, rather than offering the misguided bird any kind of help or insight.

Blue Jay

The main character of the story is a blue jay, whose speech is understood by Jim Baker. The blue jay is very talkative and is usually talking to himself constantly. He is also impulsive, social, industrious, and persistent. He tends to focus completely on one thing at a time, whether it is filling the hole or laughing with his friends about it. When the reader meets him, the blue jay is carefree, has food in his mouth, and is looking for a place to alight. When he discovers a hole, he is stubborn and determined to fill it despite the fact that no matter how many acorns he drops in it, he can never see where the acorns go or determine in any way how long it will take him to fill the hole. This demonstrates that the blue jay is stubborn for the sake of being stubborn. His goals are arbitrary and silly, but he refuses to budge from his goal. He is diligent and tireless in his pursuit. When another blue jay discovers that the hole is actually in a roof, the first blue jay is able to laugh at himself for trying to fill a whole house and not even realizing it. He is a social creature who is happy to have all of the other blue jays around to perch and talk and laugh for hours. He is secure and not egotistical. He is gregarious and has a sense of humor.


The narrator appears briefly at the beginning of the story, and his sole purpose is to make introductions. He establishes with the reader the fact that animals communicate with one another, and then he tells about his friend Jim Baker, who can actually understand what animals say. Though speaking in the first person, the narrator tells nothing about himself personally, and he exhibits no emotion about the story or Baker. Once he has brought the reader and Baker together, he exits the story entirely.

Old Jay

Baker tells the reader that finally, after a sizeable flock of blue jays had arrived at the house to figure out the mystery of the hole, one old jay happened to land on the door that was standing ajar. When he looked past the door, he realized that it was a door to an entire house, and he quickly realized what the foolish first blue jay had been trying to do. He responds by calling all the jays to see that the blue jay had been trying to fill up a house, not a regular hole. Readers should note that the old jay solves the mystery not through his wisdom or experience but by chance. And when he does realize the problem, he makes a big show of it rather than quietly telling the first jay in a way that might have preserved his dignity.


The humorless owl is the only bird mentioned specifically in the story that is not a blue jay. Baker says that other birds came to see the infamous hole, but only the owl is described. The owl, from Nova Scotia, came to America to visit Yosemite. He decided to stop by and see this hole he had heard about, but when he saw it, he failed to see the humor in it. Baker adds that the owl was also disappointed in Yosemite, which suggests that he has a grumpy, unimpressed nature.



The fable about the blue jay is centered around his stubborn determination to fill a hole with acorns. It proves a silly exercise, but one that the blue jay is completely committed to seeing completed. He is not the least bit swayed by the fact that when he drops an acorn into the hole and tries desperately to see where it went, he never can. His solution is not to give up on the goal or even to investigate the hole but to keep doggedly dropping acorns in.


  • Fables have been around since ancient times. They are an effective way to illustrate a point and comment about life or human nature. Write your own fable that teaches a valuable lesson. Use the traditional characteristics of a fable in your work, and consider adding illustrations to bring your story to life.
  • Blue jays are known for having strong personalities. Research blue jays and find out how they behave, why they behave the way they do, where they live, and how they impact communities where they live. Given what you have learned, is a blue jay a good choice for the main character of Twain's story? Using examples from the story, write an essay explaining why or why not.
  • In the end, the blue jay realizes his own folly and is able to laugh at himself. What if he had a different attitude? Write an alternate ending to the story, keeping the blue jay's characterization consistent, in which the blue jay reacts differently.
  • Choose one other work by Mark Twain (novel, short story, or essay) and compare and contrast it to "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn." Prepare a short lecture on Twain's writing using your two examples. Conclude your lecture with other titles your audience might enjoy reading.
  • Create a Web site about determination featuring the blue jay and a synopsis of his story on the home page. Using whatever organization and design you think is best, present other examples of determination to inform and inspire visitors to your site. Think about the purpose of your site and decide if you want to focus on the benefits of determination, the pitfalls of misguided determination, or both.

In the end, the blue jay's fierce determination adds to the humor of the situation when another blue jay alerts him to the fact that he is actually trying to fill up an entire house with acorns. The scope of the project coupled with the blue jay's blind determination to complete it makes the situation utterly ridiculous. The blue jay had set all reason aside in the pursuit of his goal. The reader cannot help but wonder what the blue jay would accomplish if he were to apply the same determination to something worthwhile.

As with any fable, the animals represent something about human experience or human nature, so the reader is left to question how wisely he applies his own determination to situations that arise.


In this short story, Twain says a lot about the diversity and use of language. The story itself has three distinct speakers: the narrator, Jim Baker, and the blue jay. The narrator speaks briefly to introduce Jim Baker. The narrator's language is straightforward—he plainly states his purpose, and he connects with the reader by asserting that everyone (including the reader, presumably) knows that animals talk. He begins with, "Animals talk to each other, of course. There can be no question about that; but I suppose there are very few people who can understand them." In this way, the narrator uses language to draw the reader immediately into the suspension of disbelief necessary for Jim Baker's story.

Jim Baker's language is distinct from the narrator's and is characterized by exaggeration, storytelling, dialect, and humor. He is "spinning a yarn," which the reader understands from the title of the story. Baker's language is thus energized by his exaggeration and imagery. For example, when describing the way a blue jay talks, Baker says he uses "out-and-out book-talk—and bristling with metaphor, too—just bristling! And as for command of a language—why you never see a blue jay get stuck for a word. No man ever did. They just boil out of him!" And when he complains about the bad grammar that a cat uses when excited, Baker declares, "you'll hear grammar that will give you the lockjaw." Another example of hyperbole occurs when Baker is watching the frustrated blue jay and says that the jay "broke loose and cussed himself black in the face," and later he is depicted as "sweating like an ice pitcher." Although he tells the story as if it is true, the reader knows that there is a thin veil separating fiction from a farce of nonfiction.

Finally, there is the language of the blue jay. He is blustering, outspoken, and loud. He speaks his mind about his determination to fill that hole and see where the acorns are going, and he laughs loudly at himself when he realizes his foolishness.

One other way Twain comments on language is through the descriptions of how other animals speak. According to Baker, some animals speak directly, while others use an abundance of flowery words and metaphors; some curse, and others do not; some show their education in the way they speak, while others show their lack of education; and some use better grammar than others, although some animals' use of proper grammar is dependent on their emotional states. In these passages, Twain is illustrating a basic idea about language, which is that people adapt language to their individual needs, personalities, and moods. Language is a tool that is expressive and has an extremely wide range.


Tall Tale/Yarn

Twain lets the reader know in the title that "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn" is a far-fetched story. A yarn is just such an entertaining story, usually along the lines of a tall tale; tall tales were popular in frontier and folk literature as a way to present outlandish stories in humorous ways. Tall tales as a genre feature realistic detail and dialect or everyday speech, and they tell of wildly impossible events. Often, tall tales involve ordinary people with extraordinary abilities, such as Paul Bunyan and his extraordinary size and strength. Some tall tales arose around actual historical figures, such as Davy Crockett, Pecos Bill, and Johnny Appleseed. Although typically associated with American storytelling, examples of tall tales are also part of European (especially German) and Australian literature. Twain's story does not center on a person but instead involves an ordinary animal with the extraordinary abilities to reason, speak, and laugh at himself. Jim Baker's matter-of-fact explanations about how different animals use language differently also add to the tall-tale quality of the story. Twain invites the reader into the humor of accepting the story right from the beginning when he asserts that everyone knows animals talk to each other, but he knows only one man who can understand what they are saying. From here, the outlandish events unfold.

Frame Narrative

A frame narrative is a structure in which the author presents a story within a story. Well-known examples of this technique include Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Shakespeare used this technique for great dramatic purpose and to propel the storyline in Hamlet, when Hamlet arranges for an acting troupe to perform a play that acts out his uncle's murder of his father. In some cases, the outer story is the framework for multiple stories, while in other cases the outer story merely provides some context or pretense for the inner story. This is the case with "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn"; the outer story is provided by the narrator as he introduces the reader to Jim Baker. In arranging the tale thus, Twain lends an air of credibility to the story because the narrator seems so reliable. This setup also adds to the humor of the story because the author has gone to the trouble to bring that credible voice to such an outlandish story. It is a tongue-in-cheek presentation of what is clearly identified as a yarn.

Use of Differing Voices

Twain separates the speaking styles of the narrator, Jim Baker, and the blue jay by giving them different voices. The narrator speaks in standard English and presents information in a straightforward way. He is there to introduce Jim Baker without bringing any emotion, humor, or doubt to the story. His main purpose is to give credibility to the idea that Jim Baker is genuinely able to understand what animals say. Once he has established this with the reader, he exits so that Baker can tell the story about the blue jay.

When Baker speaks, the voice is completely different. Although Twain uses quotation marks to designate when Baker is speaking, they are hardly necessary. Baker speaks in a southern vernacular, a nonstandard dialect particular to a region. His idioms and word choice tell about the man through his narrative voice. He is a common man with a knowledge of—if not a love for—hard work, and he has a sense of humor. He is also a keen student of the world around him, noticing the different personalities of different kinds of animals based on the way they speak and interact. Interestingly, the reader gets to know Baker in the same way. His manner of speaking puts the reader at ease and gives the feeling of sitting on a front porch telling stories. The blue jay has a voice similar to Baker's. Both use lively language and vernacular, which reflects their roots being in the same region.


Post-Civil War South

During the Civil War (1861-1865), almost 80 percent of healthy, young white Southern men went to fight. In the end, nearly one-third of them perished, while numerous others returned wounded, handicapped, or emotionally traumatized. Where the South had relied on strong patriarchs in families and society, it had to find new ways to move forward. Within families, the losses of fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and brothers meant that a generation grew up without the same strong sense of male leadership that prior generations had. Women assumed stronger roles in their families and also worked harder because the slaves were emancipated.

These issues surrounding the losses of healthy men created major problems for the South as it tried to lurch back into productivity and healing. As a result, the years following the war were uncertain, and poverty grew, with no solution seeming feasible. Problems were made worse by the toll the war exacted on the physical resources in the South. Land was damaged, homes were burned, railroads and manufacturing equipment were destroyed, and livestock were decimated.

The Reconstruction period (1865-1877) was difficult and tense. The North and South attempted to work together to rebuild the nation and set goals for its future. The tasks of punishing Confederate rebels, getting the Southern economy back on its feet without slaves, determining the proper status of African Americans, and neutralizing strong lingering feelings were daunting. The South experienced a basic social change, too, as the aristocratic strata diminished with the expansion of a middle class.

Prior to the Civil War, western expansion had kicked off in the late 1840s with the California gold rush and the end of Mexico's claim to American territories. By the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction, frontier literature was in full force. Tales of the Wild West and its colorful inhabitants captured the imaginations of readers across the nation, and a particular brand of humor emerged. Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and Bret Harte were among the most important writers in the frontier tradition.

Realism in American Literature (1865-1900)

In the wake of the Civil War, the American economy faced tension between the industrialism of the North and the agrarianism of the South. This, in addition to lingering resentment, the overwhelming destruction of land and equipment, tremendous loss of life, and the South's being forced to remain in the Union, resulted in a nation that was anything but harmonious and unified. At the same time, progress was made in the areas of communication (with the invention of the telephone and the laying of the Atlantic cable) and transportation (with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 and automobile manufacturing in the 1890s). The strains and changes yielded an atmosphere of doubt and disillusionment, and the emerging works of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx added to this national intellectual mood. America after the Civil War was not the same America to which so many people had pinned their hopes for the future.

As the frontier opened ever wider and the circulation of newspapers and magazines spread, writers saw greater opportunity. While some poetry of this period recalled the English Romantic poets, other new voices emerged, including Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. James Whitcomb Riley's poetry spoke of patriotism in warm tones. Little happened in drama, as scripts tended to serve to support famous actors whose names alone could pack the seats. In fiction, uniquely American styles and subjects blossomed. Local-color writing enjoyed widespread popularity. Authors such as Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane, Edith Wharton, and Henry James established careers that would produce classics of American fiction.


  • 1880s: Framework stories like "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn," in which a story is told within the context of another story, are very popular. Other examples at the time include the Uncle Remus stories and Henry James's short novel The Turn of the Screw.

    Today: Framework stories continue to be popular among readers and moviegoers. Successful examples include Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, which tells two stories from the point of view of a single narrator, and William P. Young's The Shack, which is told as if written by a ghostwriter who reveals his identity at the beginning as a close friend of the man whose story he is telling.

  • 1880s: Frontier literature captures the imaginations of readers all over the United States. Reading about people braving the American frontier, fighting Indians and each other, panning for gold, and living under rough circumstances provides excitement and intrigue. Writers such as Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, Bret Harte, and Caroline Kirkland gain popularity for their frontier writing.

    Today: Frontier literature has waned in popularity, as the genre was widely explored in previous generations. In the mid- to late twentieth century, television westerns, movie westerns, and novels by writers like Louis L'Amour and Larry McMurtry enjoyed popularity, but interest in this chapter of American history has considerably lessened.

  • 1880s: Stories involving talking animals are accepted forms of humor for children and adults alike. Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, first published in the mid-1830s, remain popular; Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) entertains its readers with such talking animals as the March Hare and the Cheshire Cat. The popularity and acceptability of such stories pave the way for Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, to be released in 1894.

    Today: Stories involving talking animals are written primarily for children. Well-known modern examples include E. B. White's Charlotte's Web (first published in 1952 and adapted to film in 1973 and 2006) and high-budget films like Disney's Finding Nemo.


Twain's A Tramp Abroad, in which "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn" appears, was published in 1880 and is often considered a companion or follow-up to his Innocents Abroad (1869). Both include Twain's travel writing, which is imbued with his humorous and often biting observations and commentary. A Tramp Abroad is about Twain's travels in Europe and also includes fictional tales such as the blue jay fable. Critics often remark on the loose structure of the book. In fact, the inclusion of the story about the blue jay (which took place in California) comes from a story about a raven in Europe that reminds Twain of the story about the blue jay. While some critics find the rambling course of the book to be hard to follow, others point to its merit. Jeffrey Alan Melton, in Mark Twain, Travel Books, and Tourism: The Tide of a Great Popular Movement, notes:

Although for some readers the narrative suffers as a result of such floating, the rambling structure accurately captures the changing emphasis for American tourists at large, a move away from seeing the world as a set of pictures to being in the pictures themselves—more settled, more affluent, more experienced, more self-absorbed.


  • Translated by Laura Gibbs as part of the "Oxford World's Classics" series, Aesop's Fables (2003) contains six hundred fables translated from Latin and Greek. Many of them had never before been translated into English.
  • Riches for All: The California Gold Rush and the World (2002), edited by Kenneth N. Owens, explains how the gold rush affected California in the mid-nineteenth century and how its impact reached the world. Considering history, economy, and culture, this book provides a comprehensive context that allows students to understand the sweeping nature of the event.
  • Mary Ellen Snodgrass's Encyclopedia of Frontier Literature (1999) offers more than 500 pages of works spanning genres, authors, regions, time periods, cultures, and characters. The result gives a strong sense of what the American frontier was like and how the themes of frontier literature strongly conveyed the experiences of the people who lived it.
  • Any serious student of Twain's work will want to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). The book draws heavily on Twain's love of and experience with river life and is considered a classic of American literature.

Carl Van Doren, in his book The American Novel, finds Twain to be somewhat restricted in employing this form. He remarks that A Tramp Abroad continues Twain's "now expected devices in humorous autobiography, without any important innovations. Certain episodes and certain descriptive passages emerge from the general level, but even they only emphasize the debt his imagination owed to memory. Writing too close to his facts he could never be at his richest." A contemporary of Twain's, William Ernest Henley, to the contrary, finds the book delightful and the story of the blue jay a highlight. He wrote in an 1880 edition of the Athenaeum, "Of uniform excellence A Tramp Abroad is not; but it is very vigorously and picturesquely written throughout; it contains some of the writer's happiest work." He adds that "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn" is "a piece of work that is not only delightful as mere reading, but also of a high degree of merit as literature. It is the best thing in the book though the book is full of good things."


Jennifer Bussey

Bussey is a freelance writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she considers the theme of determination in mid- to late-nineteenth-century American fiction, comparing the brand of American determination depicted in Mark Twain's "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn" with that in Herman Melville's Moby Dick and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie.

There are few themes that Americans identify with more than the theme of determination. America's very genesis and the birth of its independence tell of determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Attendant themes include sacrifice, purpose, fate, and the American dream. In American fiction, the theme of determination is well represented and explored from various perspectives. This can be demonstrated by considering three very different works by three very different authors writing in the nineteenth century—Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby Dick, Theodore Dreiser's 1900 novel Sister Carrie, and Mark Twain's oft-overlooked 1880 short story Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn. All three feature stubborn main characters whose lives and fates are shaped by their intense focus and determination. Each character's motives and outcomes distinguish his or her individual story and reveal much about the character's true self. While Ahab and Carrie allow their determination to rule their lives in very pervasive and intense ways, the blue jay's fierce determination does not change the course of his life.

Melville's famous Moby Dick protagonist, Captain Ahab, is singularly focused on finding and destroying the elusive white whale that claimed his leg. He is motivated by hatred and vengeance. He is blind to his own arrogance as he seeks to punish nature for being itself. The story of Moby Dick is told by Ishmael, who has found work aboard Ahab's ship. He soon finds that his one-legged captain is eccentric and unpredictable. Ahab is obsessed with finding this particular white whale, called "Moby Dick," even admitting that the sole purpose of their voyage is to find him. When another captain begs Ahab to help him find a lost crew that includes his son, Ahab refuses because he knows that Moby Dick (who claimed the crew) is nearby. This episode speaks to the essential self-centeredness of Ahab's obsession with revenge; he is willing to allow another man's son to perish (a greater loss suffered because of Moby Dick than the loss of his leg) in order to pursue his wild-eyed fixation on revenge. Had Ahab chosen to be reasonable and redirected his determination on finding the man's son, his intensity would have been pointed toward a worthwhile goal and used for good. But Ahab is too narrowly focused to put his own drive into perspective. Ultimately, Ahab and his crew find Moby Dick and try for three days to kill him, until the whale finally rams and sinks the ship. The only survivor is Ishmael.

Ahab is bent on finding Moby Dick, no matter the risk or cost. He is even willing to trick skilled men into joining his crew for the sole purpose of seeking revenge. This selfishness on Ahab's part ultimately costs those tricked men their lives; Ahab effectively hijacks their rights to determine their own destinies and decide what is worth dying for. Compassion for other men is inconsequential to Ahab, as are warnings about the whale that he is so fiercely determined to destroy. In the end, his determination brings about his own destruction—and the deaths of innocent crew members. Thus, Ahab's willingness to take risks costs him his ship and his life, and he never achieves the one thing that mattered to him. He does not destroy Moby Dick; rather, Moby Dick destroys him. The tragedy is in the deaths of the crew members who, by the time they knew the real purpose of the voyage, were trapped aboard the ill-fated ship. They did not die for something that was important to them but for the dangerous obsession of one man. Ishmael alone survives to tell the story of Ahab, and the reader understands it to be a cautionary tale. Determination in the right context and with the right objective is healthy and inspiring, but misguided determination brings ruin. If Ahab had redirected his determination to something productive for himself or society, he might have been a hero instead of a foolish and tragic figure. Instead, he died—and essentially killed other men—to chase after a whale that had simply been provoked to kill him and had never thought or felt anything about it.

Dreiser, in turn, writing fifty years later, gives readers the example of Caroline Meeber in Sister Carrie. In the character of Carrie, Dreiser gives readers an early example of a woman pursuing her version of the American dream. Carrie begins her journey by going to live with her sister and her family in Chicago. Carrie takes a job in a shoe factory but soon becomes dismayed at the working conditions and the rough people with whom she works. After being fired from her job, she decides to leave her sister's home and live with a dashing salesman she met on the train coming to Chicago. This relationship begins to change her; she becomes more sophisticated and bends her previous moral standards while pursuing her dream of security and a comfortable life. She ends up going to Canada with a married man who has embezzled money from the bar he manages. Forced to return the money, he agrees to return to America, where he and Carrie marry and move to New York. Although he finds work, the life he offers Carrie does not come close to the sort of life she dreamed of. Up to this point in her life, Carrie's determination to live a better life led her to rely on others—first her sister and then two different men. When her husband fails to support or romance her as she desires, she finds work in the theater, where her heart has always been drawn. Once she is independent, she abandons her husband, who ultimately ends up impoverished and commits suicide. Carrie, on the other hand, becomes a star of the stage. She achieves her dreams through determination and willingness to change her identity and character along the way.

When Carrie has the life she always wanted, however, she discovers that fame, adoration, and wealth do not fulfill her. Happiness continues to elude her, and with it, her belief that happiness is possible. Carrie's determination was as flawed as Ahab's, but with a different focus. Where Ahab was single-mindedly focused on Moby Dick, such that everything he did, every choice he made, and every man he manipulated was in service of that focus, Carrie had the same intense focus on living a lavish lifestyle and feeling important. Like Ahab, she uses people along the way with no regard for their sacrifices or personal goals. She is always on the lookout for something that will get her where she wants to go faster, and in the end, the goal does not deliver. Where Ahab was actually killed by his pursuit, Carrie is left empty and disillusioned at the end of her pursuit, and her character and morality have perished along the way. Her motivation was finding happiness and security in the big city. She sought the American dream, and she was so focused on reaching it that she was willing to sacrifice her manners, morality, relationships, and self-understanding. Once she achieved this dream, she discovered that her determination had led her astray. Having become jaded along the way, she stopped believing that she could achieve happiness. Had she embraced a different attitude, her determination surely would have taken her to a better American dream.

Twain's short story "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn" features a man named Jim Baker who can understand what animals say when they speak. He tells the story of a blue jay who lands on the roof of an abandoned house and notices a hole. Not knowing he is on a roof, he is perplexed by the hole because when he drops an acorn into it, he cannot see where the acorn goes. He works diligently to fill the hole with acorns despite the fact that he keeps looking in the hole and seeing nothing. Still, he is stubbornly determined to fill that hole. When other blue jays come to see what he is doing, one of them eventually discovers that the hole is atop a house. He tells the first blue jay that he is trying to fill a whole house with acorns, and they all have a good laugh at his foolishness. The blue jay is able to laugh at himself and realizes that his determination was misguided. Had he taken the time to find out more about the hole, rather than being so stubborn, he would have realized that his exercise was futile. But the reader also sees that even if it had been an ordinary hole in a tree or the ground, the goal of filling it at any cost would still have been silly. Although many animals (and birds in particular) have an innate drive to hoard food, the blue jay in the story is not trying to be practical and forward-thinking. He is not preparing for a time when food might not be so abundant; he is filling the hole simply for the purpose of filling the hole. He could just as well have been filling it with rocks because the food was beside the point. The blue jay is very focused and determined, and if he were to direct his drive at something worthwhile, he could accomplish something meaningful for himself or his community. He seems content, however, to have provided his fellow blue jays with a good laugh and a local legend. The blue jay differs from Ahab and Carrie in that his blind determination costs him little more than time and dignity, neither of which seem to be all that important to him. He is not destroyed as a result of his dogged pursuit of a goal, nor is he changed in any way. Readers can safely assume that the blue jay enjoyed a good laugh with his fellow blue jays, enjoyed a little bit of fame, and continued on just as he had before the roof hole incident.

Taking these three examples of determination from American literature within a fifty-year period, and in light of many others, one can conclude that this theme was meaningful to American readers at the time. Given that the nation endured the Civil War and underwent tremendous change during this period, this theme reflects a basic element of American culture and nationhood and how Americans were then seeing themselves as a nation. Ahab, Carrie, and the blue jay represent different manifestations of determination, and they all demonstrate different outcomes of being singly driven toward something. What is missing among these three characters and their literary circumstances is the positive side of determination. While their characters, settings, situations, and motives are entirely different, the lesson is ultimately that misguided determination brings only negative consequences. Ahab, Carrie, and the blue jay have in common a faulty sense of determination, and that lack of insight shapes them to some degree; in Ahab's and Carrie's cases, the degree is extreme, while in the blue jay's case, it is less extreme in the consequences but equally telling about his character. Ahab's determination led only to destruction. He was killed, and he took other innocent men with him, while the whale lived. His stubbornness brought devastation, loss, and disappointment. Carrie's determination resulted in her getting what she thought she wanted, but it left her changed and disillusioned. It was a hollow achievement that left her with hopelessness. The blue jay's determination resulted in meaninglessness and mockery. His goal was ultimately revealed to be misunderstood and insignificant. He thought he was working on one thing, but he was spending his time and energy doing something considerably different.

These three examples, then, feature different characters (man, woman, animal), from different backgrounds and walks of life, with different goals, and different outcomes—one character dies, another is left feeling empty and hopeless, and another feels foolish. All three stories are cautionary tales, serving to warn the reader about the potential dangers of unchecked determination. It is a universal sentiment, and in these literary characters, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others. The overall lesson is one of balance; a single pursuit should not define an entire life. Dogged determination let loose without wisdom or direction will take a person somewhere other than where he or she wanted to go; at best, it could result in wasted time and embarrassment, but at worst, it could lead to utter disaster.

Though written within fifty years of one another, these three stories actually represent three different movements in American literature: romantic (Melville), realist (Twain), and naturalist (Dreiser). This is significant because none of the three examples explored concludes with a happy ending. Although determination was a foundational value in America, Americans no longer held an innocent or naive view of it by this era. While they still valued it, a fact reflected in the literature they favored, Americans did not believe that determination alone was enough to build a life on. A more mature understanding was being sought in American thought and letters.

Source: Jennifer A. Bussey, Critical Essay on "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

James D. Wilson

In the following excerpt, Wilson provides an overview of "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn," including the publication history, the context of composition, and the relationship of the story to Twain's other works.


"Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn" first appeared in chapter 3 of A Tramp Abroad, published in March 1880. Among the "separatable stuff " of A Tramp Abroad—as Mark Twain wrote to William Dean Howells—the anecdote is a narrative digression, self-contained, and frequently reprinted in anthologies of southwestern humor and collections of Mark Twain's short fiction (DeVoto 247-53; Humor of the Old Southwest 402-5). It is sometimes given the title, "What Stumped the Bluejays."

Most anthologists and editors reprint the story as a self-contained unit. Gibson, however, argues that the yarn must be seen in its original context. In A Tramp Abroad Mark Twain introduces the tale in the second chapter as he describes his walk through the Black Forest. Evoking an atmosphere of "German legends and fairy tales" in a manner reminiscent of Washington Irving, Mark Twain encounters some ravens who seem to caw insults at him. Gradually he transforms the ravens from adversaries who "bandy words in raven" to masters of the western American art of the insult. He slips into the vernacular voice of Jim Baker, who tells the story of the American jay. Gibson contends that in reading the yarn out of context we overlook Mark Twain's masterful control of narrative technique: the story's "seamless narrative development, its easy passage through formal opening into a vernacular tale of real elegance, and its transmuting the atmosphere of German legend into the air of Western myth" (67-71).

"Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn" is the high point of a book that continually frustrated Mark Twain during its composition and, as Blair contends, was "not worth all the trouble it took to write it" (168; Paine 665). For all its aesthetic problems, however, A Tramp Abroad proved a commercial success: it sold sixty-two-thousand copies during the first year, far outstripping sales of Mark Twain's previous three books; in England, A Tramp Abroad achieved the best sales record of all Mark Twain's books during the author's lifetime (Kaplan, Mr. Clemens 350; Emerson 105).


In early March 1878 Mark Twain signed a contract with Elisha Bliss to write for the American Publishing Company a subscription book about travel through Europe. The original idea was to produce another book like the enormously successful Innocents Abroad (1869). The contract with Bliss may have been the impetus for an extended trip to Germany, but more probably Mark Twain used the contract to justify a trip he had already decided was necessary to revitalize his sagging creative spirit. His humiliation at the Whittier birthday dinner in Boston 17 December 1877 had left him uncertain of his role in American letters. Acutely self-conscious, he had written to Howells a week after the dinner: "I feel that my misfortune has injured me all over the country; therefore it will be best that I retire from before the public at present" (Mark Twain-Howells Letters 212). Emerson hence suggests that Mark Twain left for Germany in mid-April 1878 largely to escape his embarrassment and the lethargy it engendered (98). In any event, upon his arrival in Germany, he began immediately writing material for A Tramp Abroad. But quickly a fundamental aesthetic problem arose: there was no focus to the project, no "narrative plank" to provide unity to the miscellaneous tales, sketches, short stories, and anecdotes he prepared. He wrote to Frank Bliss in July 1878: "I have written 800 pages of ms…. but it is in disconnected form & cannot be used until joined together by the writing of at least a dozen intermediate chapters" (Hill 133). A visit from his close friend Joe Twichell triggered an idea for a unifying thread. Mark Twain decided his book would be a burlesque account of a walking tour through Europe, undertaken by two American tramps—Mark Twain and a companion named Mr. Harris—who manage to do no walking at all. The strategy, however, proved unsuccessful. By this time Mark Twain was too sick of travel—of hotels, trains, museums, etc.—to bring the same freshness and ironic vision that had informed Innocents Abroad. A Tramp Abroad does indeed offer a series of chapters describing Mark Twain's adventures while traveling with Mr. Harris through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy—but there are frequent digressions, most of which, like the "Blue Jay Yarn," have nothing to do with Europe or the tour. What he could not fit even as a digression, Mark Twain stuffed into six appendices (Emerson 105; Rogers 80). The result is a disjointed work with occasionally brilliant digressions, the whole characterized by what Blair calls the "labored pursuit of humorous effects" (Mark Twain 168).

Throughout the composition of A Tramp Abroad Mark Twain knew he was having trouble and, in fact, looked for a pretext to abandon the project altogether (Kaplan, Mr. Clemens, 336). He wrote to Howells on 8 January 1880 that he had "been fighting a life-&-death battle with this infernal book & hoping to get it done some day…. A book which required 2600 pages of ms, & I have written nearer four thousand, first & last" (Mark Twain-Howells Letters 286-87). Hill points out that in writing A Tramp Abroad Mark Twain reversed the process he had followed in Innocents Abroad. In the earlier book, the Alta letters had at the outset furnished a rudimentary structure, a "narrative plank"; in revising the letters for book publication he had only to flesh out his series of letters with appropriate anecdotes. In A Tramp Abroad, however, the digression became the basic structural unit, preceeding the flimsy unifying principle of the burlesque walking tour to which it bore scant resemblance (139).

The immediate source for "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn" is a tale Mark Twain heard Jim Gillis tell while the author lived with Gillis at Jackass Hill in Calaveras County, California, during the winter 1864-65. Inclement weather forced Mark Twain to pass his time indoors, around the fire in Gillis's cabin or in the hotel saloon at nearby Angel's Camp. Here he heard Gillis and Ben Coon spin yarns from a vast storehouse of western American lore. Mark Twain remembered these tall tales, even jotted down notes about some of them, and used them later as the basis of such classic pieces as "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" (1865) and the "Blue Jay Yarn." But he was struck as deeply by the tellers themselves and their deadpan manner of delivery (Bellamy 146; Benson 124). Long argues that behind Jim Baker or Simon Wheeler lies the narrator of the western tall tale—a real, vital person like Gillis or Coon who spins his fantastic yarn in an authentic idiom (133, 321).

The story belongs to the tradition of the bestiary, dating back to before Chaucer but surfacing in the antebellum South of Mark Twain's youth in the Negro slave narrative (DeVoto 251; Long 321). Mark Twain remembered fondly the stories he heard in childhood from the old Negro slave Uncle Dan'l and, as Lynn points out, later tended to conflate his memories of Uncle Dan'l with his response to Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus tales (240). Harris supplied Mark Twain not an analogue for this particular story but the example of a method; as Arnold points out, the birds in the "Blue Jay Yarn" portray "frontier society just as Harris' creatures allegorize antebellum plantation life" (206). Mark Twain's 1881 correspondence with Harris reveals also that in the Uncle Remus tales Mark Twain found confirmation of his theory that the frame that encloses a story—the character of the narrator and his interaction with the auditor—rather than the actual yarn itself, is of paramount importance (Bellamy 149-50).

Like "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog," the "Blue Jay Yarn" bears strong affinities to the tradition of southwestern humor (Cohen and Dillingham 387-88). This genre, Arnold contends, involves two divergent strains of development, both of which leave their mark on Mark Twain's fiction. The first strain appears in the work of such ironic humorists as George Washington Harris, A. B. Longstreet, and Johnson Jones Hooper—essentially conservative satirists who use animals or metaphors featuring animals to expose the boorishness and cruelty of simple frontier people and hence assure an educated eastern audience of its inherent moral and cultural superiority. In the tales of Sut Luvingood or Simon Suggs, animals rarely achieve any autonomous personality for their function is either to illuminate human inadequacies or to provide occasion for slapstick humor at the expense of the country bumpkin. From Longstreet, Arnold contends, Mark Twain "learned his descriptive techniques," and the episode of the poodle and the pinch bug in Tom Sawyer (1876) testifies to his use of the slapstick tradition for humorous and satiric effect.

The second strain comes to Mark Twain from such "animal-admiring humorists" as Alexander McNutt and T. B. Thorpe. In McNutt's "Chunkey's Fight with the Panthers" the panther proves an awesome beast, a worthy and respected adversary in what becomes an epic conflict; in "The Big Bear of Arkansas," Thorpe creates a mythical bear, a creature he loves "like a brother," and in doing so demonstrates an affinity with what Arnold labels "the deeper rhythms of unity with the animal world which is central to Twain." Mark Twain, Arnold contends, fuses the two traditions of animal portraiture in southwestern humor, moving in the "Blue Jay Yarn" and later stories about the Indian crow to complete empathy with the animals and the natural realm they represent (196-202).


"Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn" shares much in common with "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog." Both are based on tall tales Mark Twain heard while living in Calaveras County, California, during the winter 1864-65, and both are rooted in regional folklore. Moreover, both tales are told in a frontier idiom by folk narrators who, as Hansen writes, "seem never to leave their rocking chairs" (420). Blair points out that the "Blue Jay Yarn" exploits the humorous effects resulting from the juxtaposition of realistic and fantastic passages, a technique that governs the "Jumping Frog" story and works well in Huck's account of the exploits of the duke and the dauphin in Huckleberry Finn (1885) ("Mark Twain's Other Masterpiece" 134-38).

The "Blue Jay Yarn" belongs to a long series of stories, sketches, and fragments about animals, virtually all of which are collected by Brashear and Rodney in The Birds and Beasts of Mark Twain. Animals of course play a significant role in Simon Wheeler's tale about Jim Smiley's gambling adventures and in Tom Sawyer, where their antics serve the purposes of burlesque humor. In Jim Baker's yarn, however, the jay becomes what Arnold calls a "full-fledged protagonist." Mercifully, Mark Twain here does not treat the jay in a vein of maudlin sentimentality, as he later treats the animal protagonists of "A Dog's Tale" (1903) and "A Horse's Tale" (1906). But he does identify with his animal protagonist, for like Jim Baker's frustrated jay Mark Twain knew well what it was like "to dump money, or the manuscript pages for a book, into holes which seemed too huge ever to fill" (Blair, Mark Twain, 176). Arnold contends that the jays manifest those qualities that made Mark Twain the celebrated spokesman for and chronicler of the American West: "his virtuosity at the profanity, bragging, posturing, exaggerating, and lying that constituted conversation in the frontier towns" (208)….

Source: James D. Wilson, "‘Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn,’" in A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Mark Twain, G. K. Hall, 1996, pp. 153-61.

Ronald J. Gervais

In the following article, Gervais traces the meaning of the central joke in "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn" by placing it in the context of A Tramp Abroad and suggesting that the empty spaces in the American landscape engender the need for both language and humor.

Mark Twain's fable of the bluejay, the acorns, and an unfillable knot-hole in a cabin roof has been called "the high point of A Tramp Abroad," "the most perfect example of the genuine Western tall tale" in all of Mark Twain's works, and even the greatest of Twain's shorter comic works. But it has been praised almost exclusively for its technical virtuosity and management of material, for its "harmonious blending of the material of fantasy and the framework of realism," and not for any point it might be making. Even the central action of the tale has had little meaning for critics. "Baker's bluejay … dumped acorns into his knot-hole for reasons that never were clarified," writes Walter Blair. This essay will attempt to clarify those reasons.

The American "yarn" should be seen in relation to the carefully established atmosphere of "German legends and fairy tales" that prepares for it in Chapter 3 of A Tramp Abroad (1880). The practice followed by most anthologists of printing the yarn without this context is to ignore the European-American contrast that Twain sets up. The tall tale can stand by itself as skillful entertainment, but it makes more serious sense when seen as the recollection by an American in Europe of a faraway friend's story. The Neckar hills above Heidelberg where Twain the tourist strolls are peopled "with gnomes, and dwarfs, and all sorts of mysterious and uncanny creatures" (this and all following citations of "Baker's Blue-Jay Yarn" are from A Tramp Abroad, Ch. 3). With enough reading and "dreamy thoughts," he even gets to imagining that he glimpses "kobolds and enchanted folk" flitting "down the columned aisles of the forest." This mood is broken by some ravens, whose croaks have "a distinctly insulting expression," as if to say "in raven, ‘Well, what do you want here?’" These European ravens turn out to be experts in the art of Western American slangy insult: "What a hat!" "Oh, pull down your vest!" they croak at the humiliated intruder. In his self-conscious working up of legendary European atmosphere, Mark Twain suddenly feels "as foolish as if he had been caught in some mean act," and is driven imaginatively back to the American scene.

Having established an imaginative world where animals can talk, Twain makes it a bridge between the forests of Germany and the "lonely corner of California," where lives the man who can understand animal talk, and who will narrate the blue-jay yarn—Jim Baker. The difference between the two places is that the former is thickly peopled with ancient imagined-beings, while the latter must create its dramas out of the rawest materials. The tourist frame of A Tramp Abroad and the frontier fable of "Baker's Blue-Jay Yarn" posit a contrast between the richly enculturated landscape of Europe and the culturally empty landscape of the American West. Along the Neckar hills, Twain has "the huge ruin of Heidelberg Castle, with empty window arches, ivy-mailed battlements, moldering towers—the Lear of inanimate nature,—deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful." In the Sierra foothills, he has the house of the last man but Baker to have moved away from the region. "There stands his house,—been empty ever since; a log house, with a plank roof—just one big room, and no more; no ceiling—nothing between the rafters and the floor." This very poverty of human culture stimulates the comic possibilities within language itself. Twain transmutes German legend into Western myth through the vernacular language of the frontier, the language of American humor.

Jim Baker's preamble to his tale establishes the language ability of jays, from the impressive propriety of their grammar to the equally impressive impropriety of their profanity. Baker asserts that a bluejay is unsurpassed in putting his moods and feelings into language: language variegated, faultless in grammar, and "bristling with metaphor, just bristling." The tale then provides what was promised—a gaudy display of language. The display begins when a bluejay lights on the empty house "with an acorn in his mouth," perhaps symbolic of his oral gifts.

This hole in the roof is the most "bristling" of the yarn's metaphors. It becomes an empty silence that mocks and provokes the jay's outraged eloquence. An entire "congress" of jays convenes to peer into it and deliver themselves of thoroughly human opinions, "jawing and disputing and ripping and cussing." One old jay finally peers into the half-open cabin door and dispels the mystery: "Come here!… Come here, everybody; hanged if this fool hasn't been trying to fill up a house with acorns!" In revealing counterpoint, the bluejay who tries to fill up an empty frontier house with acorns suffers the same humiliation as the "Mark Twain" who had tried to work up a romantic atmosphere in the German forest, suggesting the truth of Baker's claim that "a jay knows when he is an ass just as well as you do—maybe better."

The compensation for man and beast is humor, specifically a humorous manner of talking and telling. The jays "guffawed over that thing like human beings. It ain't any use to tell me a bluejay hasn't got a sense of humor, because I know better." And in counterpoint to such European tourist attractions as the Heidelberg Castle described earlier by Train, the California jays bring birds "from all over the United States to look down that hole, every summer for three years." Only that symbol of conventional wisdom—the owl from Nova Scotia, who rounds off the tale as a tourist in the West just as Twain had opened it as a tourist in Europe—only he is bound to be disappointed and not to "see anything funny in it." For he comes expecting to see something, when the point is what remains when everything is left out.

"Baker's Blue-Jay Yarn" shows a characteristic and continuing American concern for filling in with appropriate language the huge spaces of a newly-settled continent. In the absence of such traditional European materials for creating literature as a complex social structure, a native accumulation of legend and myth, and an already extant literary tradition, there evolved in America a literary strategy that might be called negative description. From de Crèvecoeur to Robert Frost, lists of what is missing define "the land vaguely realizing westward, /but still unstoried, artless, unenhanced." Coming to imaginative terms with this negative state, this emptiness, seemed a capital "joke" to sensibilities as different as Henry James and Mark Twain.

De Crèvecoeur's rhetorical negation sets the tone for the next century in delimiting the empty spaces between the old and the new, between European preconceptions and unmanageable American facts.

He is arrived on a new continent; a modern society offers itself to his contemplation, different from what he had hitherto seen. It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything, and of a herd of people who have nothing. Here are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one; no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe.

Cooper adopts the negative mode without the same exuberance when he cites glumly in Notions of the Americans the worst obstacle against which American literature has to contend—the poverty of materials.

There are no annals for the historian; no follies (beyond the most vulgar and commonplace) for the satirist; no manners for the dramatist; no obscure fictions for the writer of romance; no gross and hardy offenses against decorum for the moralist; nor any of the rich artificial auxiliaries of poetry.

In his preface to The Marble Faun, Hawthorne pities himself for the difficulties this impoverishment causes him as a writer, yet sees it as a condition of American innocence. The author's well-known ambiguity makes the now familiar list of "no's" both complaint and thanksgiving.

No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land.

This whole practice of negative description achieves a grand climax in James's Hawthorne, where he uses a provocative slyness in combining a string of reservations, deliberately comic in their tedious enumeration. The secret "joke" that remains, as James knows, after everything is left out, will shortly be sprung by Mark Twain.

No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great universities nor public schools—No Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot!… The natural remark, in the almost lurid light of such an indictment, would be that if those things are left out, everything is left out. The American knows that a good deal remains; what it is that remains—that is his secret, his joke, as one may say. It would be cruel, in this terrible denudation, to deny him the conciliation of his national gift, that ‘American humor’ of which of late years we have heard so much.

The burden of that American humor which remains after everything is left out is to create a language to express a landscape lacking nearly all the appurtenances of civilization. All of that unhumanized, unlanguaged space—an empty house that Americans could not even begin to fill. When we realized our problem, we could only laugh, and our laughter began to fill the house.

Under the almost savage conditions of a wild new land, laughter was one of the means by which the frontiersman could for a time forget his hardship, preserve his courage, and retain his balance and his humanity. Through his tall tales and his exaggerated, at times almost bestial, behavior, he could laugh at himself and know at the same time that he was playing a role, that his civilized self remained intact.

Jim Baker, the frontiersman, seems to project his own loneliness and need for language and humor unto the birds. He begins to understand their language just when the last man in the region but himself has moved away, and the action begins as he contemplates this last man's empty "house," and thinks of his own "home" away yonder in the states that he has not heard from in thirteen years. The distinction between house and home, the sense of abandonment hinted at in "hadn't heard from," the pathetic fallacy of "lonely" leaves, and the emphatic negativity in the description of the empty house—"just one big room, and no more; no ceiling—nothing between the rafters and the floor"—all imply an integral relation between domestic space and language. Without a language to fill it, the American house is not yet a home. Lacking "the pleasant legendary stuff" of Europe, Baker fills the house with the "jay language" of tall tale humor. His comic insistence on standards of correctness, on "good grammar," in the face of his own demonstrated ignorance of it, shows him overcoming a possible sense of inferiority through bravado. His faith that whatever a jay feels he can put into language, is the faith that American speech can deal with the "terrible denudation" cited by James, faith that American humor does know the joke of what remains when everything is left out—the power of inventive language and cathartic laughter over the empty places.

Contemporary evidence suggests that we have come to appreciate what remains. Of growing up in Michigan, Theodore Roethke declares in his "Open Letter" to John Ciardi, "sometimes one gets the feeling that not even the animals have been there before, but the marsh, the mire, the Void is always there … It is America." And Robert M. Pirsig seeks the same vision on the Great Plains:

In my mind, when I look at these fields, I say to her, ‘See? … See?’ and I think she does. I hope later she will see and feel a thing about these prairies I have given up talking to others about; a thing that exists here because everything else does not and can be noticed because other things are absent.

I thought maybe in this endless grass and wind she would see a thing that sometimes comes when monotony and boredom are accepted. It's here, but I have no names for it.

There are no names for it because the condition unnamed is a preter-linguistic consciousness that permits an exhilarating and scarifying glimpse into nature's empty house, where our few words lie scattered about like acorns. When we realize, as we do in "Baker's Blue-Jay Yarn," that our cultural and language universe is not coincident with the larger universe, as has been especially true in the American experience as compared with the European, then we no longer lament the hollow spaces or strain anxiously to fill them, but perceive them as filled with the humorous and human latencies of what remains when everything is left out.

Source: Ronald J. Gervais, "What Remains When Everything Is Left Out: The Joke of ‘Baker's Blue-Jay Yarn,’" in Mark Twain Journal, Vol. 21, No. 4, Fall 1983, pp. 12-14.


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Melton, Jeffrey Alan, "Touring the Old World: Faith and Leisure in The Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad," in Mark Twain, Travel Books, and Tourism: The Tide of a Great Popular Movement, University of Alabama Press, 2002, pp. 59-94.

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Audubon, John James, Birds of America, edited by Colin Harrison and Cyril Walker, Wordsworth Editions, 1997.

This book combines facts with Audubon's renowned lavish illustrations of American birds.

Blair, Walter, Tall Tale America: A Legendary History of Our Humorous Heroes, University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Blair revisits folk history to uncover tall tales that include completely fictional figures as well as historical figures such as Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed. The style is fun, as Blair writes about these events and people as if they were real.

Powers, Ron, Mark Twain: A Life, Free Press, 2005.

Powers offers readers a thoroughly researched, insightful look into the life of Mark Twain. Rich with facts, this biography seeks to show readers the real Twain and how he became a unique voice in American literature.

Twain, Mark, Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays, Vol. 1, edited by Louis J. Budd, Library of America, 1992.

This collection of Twain's writing includes fiction and nonfiction from the first part of his career. The anthology gives readers a sense of his humor and American perspective through a full range of fiction as well as through travel writing, opinion pieces, and reporting.