George R. Stewart’s forgotten biography of George Derby

After ORDEAL BY HUNGER, with its landmark Whole Earth vision, George R. Stewart wrote another biography.  The book, JOHN PHOENIX, ESQ, THE VERITABLE SQUIBOB:  A LIFE OF CAPTAIN GEORGE H. DERBY, U.S.A.,  forgotten by all but scholars, is about the first great American humorist.   Derby, A topographical engineer with the army, came from an urbane eastern background, but found himself posted to the far west.  There, he mapped the Central Valley of California and the lower Colorado River, among other places.  Posted to San Diego, and bored by the sleepy little town, Derby began writing humorous sketches about life in the west.

He fleshed out those stories by playing practical jokes on local folks.   For example, when a local Democratic editor asked Derby to take over his editorial duties for a time, Derby turned the newspaper into a voice for the Whig Party and won the election in the area for the Whigs — not for political reasons, but for fun.

Stewart believed  that Derby may have influenced Sam Clemens to take up humorous writing AND a pen name.  Derby often traveled on the Mississippi when young Sam was piloting steamboats, and could easily have encountered the future humorist.   If so – and it is often the case that when new ideas enter the world they begin with a pioneer like Derby (or Stewart) and are then refined and made famous by others mentored by the pioneers – Derby deserves great credit for his shaping of American humor.

For more on Derby, see this humorous biography of the writer published in the early twentieth century:

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