David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
John Phoenix, Esq., The Veritable Squibob. A Life of Captain George H. Derby, U.S.A. By George R. Stewart. Reprint Edition. (New York, N.Y., Da Capo Press, 1969). Bibliography of Darby’s Writings. Illustrations. Index. Notes. 242 pages. $12.50.
Reviewed by Dr. Robert Redding, Chairman of the American Studies Committee and teacher of United States Literature and American Studies at San Diego State College. Dr. Redding’s chief interest is American humor, and he has published in the Journal of Popular Culture
In the annals of American humor, early San Diego figures primarily as the setting for George Horatio Derby’s most famous practical joke. Derby, who produced comic essays, verse and drawings during the 1850’s under the pseudonyms of “Squibob” and “John Phoenix,” is the subject of this appreciative biography, first issued by Prof. Stewart in 1937 and once more available as part of Da Capo’s “American Scene” series. To Stewart, Derby was interesting not only as a writer whose work enlivened San Francisco’s Pioneer, New York’s Knickerbocker, San Diego’s Herald and other journals, but also as a man whose private quips and semi-public pranks generated local legends wherever his twenty years of military service took him. As an officer in the Corps of Topographic Engineers, Derby was responsible for important mapping expeditions of the Sacramento Valley, the southern San Joaquin, and (most notably) the lower Colorado River; his engineering feats included light houses on the Gulf Coast, military roads in the Northwest, and “Derby’s Dyke,” which re-directed an errant San Diego River to its original channel into False Bay. His writings and cartoons afforded a channel of a different sort for an irrepressible comic spirit which found little chance for legitimate exercise in the normal line of duty.
Stewart speculates, with fit moderation, about the origins of that spirit. Derby’s forebears included many sober and substantial figures, though there was a vital admixture of New England eccentricity; his early homelife was largely a feminine society, pious and austere, while his later childhood included three tortuous years in a Boston academy where his boyish misdeeds evoked appalling disciplines at the hands of a schoolmaster whom Dickens might have created. There were later intervals as a schoolteacher (aged seventeen) in rural New Hampshire and as a listless shop clerk in the Concord of Emerson and Thoreau. His youthful experiences seem to have made their back handed contribution to Derby’s life-long ambivalance toward authority and propriety. At West Point his spiritedness brought him close to court martial on one occasion and inspired several pranks that became legenary in the still young Army Academy. The nascent humorist was to undergo some chastening adventures soon after his graduation; as a member of the staff of General Scott at Cerro Gordo, he boldly reconnoitered behind enemy lines and was wounded in the charge which routed Santa Ana’s forces.
His assignment to the West Coast in 1849 was to be crucial in the evolution of Lt. Derby into John Phoenix. Stationed in such outposts as Monterey, Sonoma and San Diego, with grateful interludes in the San Francisco of the Gold Rush period, the young officer found both time and inspiration for comedy. In the case of San Diego, it appears that the very dullness of the little town was its chief contribution to his art; for when, in the summer of 1853, he escaped for three months to San Francisco’s more stimulating climate, he reacted with particular gusto, contributing many boisterous essays and drawings to the Alta California and the Herald. And it was partly out of boredom that he accepted the temporary editorship of John J. Ames’ San Diego Herald, whose pages, in the owner’s absence, he proceeded to fill with exuberant burlesques on Southern California cultural life and pioneer journalism. But something besides mere playfulness was involved when he converted the paper from its official Democrat affiliation to espousal of the Whig cause, just in time for the state elections; Derby printed several articles quite earnestly denouncing the incompetence of the Democratic administration. His hoax produced much well-publicized amusement at Ames’ expense; it also produced an unaccustomed Whig victory in San Diego County. Meanwhile the story (including Derby’s fanciful account of Ames’ indignation) was soon known to the rest of the nation, enhancing the fame of John Phoenix. Derby remained in San Diego for another year after the Herald affair, supervising the construction of his levee; there followed more onerous duties in the Oregon Territory. His last years were spent in Washington, D.C., and Mobile; he died in 1861, in this thirtyeighth year.
In 1856, Phoenixiana appeared, a collection of Derby’s journalistic pieces; this, and the posthumous Squibob Papers, enjoyed great critical and popular success. In his thoughtful analysis of Derby’s humor, Stewart concluded that these works had subsequently faded into obscurity largely because of their topicality. Because of his residence in California, some literary historians had classified George Derby among the rather wild and uncultivated “western humorists;” Stewart saw him, however, as belonging in the “current of urban American humor” which proceeded from Irving and Paulding. At the same time he recognized, in Derby’s penchant for extravagant clowning, a kinship with the tribe of journalistic humorists whom Walter Blair has designated the “Literary Comedians.” Like the latter, Derby indulged in broad burlesque forms, usually innocent of specific satiric intent, and he shared their taste for literary parody: his last published piece was an irreverent note on the “true” meaning of Emerson’s “Brahma.”
Specialists in San Diego history will probably find little here that they did not already know about their subject, while local boosters may even take umbrage at Stewart’s unflattering portrayal of young San Diego as sleepy and uninteresting. Students of American humor will welcome the re-appearance of the only book-length study of one of our best minor humorists, and all readers should enjoy Stewart’s characteristically graceful account of the droll young topographer who first placed San Diego on the comic map of America.