The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1991, Volume 37, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Squibob: An Early California Humorist.
Edited by Richard Derby Reynolds. San Francisco: Squibob Press, 1990. Illustrations. 253 pages. $10.95 paper.

Reviewed by Paul M. Zall, Research Scholar, Huntington Library. Author of Mark Twain Laughing (1985), and forthcoming studies on California humor.


This delightful book’s bright yellow cover promises a lively introduction to George Horatio Derby, here modestly called “an early California humorist” when some of us would insist he was “the” inventor of California humor. Interspersed with insightful commentary, garlanded with mid-nineteenth century vignettes, the selection of representative parodies and sketches seems likewise modest yet judicious. All in all, while informative and instructive, this is a book to be dipped into for reading pleasure.

An Army officer, Derby’s reputation preceded him to the Coast. At West Point he designed an artillery shell that would go around corners. Its fatal flaw was returning to hit the gunner in the backside. Professionally, he surveyed from the Feather River to the lower San Joaquin Valley and even the lower Colorado River, opening it to navigation. As humorist, he would keep ’em laughing in camp and at the hub of San Francisco’s society, especially at Jessie Fremont’s salon, where the intellectuals would lionize him.

Writing for Bay Area newspapers, his pieces parodied high and low fashions and even other writers. When a competitor usurped “Squibob,” Derby switched to “John Phoenix,” as rising from Squibob’s ashes, and by that name became a household favorite — even in Abraham Lincoln’s White House. By that name, too, he came to San Diego where, in virtual isolation while awaiting appropriation for flood control, he produced his best, most innovative work, creating the style the country came to call “Californian,” perfected by Mark Twain in the next decade with his jumping frog and talking blue jays. The editor, Richard Derby Reynolds, deserves praise and thanks for reintroducing the writer Mark Twain called, “the first of the great modern humorists.”