The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XIX. Early Humorists

§ 12. Derby: “John Phœnix”

George Horatio Derby (1823–61) has been called the real father of the new school of humour which began to flourish toward the middle of the nineteenth century. His sketches, with the signature “John Phœnix,” began to appear about 1850, and were afterwards collected in two volumes, Phœnixiana (1855) and Squibob Papers (1859). Derby had graduated from West Point, had served in the Mexican War, and, as an engineer, had been engaged in surveying in the West and South. As a means of relaxation from his strenuous and exacting work, he set about writing down in humorous fashion his observations upon the life about him. In his books are to be found most of the elements used by humorists of more recent times. He delighted in the use of big words, highsounding phrases and figures of speech, and euphemistic statements. We quote a short example:

  • This resplendent luminary, like a youth on the Fourth of July, has its first quarter; like a ruined spendthrift, its last quarter; and like an omnibus, is occasionally full and new. The evenings in which it appears between these last stages are beautifully illumined by its clear, mellow light.
  • As a Western humorist, the first to introduce the spirit of the Pacific Coast into humorous literature, he influenced his admirer, Mark Twain, and as a writer of easy, fertile monologue he anticipated “Josh Billings,” and “Artemus Ward,” two of his most famous successors.

    For the present discussion there remain three men who, in the history of American humour, stand out more prominently than all others from colonial days to Mark Twain: Henry Wheeler Shaw, “Josh Billings” (1818–85); David Ross Locke, “Petroleum V. Nasby” (1833–88); and Charles Farrar Browne, “Artemus Ward” (1834–67).