MOUNT VERNON -- Even the greatest talents of the world need a break to get started, and the American icon we know as Mark Twain got his first big break courtesy of a man born in Knox County.
Though this man still commands a modest measure of renown today, few remember him by his original name, William Wright. Rather, he is remembered by the whimsical pen name “Dan De Quille,” under which name he chronicled the Nevada silver rush, known as the Comstock Lode.
But long before his adventures in the west, he was simply William Wright, born in northern Knox County in 1829, near Fredericktown. He was the son of Paxson Wright and Lucinda Markley. The creek that runs through Ankenytown, the Markley Run, takes its name from Lucinda's family.
Paxson's family were among the Quaker settlers who first populated the area around Fredericktown. It is said that William showed an interest in writing during his early years, but when the family was rocked by Paxson's early death in 1849, William led the family west to Iowa.
Wright began in journalism at that point, and got married to Caroline Coleman and had five children with his wife in the town of West Liberty, in Muscatine County, Iowa. But whatever attractions family life may have held, there wasn't much money to be made in Iowa. Wright decided to leave his family behind and moved to California in 1857 to search for gold.
Wright didn't find any precious metal, but he quickly found work as a reporter and correspondent, which brought in money, allowing him to send funds back to Iowa to support his family, which he had not forgotten about. Since humorous pen names were becoming fashionable, Wright decided to start penning his articles under the punning name “Dan De Quille.”
He began writing numerous letters and articles to publications back east, and in 1861 joined the staff of the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada. Within the next two years, two important events occurred: he was named editor of the Territorial Enterprise, and he met a young writer from Missouri named Sam Clemens.
Wright and Clemens became thick as thieves, sharing an apartment as they worked at the newspaper. Wright assured Clemens that for success as a humorist, Clemens needed a humorous name under which to write.
It was at that point that Clemens remembered the old Mississippi River depth-sounding that boat captains would call out when nearing shore: “Mark twain!” It literally meant “second mark,” but Clemens decided it would be a perfect pen name for his budding career.
Twain went on to become one of the pillars of American literature, writing such classics as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, The Mysterious Stranger and many more. For many years, Twain's fame eclipsed Dan De Quille, and it has only been in recent decades that literary scholars have rediscovered Dan De Quille and appraised his work.
One thing that is evident is that much of the wry humor and droll exaggeration associated with Twain is in fact something Twain learned from De Quille. That Twain became a master and was repeatedly struck by genius, no one is likely to gainsay, but he didn't invent the style.
Sometimes De Quille could be so deadpan that people mistook his satire for the truth, as in this article, run in the Territorial Enterprise in 1867:
Some years ago, a prospector who had been roaming through the Pahranagat Mountains, the wildest and most sterile portion of southeastern Nevada, brought back with him a great curiosity in the shape of a number of traveling stones.
The stones were almost perfectly round, the majority of them as large as a hulled walnut, and very heavy, being of an irony nature. When scattered about on the floor, on a table, or other level surface, within two or three feet of each other, they immediately began traveling toward a common center, and then huddled up in a bunch like a lot of eggs in a nest.
A single stone removed to a distance of a yard, upon being released, at once started off with wonderful and somewhat comical celerity to rejoin its fellows; but if taken away four or five feet, it remained motionless.
The man who was in possession of these traveling stones said that he found them in a region of country that, though comparatively level, is nothing but bare rock. Scattered about in this rocky plain are a great number of little basins, from a few feet to two or three rods in diameter, and it is in the bottom of these basins that the rolling stones are found.
In the basins they are seen from the size of a pea to five or six inches in diameter. These curious pebbles appeared to be formed of a loadstone or magnetic iron ore.
So many people mistook that story for a true report, De Quille spent years denying it and explaining that it was a hoax written to fill in a few inches of empty column space in the newspaper. This kind of mischievous humor kindled something in young Sam Clemens.
In fact, some scholars have suggested that some of the scenes and stories from life in the west in Mark Twain's first book, Roughing It, may have originated with Dan De Quille. Twain himself later said that the best compliment he ever received was when a reader remarked that Twain was “almost worthy of writing in the same column as Dan De Quille.”
An early example of Twain writing about Dan De Quille (probably with De Quille's help as mentor) was published in the Territorial Enterprise regarding a minor accident:
FRIGHTFUL ACCIDENT TO DAN DE QUILLE by Mark Twain
Our time-honored confrere, Dan, met with a disastrous accident, yesterday, while returning from American City on a vicious Spanish horse, the result of which accident is that at the present writing he is confined to his bed and suffering great bodily pain.
He was coming down the road at the rate of 100 miles an hour (as stated in his will, which he made shortly after the accident,) and on turning a sharp corner, he suddenly hove in sight of a horse standing square across the channel; he signaled for the starboard, and put his helm down instantly, but too late, after all; he was swinging to port, and before he could straighten down, he swept like an avalanche against the transom of the strange craft; his larboard knee coming in contact with the rudder-post of the adversary, Dan was wrenched from his saddle and thrown some 300 yards (according to his own statement, made in his will, above mentioned,) alighting upon solid ground, and bursting himself open from the chin to the pit of the stomach. His head was also caved in out of sight, and his hat was afterwards extracted in a bloody and damaged condition from between his lungs; he must have bounced end-for-end after he struck first, because it is evident he received a concussion from the rear that broke his heart; one of his legs was jammed up in his body nearly to his throat, and the other so torn and mutilated that it pulled out when they at tempted to lift him into the hearse which we had sent to the scene of the disaster, under the general impression that he might need it; both arms were indiscriminately broken up until they were jointed like a bamboo; the back was considerably fractured and bent into the shape of a rail fence. Aside from these injuries, however, he sustained no other damage.
They brought some of him home in the hearse and the balance on a dray. His first remark showed that the powers of his great mind had not been impaired by the accident, nor his profound judgment destroyed - he said he wouldn't have cared a d--n if it had been anybody but himself.
He then made his will, after which he set to work with that earnestness and singleness of purpose which have always distinguished him, to abuse the assemblage of anxious hash house proprietors who had called on business, and to repudiate their bills with his customary promptness and impartiality.
Dan may have exaggerated the above details in some respects, but he charged us to report them thus, and it is a source of genuine pleasure to us to have the opportunity of doing it. Our noble old friend is recovering fast, and what is left of him will be around the Brewery again to-day, just as usual.
After Twain became hugely successful, he approached De Quille, still editor of the Territorial Enterprise, and encouraged him to write a history of the Comstock Lode in Nevada. De Quille wrote this book, A History of the Big Bonanza, and got it published with Twain's help.
To this day, it is recognized as a classic of the American west, one made especially valuable because of De Quille's knowledge of mining from his own years as a prospector.
In typical droll style, De Quille included a memorable preface to the book, given here in its entirety:
I have put all I have to say into the body of this book; but, being informed that a preface is a necessary evil, I have written this one.
Despite this splash into wider renown, William Wright was growing increasingly unhappy with his life in the west as the Comstock Lode wound down and the population of Virginia City dwindled. The pressures of constantly writing and publishing in order to send money back home to his family, which he rarely saw, began to take a toll.
Wright turned to the bottle for consolation and became an alcoholic.
Due to falling circulation, the Territorial Enterprise closed in 1893. Wright persisted for a few more years as a freelance writer before finally returning to Iowa in poor health in the late 1890s, where he moved in with his daughter.
Presumably, Wright's wife Caroline, who was still living, had no interest in his return after so long an absence. In 1898, William Wright died and was buried in West Liberty.
It is only since the 1980s that many of Dan De Quille's writings have come back into print, allowing us to enjoy a humorist who preceded the big wave of Mark Twain and those who followed.
I was delighted to help that process along in 2011, when I had the honor of directing the play Gotta Leave-M Laugh-N, by Knox County songwriter and author Mike Petee, in a production which took place in Mount Vernon. This play pictured a meeting of humorists Mark Twain, Dan De Quille, Petroleum V. Nasby (also an Ohioan, from Shelby), and Artemus Ward.
The play showcased the writings of each of the men while telling the story of their varied careers.
It is fitting that William Wright be remembered as a Knox County native and one of the formative mentors of US literature.