Before the Big Bonanza: Dan De Quille's Early Comstock Accounts. Edited by Donnelyn Curtis and Lawrence I. Berkove. University of Missouri Press, 2015. Pp. 316. Hardback. $60.00 ISBN 978-0-8262-2038-7. Ebook: ISBN 978-0-8262-7331-4.

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The following review appeared 28 September 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

It would be front-page news in the Mark Twain community if a cache of forty-eight letters by Mark Twain, not seen in print since the 1860s, plus two articles written during his western years, suddenly made their appearance in a handsome book with ample footnotes, well-organized and indexed. Admittedly, Mark Twain's friend and fellow journalist Dan De Quille is not Mark Twain, but this book of forty-eight such letters and two articles by De Quille should excite Twainians just the same.

Dan De Quille ("dandy quill") was the nom de plume of William Wright, who arrived in Nevada shortly before Sam Clemens. He trained the newly hired Sam Clemens at the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, and except for a period of eight months in 1863 when he returned to Iowa (during which time Sam filled in for him) and a stay of a few months in Hartford years later to work on his book, he would remain in Nevada three decades after Sam Clemens returned east as Mark Twain. De Quille came from Iowa, where young Sam Clemens had spent some of his formative years, and like Twain he took an interest in mining when he arrived in Nevada. Both men were autodidacts, but unlike Twain De Quille became an expert on mining. It might surprise some to learn that although De Quille's and Twain's writings sometimes appeared side-by-side in newspapers, it was Dan De Quille who was generally the better-liked of the two. His brand of humor was less aggressive than Twain's, and raised as a Quaker, he often expressed an aversion to the greed and violence that motivated or excited many of his colleagues. If he did not always display Mark Twain's wit or constantly strive to be entertaining, his reporting stands apart from much of the reportage of that time and place for its honesty and its informative tone, and these letters exhibit exactly those virtues.

De Quille is best-remembered for his book, The Big Bonanza, published by Mark Twain's publisher in 1876 with a brief preface by Twain. That book provides an excellent overview of the Comstock, but these letters are alive with details about the places and events that both men experienced. Twain and De Quille borrowed from each other, from their fellow journalists, and from their wide reading, and some of these letters, which appeared mostly in The Golden Era and De Quille's hometown Iowa newspaper between June 1860 and the end of 1863, deal with themes Twain later developed in Roughing It and The Gilded Age. Twainians who read De Quille's poem, 'Old Dog Turk' will see shades of Emmeline Grangerford's poetry in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Although the two friends differed in their views of Mormons and food, they were both part of the Sagebrush school of journalism, and the letters in this book and the annotations on each letter make clear the mutual influence they had on each other, as well as the influence of Artemus Ward and the Phunny Phellow school of humor on both of them. Appended to these four dozen letters are two articles written by De Quille during the same period, one being a tour of a silver mine, and the other being a letter of January 1862 that reflects the influence of Charles Geoffrey Leland on De Quille's writing. Leland, like Artemus Ward, was for a time the editor of Vanity Fair, the popular comic magazine where the phrase "Mark Twain" had appeared as a proper name for the first time in print exactly one year before.

Because this is the Mark Twain Forum, fair warning must be given: Readers of this book might find themselves sufficiently distracted from their fixation on Mark Twain to seek out Dan De Quille's other writings like The Big Bonanza, or Washoe Rambles, a previous collection of letters published in 1963, or Larry Berkove's previous collection of De Quille's writings, The Fighting Horse of Stanislaus (1990). But even if they get no further than the present volume they will have learned a lot about both men.