William Wright, aka Dan De Quille

Most who knew William Wright, a colleague of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) on Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise, believed that of the two, Wright was the most likely to succeed. Instead, Twain went on to achieve immediate national and international fame while Wright, nineteenth-century Nevada’s most important literary figure, slipped into obscurity until recently.

Wright was born in 1829 on a farm in Ohio, to Quaker parents. At eighteen he moved with his family to West Liberty, Iowa. There he married, fathered five children, and published his first literary productions in local newspapers and the Knickerbocker Magazine, a respected periodical published in New York

In 1857, Wright went alone to California to prospect for gold. He was not noticeably successful and, in 1860, went to Nevada, where gold and silver had been discovered on the Comstock Lode. He was not successful mining there either, but the articles and sketches he wrote and published in various regional periodicals such as the Golden Era, San Francisco’s distinguished literary magazine, came to the attention of Joseph Thompson Goodman and Denis McCarthy, co-owners of the Territorial Enterprise. They hired him as a reporter in 1861, just as that newspaper was on the verge of becoming the most important paper on the West Coast.

Wright had been experimenting with various pen names, but when he hit upon Dan De Quille, it stuck, and soon all but replaced his true name. De Quille quickly became the most prestigious reporter on the paper. He emerged as an authority on mining, and fellow journalists admired his ability to cover the beat of local news.

In addition to journalism, De Quille began a second career writing humorous sketches and works of short fiction. He published some of these in the Golden Era while others became features in the Enterprise. Especially popular were the subtle and entertaining hoaxes he called “quaints” and passed off as news stories in the paper. They consisted of embellishments of impossible or absurd stories with plausible detail until credulous readers fell for it. For example, he invented a story about blind fish found in the scalding water at the deep levels of Comstock mines that died of cold when brought to the surface and put in fresh water.

A classic quaint describes how an inventor devised “solar armor,” a contraption like a diving suit with an air conditioning unit attached that would enable a man to walk in comfort even in the hottest and most oppressive climate. According to De Quille, the inventor tested it by attempting to cross Death Valley in the summer. When he did not reach the other side, a search party found him frozen to death with an icicle more than a foot long hanging from his nose. His machine had been too successful, and he had been unable to turn it off.

Another noteworthy quaint was "The Traveling Stones of Pahranagat," about some magnetic stones that, when scattered, arranged themselves in a circle, the last one jumping into the center. P. T. Barnum reputedly offered De Quille $10,000 if he would bring the stones to him. This story was remarkable for having been developed in three stages, in 1865 or 1866, 1872 and, finally, 1892. It was so convincing that even when De Quille admitted publicly that it was a hoax, readers ignored him and continued to believe in the account.

After Mark Twain was hired on at the Enterprise in 1862, he and De Quille became close friends and roommates. As such, they wrote spoofing news stories about each other, which delighted Comstockers. In 1864, however, Twain left Virginia City for California and started his rise to fame. De Quille remained on the Comstock and was privately puzzled and hurt that Twain was being celebrated while he remained largely unknown beyond the West Coast. Part of the reason for this was that Twain actively promoted himself and published books, whereas De Quille, almost diffidently, did not.

In 1875, influential financiers pressured De Quille to write a book about the Big Bonanza, a recent, spectacular mining strike. Unable to resist the pressure, De Quille dropped plans to publish a collection of his writing and began the book, but turned to alcohol for solace. He contacted Twain, who invited him to come to Hartford to do his writing. The friendship between the two men cooled somewhat in Hartford. In 1876, De Quille finished the book, The Big Bonanza. It is a classic account of the Comstock Lode, and has seldom been out of print, but its sales were disappointing.

When De Quille returned to Virginia City, his alcoholism incapacitated him until even his good friend, Joe Goodman, laid him off from the Enterprise. The shock, paradoxically, was beneficial. He overcame his alcoholism, undertook a weekly column for the Salt Lake City Daily Tribune, owned by his friend C. C. Goodwin, and began writing short stories and freelancing them around the country, at last achieving a national reputation. Many of these stories are of very high quality, and especially sensitive to psychological and moral issues.

From 1893 to 1897 his health declined and De Quille, as if sensing the end, turned to writing novellas, composing them so quickly that he did not even take time to place them with a publisher. Four of them have since been published: Dives and Lazarus (1988), Pahnenit, Prince of the Land of Lakes (1988), Gnomes of the Dead Rivers (1990), and The Sorceress of Attu (1994). Toward the end of 1897, crippled from arthritis, tired and “used up,” he returned to West Liberty at the home of a daughter. John Mackay, the “silver king” who was also De Quille’s good friend, gave him a pension. Several months later, he passed away.

In recent years, De Quille’s work has been rediscovered and reprinted in book form, a goal he failed to accomplish in his lifetime. It is now apparent that he was one of the Old West’s most accomplished authors, ranking just behind Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Bret Harte.

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