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Most of Don Marquis’ Archy pieces were written in lowercase. The literate cockroach, we learned, would stand on the typewriter and dive, head first, onto the keys. But this way, he couldn’t use the shift key to get capital letters or punctuation (he did get capital letters, once, when Marquis left the shift-lock on the machine one night; Archy wrote about it in a 1933 piece called ‘CAPITALS AT LAST‘).
But I’ve always felt one of the best pieces to come from the mind of Marquis was Archy’s commentary on criticisms about his grammar and punctuation from readers, in a 1933 piece titled, “archy protests’ which I have copied from the Donmarquis.com site, but which I came across again this weekend while reading The Best of Archy and Mehitabel (and while enjoying a glass of my homemade wine in the warm spring evening):
say comma boss comma capital
i apostrophe m getting tired of
being joshed about my
punctuation period capital t followed by
he idea seems to be
that capital i apostrophe m
ignorant where punctuation
is concerned period capital n followed by
o such thing semi
colon the fact is that
the mechanical exigencies of
the case prevent my use of
all the characters on the
typewriter keyboard period
capital i apostrophe m
doing the best capital
i can under difficulties semi colon
and capital i apostrophe m
grieved at the unkindness
of the criticism period please
consider that my name
is signed in small
In a later piece, titled ‘the stuff of literature,’ after receiving various readers’ comments on how to best effect proper capitalization and punctuation, Archy commented that,
my ego will express itself in spite of
all mechanical obstacles having something
to say is the thing being sincere
counts for more than forms of expression thanks
for the doughnuts
One cannot read Archy’s words without appreciating Marquis’ wit and his tongue-in-cheek attitude, but also his wisdom. Certainly Marquis was making a point that the style he gave to Archy was artistic, and not in need of mechanical correction.
Like those readers, I often comment on the grammar, style and form of other writers. Writing and editing – the cornerstones of good communication – still play a large part in my life, even if only from the sidelines.
Of late, I have been particularly critical of the the rather awful, error-dense writing by the current EB’s would-be writers. Had they something to say, something meaningful or relevant, to make some salient point, or even be artistic in their grammatical monstrosities, as Archy says, what I grouse about would be petty and irrelevant. But since this is a newspaper, and we expect them to live up to the highest literary standard, we cannot ignore the egregiously bad writing in the paper. To avoid commenting on it is to acquiesce to its abuse of the language.
For me, 2016 will mark 55 years since I first discovered Don Marquis and his writing. I was reading on the Don Marquis blog that 2016 will also mark 100 years since the character Archy was first introduced to the world:
It was 99 years ago — March 29, 1916 — that Archy the cockroach first spoke to the world. Don Marquis had come into his office at The Evening Sun earlier than usual and discovered “a gigantic cockroach jumping about upon the keys” of his typewriter.
Marquis died on Dec. 29, 1937. He’s one of the few authors I truly would have liked to meet. I feel sympathy for those who have not yet discovered him because they are missing some delightful material, as well as some potent cultural memes. After all, how could anyone not appreciate the Buddhist-like sentiments in the ‘Song of Mehitabel‘:
my youth i shall never forget
but there s nothing i really regret
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai
Wothtehell, wotthehell… maybe that’s what we should all say. Make it our personal philosophical motto. If only there wasn’t that missing comma, that run-on sentence, that incorrect verb-subject agreement that stand out in every article, With that outlook, one could almost forgive the EB for its amatuerishly incompetent writing.,. but maybe in another life, one of Mehitabel’s reincarnations, we can pretend it doesn’t matter.
- 723 words
- 4426 characters
- Reading time: 235 s
- Speaking time: 361s