I can’t recall exactly how old I was when I first cracked open Don Marquis’s book, archy and mehitabel, sitting there among the other books in the basement, black spined, stiff, yellowing pages. That old book smell.
Perhaps I was 11 or 12, but not much older, because we moved from that house in the summer after my 12th birthday. But I still remember it well.*
The book was one of those oddities on our basement family bookshelf. I ignored it, at first, then looked at the pictures – cartoons by George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat . Long after I’d checked out the cartoons, I started reading the text. It was wildly absurd, deeply philosophical, whimsical, silly, obscure, cynical, yet compelling. Way outside my depth. Who was this guy and what was all this nonsense about a cockroach and a typewriter?
Krazy Kat I knew from other books and publications, reprinted strips, and old, faded and brittle cartoon strips cut out from newspapers and placed in between pages of other books, long since forgotten. Herriman’s wild style of drawing always intrigued me, even as a child.
Perhaps there’s some astrological connection: two months after Herriman’s death, the last of his completed Krazy Kat strips, a full-page Sunday comic, was printed. The date was Sunday, June 25, 1944. That day the British were assaulting Caen, in France, to begin the bloody Operation Epsom. The Allies bombed Toulon. The 8th AF bombers and fighter bombers flew missions to attack bridges and airfields in France as the Allies pushed the Nazis back towards Germany. Ships of the United States Navy and Royal Navy attacked German fortifications at Cherbourg to support American troops taking the city and the entuire Normandy peninsula.
I was also born on a Sunday, in June, too. Okay, that’s wild and silly synchronicity and many years later. Just foolin’ with you. Astrology is claptrap. And I digress. Just wanted to put some context around Herriman and throw some misdirection your way. Ignosce mihi, dear reader.
Marquis died years before that, in 1937, after his third or fourth stroke. He was 59. No astrological connection there, I’m afraid. And also long before my time.
The book I opened, back in the early 1960s, seemed impossibly old. Published in 1927. The age of flappers, ukuleles, gin joints. When my father was a boy, not much old than I was when I discovered it. Had he read it then, and kept it ever since? Brought it with him from England after the war, a beloved volume too treasured to part from? Or had he picked up a copy here? I never knew.
Beside it on the shelf was archy’s life of mehitabel, 1933. Both sitting on the bookcase of forgotten volumes, tucked away in the basement, beside bound copies of the Boys’ Own Annual, a first edition of Tarzan, some tattered Mickey Spillane paperbacks, old hardback novels, books on time management, others on handyman skills, a few Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines, and odd volumes of an outdated encyclopedia.
All treasures to an inquisitive youngster. But this book hooked me in other ways, a sparked jumped across some subconscious wiring that connected literature, poetry, and writing. And maybe politics, too, although I was too young to realize it then.
Imagine reading these lines from the literary cockroach Archy to his feline friend, Mehitabel, when you were that age:
i suppose the human race
is doing the best it can but hell’s bells that’s only an explanation
it’s not an excuse.
Or imagine reading the lesson of the moth, which opens with the following, and trying to understand its meaning with your adolescent brain:
i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself in the wires
why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense
Who were Archy and Mehitabel? The donmarquis.com site explains:
THEY ARE THE MOST UNLIKELY OF FRIENDS: Archy is a cockroach with the soul of a poet, and Mehitabel is an alley cat with a celebrated past — she claims she was Cleopatra in a previous life. Together, cockroach and cat are the foundation of one of the most engaging collections of light poetry to come out of the twentieth century.
“expression is the need of my soul,” declares Archy, who labored as a free-verse poet in an earlier incarnation. At night, alone, he dives furiously on the keys of Don Marquis’ typewriter to describe a cockroach’s view of the world, rich with cynicism and humor. It’s difficult enough to operate the typewriter’s return bar to get a fresh line of paper; all of Archy’s dispatches are written lowercase, and without punctuation, because he is unable to hit both shift and letter keys to produce a capital letter.
Sam Waterston explains it in this YouTube video:
Archy first appeared in Marquis’s Sun newspaper column in 1916, almost a century ago. Mehitabel, a cat of questionable reputation, was also introduced then. As Marquis told it in the introduction to his first book of collected Archy tales, this is the first message on the typewriter:
expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
i see things from the under side now
thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket
but your paste is getting so stale i cant eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why dont she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be fore
there is a rat here she should get without delay
most of these rats here are just rats
but this rat is like me he has a human soul in him
he used to be a poet himself
night after night i have written poetry for you
on your typewriter
and this big brute of a rat who used to be a poet
comes out of his hole when it is done
and reads it and sniffs at it
he is jealous of my poetry
he used to make fun of it when we were both human
he was a punk poet himself
and after he has read it he sneers
and then he eats it
i wish you would have mehitabel kill that rat
or get a cat that is onto her job
and i will write you a series of poems showing how things look
to a cockroach
that rats name is freddy
the next time freddy dies i hope he wont be a rat
but something smaller i hope i will be a rat
in the next transmigration and freddy a cockroach
i will teach him to sneer at my poetry then
dont you ever eat any sandwiches in your office
i haven’t had a crumb of bread for i dont know how long
or a piece of ham or anything but apple parings
and paste and leave a piece of paper in your machine
every night you can call me archy
That early piece launched Marquis’s career on an entirely different tangent. He would pen his column in The Sun for another six years, with Archy as its most popular – wildly popular – subject. Then he took it to the New York Tribune for four years, and then to Collier’s Magazine, eventually writing some 500 pieces.
In the introduction to the 1950 edition of The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel, EB White wrote:
Archy has endeared himself in a special, way to thousands of poets and creators and newspaper slaves, and there are reasons for this beyond the sheer merit of his literary output. The details of his creative life make him blood brother to writing men. He cast himself with all I his force upon a key, head downward. So do we all. And when he was through his, labors, he fell to the floor, spent. He was vain (so are we all), hungry, saw things from the under side, and was continually bringing up the matter of whether he should be paid for his work.
Archy would tell his own tale several times, in many ways, as read and shown in this video:
Sitting beside me as I type this are three of Marquis’s original “archy” books – archy and mehitabel (1933), archy’s life of mehitabel (1933, , first edition) and archy does his part (1936)*. Plus I have a copy of the “archyology” collection of lost writings only recently discovered (one of two such collections printed in the mid-1990s).
I still read this stuff, I still get a kick out of it, and I still guffaw over it. It was truly a genius idea and well executed (compared at times to the work of poet e.e. cummings, but I disagree; Marquis was not so avant-garde).
Today some of the references and the style may slide past me, but it’s very readable nonetheless. My copies on the table here aren’t the family’s originals. They’re long gone, sold, given away, maybe donated to a library or charity. Mine were bought later in used bookstores. But treasured, anyway. Eighty years old, two of them, so they deserve our respect.
Marquis’s Archy books are still in print, although his other works have gone OP for some time. They didn’t have the longevity of Archy. Maybe they weren’t cynical enough. But the image of the little cockroach bashing his head on the keys as he punches out his blank verse still capitvates writers today, still has its fans. I’m one of them. There’s dance in the old dame yet, as Mehitabel would sing.
There’s even an Annotated Archy & Mehitabel, with notes to explain the references (I have it on order).
* Yes the under-capitalization is deliberate. Archy could not operate the shift key on the mechanical typewriter.