O Rare Don Marquis

Donald Robert Perry Marquis was an American newspaperman, writer, columnist, humorist, playwright, social critic, journalist, poet, parodist, historian, novelist, skeptic, cynic, satirist and philosopher, who lived and worked in New York up until his death in 1937. (His name, of Scotch/Irish origin, is pronounced “MAR-kwiss”. If you thought “mar-KEE”, go back and read the title again. It’s the title of a memorial article by his friend Christopher Morley; it would be hard to find a more fitting one.)

He is best known today as Don Marquis, creator of Archy and Mehitabel.

Archy is a cockroach, into whose small body was reincarnated the soul of a poet. (Archy “is”, because he lives on in the pages of four books of collected stories, still in print after 75 years.) Archy lived in Marquis’ newspaper office, and at night hammered out stories by hurling himself onto the keys of Marquis’ typewriter. (It was a standard Underwood; the effort was considerable.) Beside Archy – but usually at a safe distance – was Mehitabel, a cat, who wandered in one day from New York’s back alleys. Mehitabel tells a skeptical Archy that she is the reincarnated soul of Cleopatra. Through the eyes of Archy and Mehitabel, Marquis looked at society and the human condition, from “the under side now”.

In the 1920s, Marquis was New York’s most popular columnist. His column in New York’s Evening Sun ran from 1912 to 1922, when he moved to the New York Tribune, and continued there until about 1925. His columns ran six days a week, for about thirteen years. In 1917, Marquis thought highly of a song lyric by an up-and-coming young song-writer named Ira Gershwin, and ran it in his column.

In the years from 1921 to 1931, he suffered a series of family tragedies: his 5-year old son died; his first wife died; his 13-year old daughter died; and in 1935 and 1936 he was hit with a series of strokes that left him unable to write. In 1936, his second wife, who had been caring for him, died. He never recovered from that loss, and a year later, on December 29, 1937, Don Marquis died.

A friend of his, the writer and poet Benjamin DeCasseres, wrote a
eulogy comparing Marquis, a just man beset by tragedy, to Job. But Job’s reward came here on earth; Don’s would have to come later.

Part of what makes Achy and Mehitabel timeless is that Marquis didn’t focus on individuals. His aim was wider. And he had other characters to expose the follies of the times. Prohibition – our disastrous fourteen-year experiment in social engineering – gave rise to Clem Hawley, the Old Soak. Hawley first appeared in Marquis’ column five years before Prohibition went into effect. The Old Soak eventually became a Broadway play in 1922 (during Prohibition), and was one of the most successful plays of the time.

Archy too took on Prohibition. In one episode, Archy is talking to the mummy of an Egyptian pharaoh, at the Metropolitan Museum. The pharaoh speaks:

     you must be respectful
     in the presence
     of a mighty desolation
     little archy
     forty centuries of thirst
     look down upon you

     i am dry
     i am as dry
     as the next morning mouth
     of a dissipated desert
     as dry as the hoofs 
     of the camels of timbuctoo
     little fussy face
     i am as dry as the heart
     of a sand storm
     at high noon in hell
     i have been lying here
     and there
     for four thousand years
     with silicon in my esophagus
     as gravel in my gizzard
     thinking
     thinking
     thinking
     of beer

Archy breaks the bad news to him.

     well well said the royal
     desiccation
     my political opponents back home
     always maintained
     that i would wind up in hell
     and it seems they had the right dope

     and with these hopeless words
     the unfortunate residuum
     gave a great cough of despair
     and turned to dust and debris
     right in my face
     it being the only time
     i ever actually saw anybody
     put the cough
     into sarcophagus

Again, in “Certain Maxims of Archy”, a sort of modern-day “Poor Richard’s Almanack”:

     prohibition makes you
     want to cry

     into your beer and
     denies you the beer
     to cry into

Marquis on Marquis

From an autobiographical sketch:

Height, 5 feet 10 ½ inches … weight, 200 pounds … has always been careful to keep thumbprints from possession of police …

From a letter to a journalism student, asking for information:

… I have been a promising young man in literary circles for at least thirty years …

I was born in a small town in Northern Illinois of poor but honest parents, and the poverty and honesty which I inherited from them I have preserved intact throughout life…

He was conscious of his own mortality, and he lamented that he had left so much work undone. In this exerpt from a poem titled
“Lines From a Gravestone”, we see a little way into his soul:

Naught that I have been or planned
Sails the seas or walks the land:
. . . .
Naught that I have dreamed or done
Casts a shadow in the sun:
. . . .
Nothing I have caused or done,
But this gravestone, meets the sun:

A group of his friends proposed a 50th birthday party/celebration. He wrote back:

“I could not go through with [it]. …. It means … that half a dozen novels, which I planned in my 30s, will probably never be … 40 and 45 are bad enough; 50 is simply hell to face; 15 minutes after that you are 60; and then in 10 minutes more you are 85.”

In the last year of his life, he got a letter from Hillaire Belloc, who wrote:

It is a permanent addition to the furniture of my mind. It is a masterpiece and rare indeed.

This is the piece that Belloc praised so highly.

At one point, he has Shakespeare say

     grind grind grind
     what a life for a man
     that might have been a poet

That may well have been Marquis talking.

Marquis the Poet

archy and mehitabel is partly a satire on “free verse” poets – who were abundant in those days. But Marquis was an able craftsman with more serious poetry. This one, Only Thy Dust…, published in 1922, is a far cry from the humor of archy or The Old Soak.

For technical virtuosity, few poems come close to Wireless Telegraph, from 1906. Look at the introduction and first stanza:

Dead priests that have sung when the world was young at Mercury’s temple-place,
Your myth, it was true. It is born anew in the death of time and space!

MORE swift, more fleet, than the sun-stained feet of the Dawns that trample the night–
More fleet, more swift, than the gleams that lift in the wake of a wild star’s flight–
Through the unpathed deeps of a sea that sweeps unplumbed, unsailed, unknown,
Where the forces untamed, unseen, unnamed, have ruled from the First, alone,
Now the Ghosts of Thought, with a message caught from the tales of the dreaming past,
Unheard, unseen, with nor sound nor sheen, speed through the ultimate vast.

Marquis the epicure

We don’t know much about Marquis’ eating habits. I think it’s safe to assume that he was a meat-and-potatoes man, and a hard drinker. He was, after all, a newspaperman.

I’ve read that he didn’t particularly care for beans. This may be a clue – in archy and mehitabel, he often writes of the Pythagorean theory of reincarnation – as in

     this is the song of mehitabel
     of mehitabel the alley cat
     as i wrote you before boss
     mehitabel is a believer
     in the pythagorean
     theory of the transmigration
     of the soul and she claims
     that formerly her spirit
     was incarnated in the body
     of cleopatra
     that was a long time ago
     and one must not be
     surprised if mehitabel
     has forgotten some of her
     more regal manners

… and one of the rules of the Pythagoreans was that they were forbidden to eat beans.

However, he did leave one beautiful recipe for baked beans.


In The Almost Perfect State, he points to beans as the cause of the world’s ills, but at the end – in a recipe like no other, he tells you the way they should be prepared.

If you will eat beans, here is the way to prepare them.

First, you must have an earthenware Bean Pot, about six hands high, and of a dark bay colour. It is better if this Bean Pot is inherited from a favourite grandmother, with a porous texture (the Bean Pot, not the grandmother) that has absorbed and retained the sentimental traditions of at least three generations. But if you own no such heirloom (more precious than the rubies of an imperial crown!) a new one can be made to do.

Procure your white navy beans, and pick them over on a Friday night, not hastily or cursorily, but with love and care, one bean at a time, for this is both an art and a science on which you have embarked–it is more; it is almost a religious rite. Cast from you all split beans, all rusty or spotted beans, all too-wrinkly beans; save only such superior beans, smooth, hard, and shining, as a twelve-months’ old child would love to poke up his nose.

Marquis on World Affairs

The “under side now” gave him the opportunity to look at the human race from a different perspective. He wasn’t impressed with the ability of governments to solve world problems:

     ... i have noticed that conferences
     to establish international good will
     always break up with another row
     there is no hope for the world
     unless politicians of all sorts
     are completely abolished
     you cannot get a millennium by
     laying a whole lot of five year plans
     end to end if governments would just let people alone
     things would straighten out of themselves
     in the due course of time

Archy figures that the human race hasn’t gotten quite as advanced as the insects:

     i do not see why men
     should be so proud
     insects have the more
     ancient linege
     according to the scientists
     insects were insects
     when man was only
     a burbling whatsit

There are occasional journeys into deep philosophy:

     i once heard the survivors
     of a colony of ants
     that had been partiallly
     obliterated by a cow s foot
     seriously debating
     the intentions of the gods
     toward their civilization

Marquis in Hollywood

In 1929, he took a job in Hollywood as a screenwriter. The experience was a disaster – he left after a few months and never returned. He did leave a scathing, vitriolic poem, Ode to Hollywood, which was unprintable then, and practically unprintable today.

Marquis the Old Softie

The poem of his that has stayed with me ever since I read it, many years ago, is from the viewpoint of another character, Pete the Pup. It’s an absolute delight:

          pete at the seashore
i ran along the yellow sand and made the sea gulls fly i chased them down the waters edge i chased them up the sky i ran so hard i ran so fast i left the spray behind i chased the flying flecks of foam and i outran the wind an airplane sailing overhead climbed when it heard me bark i yelped and leapt right at the sun until the sky grew dark some little children on the beach threw sticks and ran with me o master let us go again and play beside the sea pete the pup

References

There are two excellent Marquis websites:

Jim Ennes’ donmarquis.org focuses more on Marquis’ works, and John Batteiger’s www.donmarquis.com focuses more on his life and times. Both have an extensive collection of his stories, poems, and essays. Between the two, there’s a wealth of Marquis’ writings, from archy and mehitabel to The Old Soak to his scathing diatribe against the Hollywood movie industry.


abebooks.com lists about 1100 copies of his books. They range from first editions – a signed copy of archy and mehitabel for $350, around $250 for unsigned first editions – to recent ones for about $2.

archy and mehitabel is still the favorite: 287 copies.

There are four books on the Project Gutenberg online text library. Both of the web sites above have links to those books.

This is taken from an older blog, first published in July, 2004

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