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Picture of Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis


 
December 29, 1937
Don Marquis   (1878 - 1937)
 
Archy, Mehitabel, Wotthehell
 
by Steve King

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On this day in 1937 Don Marquis died. He wrote a handful of plays, a dozen books, and a lot of stories and poems, but his fame came mostly from "Archy and Mehitabel," the cockroach-cat relationship he created in vers libre for his New York Sun newspaper column. This began in 1916, Marquis having come into his office unusually early one morning to find a gigantic cockroach furiously hunt-and-pecking away: "He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another." Archy, as he wanted to be called, could not capitalize or easily make a carriage-return, but when his exhausted, muse-spent shell crept feebly to the floor ("into a nest of the poems which are always there in profusion," says Marquis), there for all were his first immortal lines:
    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....
Asking only for a few bread crumbs and a new sheet of paper, Archy unburdened himself for years, his head-bashings collected by Marquis into a handful of books -- the first of which, Archy & Mehitabel, has never been out of print. His thoughts about life, especially human life, could get Archy down, but Mehitabel could always get his chin up. She was once cat to Cleopatra; though now in the alley and on her ninth life, she looks with a clear-eye and always lands on her feet:
    ... i know that i am bound
    for a journey down the sound
    in the midst of a refuse mound
    but wotthehell wotthehell
    oh i should worry and fret
    death and i will coquette
    there s a dance in the old dame yet
    toujours gai toujours gai....
If Archy was a reader he no doubt enjoyed some of Marquis's other books -- Hermione and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers, for example, in which Marquis hoists the world of dabblers, posers and world-savers he sees all about. Archy would also have enjoyed what E. B. White had to say about the 1950 edition of The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel: that the book was "rich and satisfying ... full of sad beauty ... full of rich and exact writing," and funny. White also praises the dedication Marquis wrote for Lives and Times, which deserves to be near the top of any Best Dedications list:
    ... to babs
    with babs knows what
    and babs knows why
Marquis liked to drink, lost a lot of money, endured the death of two children and two wives, and had an unpleasant last few years. Perhaps, as White says, that dedication "has the unmistakable whiff of the tavern" about it; Marquis and perhaps Archy know if, and surely know why.

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