The creator of Archy & Mehitabel, Freddy the Rat,
Warty Bliggens the Toad, The Old Soak, Hermione
and other timeless American treasures

Archy -- from Abdera
From Christopher Morley's Bowling Green Column
The Saturday Review
May 15, 1937

     I got into a habit, some years ago, of looking into the index of any new book on contemporary history, sociology, or the so-called American Scene, to see if it contained allusion to or quotation from Don Marquis. And if, as usual, it didn't, I smiled sadly and secretly and went about my affairs. How characteristic of the Solemn Skullworkers, I said to myself, that because many of Marquis's most pungent comments on the human comedy were put in the form of soliloquies by the Old Soak or by archy the cockroach they could not recognize their specific gravity. I remember my amazement to discover that Max Eastman's Enjoyment of Laughter -- a serious work, with diagrams (!) analyzing the instinctive responses of mirth -- made no mention whatever of the most philosophical humorist of our time. That was, to me, the biggest joke of the book.

     I dimly remember that there was someone called Democritus of Abdera, nicknamed the Laughing Philosopher. Where was Abdera, and what was there about the town that encouraged humor? Was it there that someone first became aware of the deep truth that the great things happen unpremeditated? That the best jokes and the most exquisite poignancies are blessed accidents? The notion of the office cockroach butting the typewriter keys with his head was not, to begin with, very amusing or even very original. (John Kendrick Bangs tried a similar idea a good many years ago, and abandoned it as unpromising.) The use of nothing but lower-case font, and no punctuation (because the roach couldn't manage the shift-key), once adopted, had to be continued; and was probably worth while as a stunt, though that also is a primary kind of waggishness. It has resulted in some of Don's subtlest and most humorous bits of verse and comment being buried in dense strips of type not easy to read. I think for instance of the superb bit of Shakespearean criticism ("The Parrot of Shakespeare" in archy and mehitabel) which is still far too little known. -- The idea of using the roach as a dee-vice of scoff against the verse libre poets of Greenwich Village (pallidly conspicuous 21 years ago when archy was born) was also soon forgotten. Mehitabel the corybantic cat came on the scene to provide lyric spasms; archy became less the clown and more the skeptical commentator, I am not going to maxeastman the matter by avoirdupois analysis, nor insist that these two freakish palefaces provided just the mechanism Mr. Marquis's genius required. The kind of people who enjoyed the three archy books do not need to have it rubbed in on them that there is much there beyond sheer enjoyment. The right sort of reader, unspoiled by painful palaver, feels that sort of things by sensitive instinct -- and resents pedestrian footnotes.

     Such at any rate was the fact; the roach and the cat, by their humble station in life, and the lowliness of their associates, proved an admirable vantage for merciless joshing of everything biggity. If you only noted their doings in the hasty reading of the Evening Sun, the Herald Tribune, or Colliers, you may also have forgotten about the precision of their best spoof. The last book of the three (archy does his part, 1935) was more carelessly edited than the others; a great deal of irrelevant matter got into it that obviously should have been dropped; but as a journeyman student of such affairs I do not regret this. It shows the author laboring, as everyone in such a task must labor, under the stress of necessity and fatigue; mechanically going through the motions of assembling a batch of copy -- and then there used to happen to Don what only happens to the man gifted by the gods; the automatic motions were replaced by the authoritative inward heat; his magical and stupendous fecundity took charge, and some totally unexpected gorgeousness would explode. As an instance I offer the whinnying absurdity of archy climbing Mount Everest, in the course of which he meets the Dalai Lama, Mehitabel, the Taj Mahal, and the Czar of All the Russians (who is living on canned heat). Among any number of exquisitely abominable belly-laughs in this piece the one that most cruelly besets me is the Czar's explanation why the sun never set on his dominions. "They were too cold to hatch." Archy discovers a "virgin gold mine." How do you know it is virgin, Mehitabel wants to know; she is expertly skeptical in such matters. "Give it the benefit of the doubt," says the Dalai Lama, but archy is sanguine --

     it seems reasonable said i
     there is a snow slide
     over it every twenty minutes

     Or, in the very rare and precious album of things that Really Are Funny, see archy's radio interviews on the Road Paste Hour, or his nibblings of the Experts in Washington.

     Like all old Troupers, Don has always been delightfully shameless to use a familiar chestnut when (in the words of Mehitabel in one of her best pieces) He Doesn't Feel it Here (putting paw on bosom). He has the unerring instinct for things that are universal sure-fire, recognized all the world over as comic. Green vegetables are always funny, and bad poets, and winter underwear, and feet. He does not scruple, in extremity, to use the dreadful antique of the passenger who takes off his shoe just as the street-car is passing the glue factory (the first glue factory was probably in Abdera) and he uses again and again certain little whimwhams of his own of which he has grown fond. The flea that brags about having bitten the lion and made him cower; the bullhead that learns to live out of water; the man who pulls out his glass eye in the subway car and eats it, explaining that it's a pickled onion -- what frolic the sedentary psychologist might have in computing some soul-dynamic on the frequent reappearance of these episodes. (Freuds rush in where angels fear to tread, as archy once said.) The practising journalist smiles affectionately and says Good old boy, that day was hard up for copy. And then, among routine comedy there stream rockets of cold fire --

     that stern and rockbound coast
     felt like an amateur
     when it saw how grim the puritans
     that landed on it were

Or the egotistic lightning bug that said:

     all I need is a harbor
     under me to be a
     statue of liberty

But archy took him down:

     you've made lightning for two hours
     little bug but I don't hear
     any claps of thunder

     In an old book of Don's called Prefaces (1919) there is a beautifully acute remark, in the "Preface to the Diary of a Failure." He is speaking of the make believes we all tell about ourselves, both to ourselves and to others. "There are two sorts of truth about all of us. There is that which the world sees, and that which we know. Our deeds, which are known to all men, too often appear to us to be strange, inexplicable libels on ouselves.

     "They are the falsehoods told about us by life."

     This, you immediately see, deserves pause. And it is not impossible that one of the falsehoods life will always tell about Mr. Marquis is that this proud and sensitive mind, one of the most serious and gifted poets of our time, was a man who wrote mainly about an old soak, an alley cat, and a cockroach. And, just as Don broke loose into savage candor, years ago, in that fine poem A Gentleman of Fifty Sililoquizes, so I like archy best where he sparkles self-respecting indignation. The roach rejects the idea of "archy week" and refuses to march down Fifth Avenue at the head of a procession. He is a serious artist, he cries, he does not exploit himself nor permit himself to be exploited. All this, from archy the roach, is of course humorous enough; but who that has been bedevilled by the St. Vitus of our ages does not honor the sincerity of the cry: --

     i shall not go on
     lecture tours
     or attend dinners
     or soul and uplift fights
     i do not care to
     have persons whose opinions
     i do not respect
     telling me they admire
     my work
     i refuse to act as the bait
     at affairs
     where social and literary
     climbers hope to
     attract celebrities
     I shall neither
     write nor speak
     nor allow my name to be used
     for the benefit
     of causes that I do not care
     a damn about
     i shall not answer letters
     from persons who write to me
     for no other object
     than to have me answer
     their letters
     my time when I am not working
     is my own
     my work is all that
     the public is entitled to know
     about me

     If you want to see archy in his philosophic vein, examine the fable called "The Robin and the Worm," in archy and mehitabel. When the worm was first swallowed by the robin he resented it, and did not agree with the robin's remark "a bird has to live somehow." But even while indignantly meditating this (in the Robin's stomach) he feels a new and disintegrating influence "stealing along him from his positive to his negative pole." "He did not have the mental stamina to resist the insidious process of assimilation which comes like a thief in the night," and to his amazement finds himself already beginning to think like a robin. -- I need scarcely add that about the time the worm has become enthusiastically pro-robin they are both snapped up by mehitabel -- and the conclusion, "believe that everything is for you until you discover that you are for it" has superb political analogies that are being illustrated all around us every moment. Exactly like the absorption of the worm has a placid economic revolution taken place in the United States, almost unsuspected by some digestees.

     So what, I ask myself again, was the happy quiddity of Abdera that gave its first citizen the richest gift of all; this incalculable, unpredictable joy of the grotesque, the magic to show us truth in the very shout of laughter. First the mirthquake, as Don said long ago, and then the still small voice. Let me allude to Prefaces once again. In a riotously absurd piece of writing, the Preface to the Prospectus of a Club," Don was talking about Brooklyn: --

          Walt Whitman used to live over there

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Jim Ennes

Don Marquis