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

A Theologian
From Christopher Morley's Bowling Green Column
The Saturday Review
June 5, 1937

Don died December 29, 1937

     Writing here about Don Marquis (May 15) I devoted so much space to archy the cockroach that I had to omit what I wanted to say of Mr. Marquis as divinity student. This came back to me the other day when a friend told me he was going to attend a kinsman's graduation from theological seminary. The thought occurred to me -- but I did not say it, for it would have required some explanation -- that the ideal graduation gifts for a young parson (with a sense of humor) would be two of Don Marquis's books: The Old Soak's History of the World, and Chapters for the Orthodox.

     The Old Soak became folk-lore during the Bootleg era. He was not merely the denizen of "a nose-red city, pickled half the time," if Bartlett will pardon us. Youi will remember that beautiful portrait (as pathetic as comic) of the old boozer's fumbling mind, his incoherent attempts to express the simp;le kindliness and good humor he had known in the reputable saloon -- to say nothing of its stimulus to art ("hand-paintings"), politics, and home life. Mr. Clem Hawley was also no mean student of Holy writ. His retelling of Old Testament stories, in his History of the World, is to me some of the most genuinely laughable stuff ever written. And in the course of his exegetics the Old Soak makes a profound remark which must be remembered by those hwo find themselves shocked by Mr. Marqujis's apparent levity. The Old Soak vigorously objects to Mr. Hennery Withers, the "dam little athyiss," laughing at the fable of Jonah. "Only its friends," he says, "got a right to laugh at that story. The laughter in Chapters for the Orthodox is sometimes cerebral, sometimes violently of the midriff, but those who will take pains to explore under the superficial shock will find it always the laughter of a friend.

     The Old Soak, incidentally, alwayhs stood up for his trinity of fundamentals: the Bible, Calomel, and straight whiskey. Mr. Marquis himself has been equally conservative in his choice of apostolic matter. It has come down to us by unbroken laying on of hands. The literary genealogy of Mr. Hawley was suggested with gorgeous impudence when Mrs. Quickley's death-watch for Falstaff was echoed in the hired girl's epitaph on the parrot. I'm ashamed to say I had forgotten this colossal jape until I heard it again recently in the talking picture. They've been trying Al's home-made hootch on the parrot: --

     He's gone, Mr. Hawley. He's d-d-d-dead! Seriously dead! It happened a half hour ago. I think it was his constitution undermined itselfl with that hootch Al brought here the other night, and I never will forgive myself, I won't. But he kept coaxin' and coaxin' for it that pretty that I couldn't refuse him. . . . And he kept drinking of it till he deceased himself with it. He called out to me about an hour ago, he did. "Fair weather," he says, and then he laughed. Only he didn't laugh natural. Mr. Hawley, he laffed kind of puny and feeble like there was somethin' furrin weighin' onto his stomach. "I can't give you any more, Peter," I says to him, "for there ain't no more," I says. And then he stretched his neck out and bit the wire on his cage and squawked, for he says in a kind of sad voice: "Nellie was a lady, she was," he says. And them was the last words he ever gave utterings to. (Exit Hired Girl, weeping.)

     But we are speaking of Chapters for the Orthodox, a book I have alwayhs felt restricted from discussion here on account of the author's affectionate partiality exhibited in the dedication. However, the formal fobias mean less and less as time shortens, and because I am fond of parsons and wish them well I set scruple aside. A man who has been through the anxieties of the seminary, and emerged with his Bachelor of Sacred Theology, is surely grounded in faith to stand a few jolts. That book was timidly published (1934) and timidly dealt with by the Trade. My own feeling about it was that its only chance was to be offered as a translation from some other language, in which case it might perhaps have been a sensation. It would be hard to find anything more in the spirit of Voltaire than the first story -- Miss Higginbotham Declines -- with its glorious opening sentence: --

     It was Jehovah's custom, when he came to New York, to put on the material appearance and manner of a member of the Union League Club; indeed, he used the club iself a great deal.

     I remember offering (don't laugh) to translate that story into French and try to get it published in the S.R.L. in that language, but could persuade no one -- not even the author. But its delicate and reverent ribaldries would shock no one under the screen of a different tongue. The barb of the parable, as the new Bachelor will soon perceive, is a prickly one. Jehovah, brooding on the problems of humanity (and especially New York City) decided that the world needs another Begotten Son. This implies the necessity of finding for the purpose . . . but perhaps you'd better read it yourself.

     In short, the book is devout to the point of scandal. Semi-religious people are always horrified by completely religious people; ethical ideas, as every philosopher has observed, are loaded with dynamite and perilous indeed for every kind of establishment. The world (said Santayana in a fine passage) is always a caricature of itself, always pretending to be something quite other than what it actually is. And to pretend to take those pretences literally is always horrifying. Nothing disturbs, or surprises, man so much as the discrepancy between his professions and his actual behavior; in that discrepancy lies the mother-lode of intellectual comedy. Marquis once remarked that he had a great idea: he was going to dramatize some of Bernard Shaw's plays. What he did in Chapters for the Orthodox had something of the same double-edged riposte: by taking ticklishly beautiful things with simple seriousness lhe explodes (in shattering laughter) the towering falsehoods of our genteel imposture. -- And then humorously rebuilding them, knowing full well that by make-believe we live. This book. which ranged from tender and moving fable to the most outrageous catcalls and trombone raspberries (uproarious, deplorable, with such blasphemous farcing as a Police Commissioner would tolerate for even one performance) does actually come somewhere near expressing the blaze and bellylaugh of life. The prosecution of Jesus by the swine-dealer of Gadara (for having damaged the pork business), with Jehovah on the bench and Satan as prosecuting attorney, and a number of well-known contemporaries as jurymen, is a fair example of Marquis's audacious method. As a characteristic spoof of Britain, one of the demons (when called on to testify) speaks in a strong cockney accent. But it is impossible, as I should have known, to give any idea of a book like this without frightening or scandalizing the casual reader. Are they so few, I have sadly asked myself, who can see beneath this cosmic clowning the flash of its genial piety? Indeed, as Don said in his preface, he sports "in spiritual essence like a porpoise in the Gulf Stream."

     It is in this book, à propos of nothing in particular, that Marquis pays his great -- I wish I could say famous -- tribute to Mark Twain: with whom he has so much in common. I think not only of his origin in a village near the Big River, and his feelings for bums, outcasts, freaks, ham actors, dogs, boys, newspaper men, drunkards, and Shakespeare; but also his passion for religion and Kelly Pool, and a private vein of Elizaethan candor that is likely to remain private. I can think of nothing truer to say of Chapters for the Orthodox than this: it is the book Mark Twain must often have talked, and would have liked to write, but was too canny to do so. -- That one-act skit of Faust in Hell . . . really Mr. Marquis, really. . . .

     Welladay! (as Don says in the sonnets) -- It's futile to try to suggest -- in the clumsy sobriety of print -- the quick-change paradoxes, the chameleon flicker, of a sultry mind. The methodical reader prefers something more static. And Marquis is also somelthing that Mark Twain was not, a poet. In his verse too he has shown us that violent ricochet from fooling to loveliness. Both the long sonnet sequences (To a Red-Haired Lady, and Love Sonnets of a Cave Man) Suddenly, after humorous chaff, burst with stunning effect into serious beauty at the end. In one of these he says: --

     Serene, aloof and chil I love to sit,
     Tranced in a thought of heaven and earth and hell;
     My dreams I hedge about with bitter wit.

     If my young theologian finds his graduation suggestion a puzzling one, let him consider another noble paradox. Marquis's finely realized play of the crucifixion, The Dark Hours, was produced, largely at his own charges, from profits made on the hokum of the dramatized Old Soak.

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