#221: THE CAT AND THE COCKROACH. In 1916 Don Marquis, looking for filler for his daily column in the Evening Sun newspaper, introduced a pair of characters that, like Thurber’s stories and drawings, look as if they too may outlive the usual quick oblivion so often handed out to humorous writing. The first of the pair was Archy (capitalization later to be explained) who is a cockroach living in the newspaper office, who happens to be the reincarnated spirit of a French vers libre poet, and who laboriously types out free verse messages for Marquis when the office is deserted at night. The other is Mehitabel, a scroungy stray cat who in turn is the reincarnated spirit of Queen Cleopatra. In the face of many disreputable adventures, Mehitabel remains, in her famous phrase, “toujours gai.” Archy on the other hand is constantly facing the troubling questions of life, trying not to be trampled or eaten, and every night types his poems by means of hurling himself headfirst at the keys of Marquis’s typewriter. Not being able to work the shift, Archy cannot capitalize (or punctuate), so the poems are entirely in lower case, leading to a still unfinished battle amongst the cognoscenti as to whether the characters names, when discussed, should remain, as they are in the poems, archy and mehitabel, no caps. A chacun son gout. I wondered for years if the non-capitalization was a poke at e.e. cummings, but no, Marquis beat him to that particular punch by several years.
The animal fable, along with its humor and satiric voltage, has a long pedigree, and if you stand back far enough you can easily find in Archy’s observations echoes of the French fabliau, the stories of Reynard the Fox, even the courtly verse stories of La Fontaine. But behind Marquis’s satire is the nineteen-twenties atmosphere of the New York newspaper offices: the smell of cigars, the bibulous lunches (Marquis was a hearty partaker), the wrapped-sandwich suppers, the clack of (manual) typewriters and the scrappy language of Archy and his cohorts (Mehitabel’s other recurring phrases are “wotthehell, wotthehell” and “there’s a dance in the old dame yet”). Nary a touch of elegance appears except to be mimicked and mocked; Mehitabel’s occasional wailings on having come down in the world are met with a roll of the eyes or a cock of the eyebrow. Other characters pass through—Francois Villon, also in feline rebirth and still haunting the Luxembourg Gardens, Pete the Pup, an omnivorous Boston bull terrier, Warty Bliggens the toad, the ultimate solipsist, and various rats and spiders, poisoned or poisonous and obstreperous to a fault, one and all. In with them we get Archy’s down-from-under recitations and philosophizing—which consists, as with many great thinkers, more of questions than answers.
It is no small aid and blessing that, not so far down on the list of great pairings of writers and illustrators (Carroll and Tenniel, Twain and E.W. Kemble, etc.) Marquis was abetted in creating Archy and friends by George Herriman, the creator of the Krazy Kat comic strip. His illustrations are wisely included in the most recent selection of Marquis, The Best of Archy and Mehitabel, in the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series. If you want to go whole hog for Archy, Penguin issued The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel in 2011, edited by Michael Sims, which has the entire run of the columns. This may be a case where the part is greater than the whole: the later columns, with more of patriotism and politics in them than archy’s beguiling bugginess, can be a bit tedious. The annotations are okay, not terribly well arranged for reference, and there are none of Herriman’s pictures, but it is complete.
Marquis, I discovered only recently, was not pronounced Markiss or Markee but, as it is spelt, Markwis. While we’re at it, the name of W.E.B. DuBois was pronounced DuBoys, not, a la francaise, DuBwa. And Henry David Thoreau’s last name should be pronounced with the accent on the first, not the second syllable: “thorough,” as in “a thorough going over.” He was apparently a bit cranky about this, so we might as well get it right.