Don Marquis' 'archy and mehitabel'

1 Conversation

The Life of the Poet

American poet, author, humorist, fabulist and playwright,1 Don (Donald Robert Perry) Marquis2 was born in Illinois in 1878. After finishing college, he worked in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia before landing a job as assistant editor for the Atlanta News. Later moving to the Atlanta Journal as an editorial writer, he soon struck up a friendship with Joel Chandler Harris - already an established American folklorist. He then also worked as Assistant Editor on Harris' Uncle Remus Magazine until Harris' death in 1908, after which Marquis moved to New York as a freelance writer.

His first novel, "Danny's Own Story" appeared in 1912, and over the course of his career he published a total of about thirty-five novels and collections. But it is as the creator of archy and mehitabel that he is most remembered and beloved.3

archy and mehitabel

Marquis began writing the column The Sun Dial for the New York Sun in 1916, and moved to the Herald Tribune in 1922 to begin The Lantern. A brief and unhappy adventure in Hollywood as a screenwriter in 1929 did not go well, and so he returned to New York. During his years with the Sun, Marquis introduced a series based on the "writings" of a vers libre poet who had died and then reincarnated as a cockroach named Archy.

The story-poems center on the observations of Archy who, in return for apple peelings left in the wastepaper basket and fresh paste on the desk, types messages during the night to Marquis in lowercase letters with no punctuation. (Since he types by throwing himself from key to key, he is unable to manipulate the shift mechanism.)4 Usually these messages involve Archy's friend Mehitabel, a free-spirited alley cat whose motto is toujours gai.5 Their free-verse ruminations on and struggles through the daily life of America during the Jazz Age and then the Great Depression are thought-provoking, wry and often heartbreakingly poignant, such as this example of Mehitabel reflecting on her own mortality:

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

theres a dance in the old dame yet

toujours gai toujours gai
- the song of mehitabel (excerpt)

Marquis' first collection of verse, Archy and Mehitabel (1927), consists mostly of Archy's concerns and comments regarding life in New York City, the transmigration of souls, social injustice and death. The sequels included Archys Life of Mehitabel (1933) and Archy Does His Part (1935) Later, all three books were included in the lives and times of archy and mehitabel (1940),6 published posthumously, and including a thoughtful introduction by E. B. White, as noted below.

Recently, author Jeff Adams discovered a number of 'lost' Archy stories - unreleased since their original publication in either the Sun or the Tribune and confined since then to the proverbial trunk in the attic - and so subsequently archyology: the long lost tales of archy and mehitabel (1996) and archyology ii: the final dig (1998) were published by University Press of New England.

The Death of the Poet

In what can only be interpreted as poetic injustice of the highest order, this gentle man whose Will Rogers-esque observations on life have entertained and provoked the thoughts of generations for over eighty years had a sadly Job-like life. By the time Archy first appeared in 1916, Don Marquis had lost both his parents and his brother. His son died at the age of five and his first wife passed away two years later. In 1931 his 13-year old daughter died and a stroke blinded Marquis. Five years later his second wife died. Two subsequent strokes left him paralyzed, mute and with diminished mental capacity; and the costs of his care completely exhausted his finances. He died helpless and destitute in New York City in 1937. Benjamin DeCasseres' heartbreaking 1938 eulogy for Marquis can be found on the Jim Ennes' site linked below.

E. B. White, in his introduction to the lives and times of archy an mehitabel, said: "Archy and his racy pal Mehitabel are timeless." As testament to this fact: in 1978 several dozen people assembled in Port Townsend, Washington, to celebrate what would have been Marquis' 100th birthday. Among those assembled were William McCollum, Jr., editor of The Don Marquis Letters (Northwoods Press); Frank Herbert, world-famous author of the Dune books; Bob Lyon of The Non-Profit Press (who published Marquis' Everything's Jake in honor of the occasion; and Jim Ennes, author of Assault on the Liberty (Random House) and creator of the Don Marquis website.

The Theatre Legacy

Given Don Marquis' love of and contributions to the theatre, it was only appropriate that Broadway stars Carol Channing (as Mehitabel) and Eddie Bracken (as Archy) would appear on a 1954 studio-cast recording, archy and mehitabel: a back-alley opera, which in turn would develop three years later into the Broadway musical Shinbone Alley,7 starring Eartha Kitt as Mehitabel. (The Broadway cast recording was released on CD in 1993.)

A new generation was introduced to Marquis' 'everyman' cockroach (and cat) through the 1971 animated film version Shinbone Alley (based on the 1954 recording), which is still currently available on video, and features the voice talents of Channing, Bracken, John Carradine and Alan Reed (the original voice of Fred Flintstone).

Even now, many theatre groups throughout America and the world continue to regularly stage productions of either Archy and Mehitabel (the revised title of Shinbone Alley),8 as well as "new" pieces incorporating and arranging Marquis' poetry in a theatrical-presentation format. For example, noted New York maskmaker/puppeteer Ralph Lee will be presenting his Communications from a Cockroach - Archy and the Underside in September, 2001 at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Upper Manhattan.

the big bad wolf

(Note: Bantam Doubleday Dell claims copyright to all of the literary works of Don Marquis. Permission to reprint the big bad wolf in its entirety is pending.)

Historical Context

The 1930’s were a decade of tumultuousness in the twentieth century that some might say was rivaled only by the 1960’s. The crash of the American stock market in 1929 started an economic depression that ultimately affected all the world. Tens of millions of people found themselves out of a job and unlikely to find another. Mussolini, Franco and Hitler all came brutally into power and began their interdependent regimes of oppression and terror, and Sir Oswald Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists. The newly-formed Soviet Union was in the throes of the demands of Stalin. India and other colonies fought for independence. England’s Edward VIII abdicated. Racism, jingoism and simple desperation were endemic throughout most of the world.

In the United States, as people struggled to forget their troubles, Hollywood flourished and Big Bands swung. The world’s tallest building, NYC’s Empire State Building, was finished, and the world’s longest suspension bridge, San Francisco’s Golden Gate, was built. Chicago was “hog butcher to the world”,9 where the Armour and Company 'kill house' could slaughter 1200 pigs an hour. After thirteen years of speakeasies, moonshine and violence, ‘Prohibition’ was repealed in 1933.

The depression which so thoroughly defined the ‘30’s only ended as Europe prepared for and then entered World War II in 1939.

Into this tumult wandered Archy the Cockroach and his gimlet-eyed outlook on life.


Looking at the big bad wolf as an example of Marquis’ poetry allows us to examine Archy's specific thoughts and ponderings after sneaking in to see Walt Disney's The Three Little Pigs (1933) "in the cuff / of a friends turned up trousers... and (being) greatly edified by the moral lesson." These observations take a somewhat unexpected, but (for Archy) not atypical turn into areas not usually associated with what most would regard as a children’s film, despite contemporary opinions comparing the Wolf to Hitler and the rest of the European Axis alliance.

Notice how the absence of punctuation and the resulting apparently run-on sentences add an almost childish innocence and rhythm that starkly counterpoint the horrifying images presented. For example, lines 11 through 20 describe how a wolf would eat a pig and contrasts that with the methodical habits of humans. If these images were presented in a ‘normal’ fashion, i.e.

Whereas a man would have kindly cut their throats and lovingly made them into country sausage, spare ribs and pigs’ knuckles. He would tenderly have roasted them, fried them and boiled them – cooked them feelingly with charity towards all and malice towards none – and piously eaten them served with sauerkraut and other trimmings.

the effect can be taken as a statement of general cruelty, but really little more than the rationalizations offered by people who eat animals anyway. By breaking these statements up into verse, thereby giving certain words and phrases added emphasis and prominence through isolation – line 12: cut their throats and line 16: fried them and boiled them – Marquis elongates and heightens the content into unexpected images of sheer butchery.

His inclusion of the famous “...with charity towards all...” quote from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is further embellishment of the ironic description of mankind’s ‘superiority’ to wolves, as is the pig's (and other "edible animals") own acceptance of the desirability of being eaten by a human being: but when he is eaten by a man / he must thank god fervently / that he is being useful to a superior being.

This use of irony continues through the descriptions of racism:

it must be the same way

with a colored man who is being lynched

he must be grateful that he is being lynched

in a land of freedom and liberty

'old world' European monarchies:

and not in any of the old world countries

of darkness and oppression

where men are still the victims

of kings iniquity and constipation

the 'anti-Robin Hood' practices of corrupt businessmen:

that our wall street robber barons

and crooked international bankers

are such highly respectable citizens

and do so much for the churches

and for charity

and support such noble institutions and foundations

for the welfare of mankind

and are such spiritually minded philanthropists

it would be horrid to be robbed

by the wrong kind of people

the hypocrisy of a sanctimonious clergy:

if i were a man i would not let

a cannibal eat me unless he showed me

a letter certifying to his character

from the pastor of his church

and political 'old boy' chicanery:

even our industrial murderers

in this country are usually affiliated

with political parties devoted

to the uplift

the enlightenment and the progress

of humankind

As one can see in each of these segments, Archy uses subtly sardonic descriptions to ironically posit that the ‘victim’s’ suffering is somehow made bearable and worthwhile by the great unimpeachable nobility of the oppressor.

One cannot help but wonder what Archy would make of the twenty-first century.

The Playwright's Technique

Structurally, one should also note Marquis' use of the Dramatic Arc, a plotting device used by playwrights in which the Action (Archy's accumulation of increasingly unpleasant examples of humankind’s inhumanity) rises inexorably to a Climax, i.e. Archy's consideration of a particularly cockroach-type of suicide: i get discouraged / and contemplate suicide / by impersonating a raisin and getting devoured / as part of a piece of pie.

The arc then 'resolves' through the Dénouement: Archy's ironic affirmation of the 'good life', and his restored faith in a higher power: it is indeed / as i have been reading lately / a great period in which to be alive / and it is a cheering thought to think / that god is on the side of the best digestion.

This construction technique is identical to that used by Marquis in his many theatre scripts (referred to above), and further illustrates his ability to write successfully in more than one genre.

Additional Resources

For additional examples of Archy's musings and further general information, one should visit both Jim Ennes' excellent Don Marquis website and John Batteiger's equally fine the archy and mehitabel page. Marquis biographies include: Edward Anthony's O Rare Don Marquis (1962) and Lynn Lee's Don Marquis (1981).

1His first Broadway play, The Old Soak opened in 1922. His other Broadway plays were Words and Thoughts (1924), Everything's Jake (a sequel to The Old Soak, 1930) and The Dark Hours (1932).2'MAR-kwiss'3To note a contemporary example; In 1976, San Francisco Chronicle writer Armistead Maupin began the series of columns that later became the basis of his phenomenally successful Tales of the City series, now comprising a total of six volumes and two television mini-series.4After initial publication, Marquis' original work and its sequels were usually published without capital letters.5"always merry"6illustrated by George Herriman, famous for his Krazy Kat7Music by George Kleinsinger, book by Joe Darion and Mel Brooks, lyrics by Joe Darion. Opened at the Broadway Theatre, 13 April 1957, and ran for 49 performances. The 'real' Shinbone Alley, connecting Lafayette Street (across from Jones Alley) and Bleecker Street (across from Mott Street) in Lower Manhattan, is currently closed off with barbed and chicken wire.8The Center Theater Ensemble had great local success with their 1992 production, attracting interest and audience from all around the Chicago area.9Chicago by Carl Sandburg, 1916

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