It’s a fearful time in America. War is raging overseas. Anti-immigrant sentiment is growing at home, fueled by ethnic hatred. In the name of protecting the country from internal enemies, the government is eroding civil liberties. A lingering fin de siecle anxiety has people seeking certainty in religion of all stripes, from Bible-thumping fundamentalism to a new spiritualism that promises channeled wisdom from extraterrestrials and chats with the dead.
It all sounds eerily familiar, but the year is not 2006. It’s 1916, when Don Marquis, a popular columnist for New York’s Evening Sun newspaper, spotted a manic cockroach scuttling around his typewriter and began to do a little channeling of his own. The unfortunate Archy, a “vers libre bard,” reincarnated in a bug’s body, offered up his first poem in Marquis’ column on March 29 of that year. Shortly thereafter, Mehitabel the cat, another transmigrating soul previously known as Cleopatra (yes, that Cleopatra) began making star appearances in the odd-looking verse. (Archy was unable to work the typewriter properly, resulting in the total absence of capital letters and punctuation.)
Archy and Mehitabel were wildly popular during their 20 years in Marquis’ “Sun Dial” column, and in the decades since they have continued to float through American literary and pop culture like the wandering souls they were. The poems have remained in print since the 1920s, and the characters have been featured in a Broadway musical, an animated film and an opera. Now Penguin Classics has marked their 90th anniversary with The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel, which features the verses in chronological order, as they first appeared in The Evening Sun. (Marquis did a bit of rewriting and time shifting in the later published collections.) Editor Michael Sims (author of the critically acclaimed Adam’s Navel, and former Scene writer) provides that publishing rarity, an interesting and readable introduction, along with extensive notes that explain the poems’ historical context.
A versifying cockroach and a kitty with delusions of grandeur may sound unbearably precious, but a brief rifle through this collection will dispel any fear of saccharine overload. In fact, you might well find yourself in need of a sweet moment after an hour spent with Archy. By all accounts, Don Marquis was funny and bighearted, but he was also a sad and angry man who had seen a lot of the mean world by the time he started giving voice to vermin. He grew up in small-town Illinois, son of a struggling country doctor, and began his journalistic career in Atlanta, where he covered the brutal 1906 race riots. Archy was his mouthpiece for dark thoughts and acid observations, as the inaugural poem suggests: “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.”
Things from the under side, according to Archy, are violent and chaotic, but also grimly funny.
…you simply cannotkeep a good bug downas a cockroad friendof mine onceremarked to a fat manwho hadinadvertentlyswallowed him alongwith a portion of hungarian goulaschalthough the remarki understandoriginated with jonah…
Death, which lurks around every corner for a cockroach, makes him philosophical—not necessarily an asset when dealing with other bugs, who have “no esthetic sense and no imagination.” In fact, Archy’s plight is tragic. He is a beaten-down Everyman and at the same time an existential philosopher with an intellect that can’t help shredding every comforting illusion. He’s fully awake to his own powerlessness, and he has a very modern sense of the inescapable absurdity of life. Suicide is one of his recurring themes.
Mehitabel, by contrast, is a throwback to belle epoque gaiety. She often reminds Archy (when she’s not threatening to eat him) that her own descent from Queen of the Nile to mangy alley cat is far more drastic than his transition from poet to cockroach. But despair is alien to her; she’ll make her hard life a party, or die trying:
i know that i am boundfor a journey down the soundin the midst of a refuse moundbut wotthehell wotthehelloh i should worry and fretdeath and i will coquettethere’s a dance in the old dame yettoujours gai toujours gai
Though Archy and Mehitabel are timeless archetypes in the tradition of Aesop’s fables or the Br’er Rabbit stories (Marquis, not incidentally, was once an editor at Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus’s Magazine), they are also very much of their time. And the striking parallels between Don Marquis’ era and our own give the poems a renewed resonance. Many of Archy’s reports, such as “Archy in Washington,” would not be the least bit out of place on The Daily Show:
…from officialcircles here i learnthat things could not well be worsewith regard to the war situation and thatthis is no time forpessimism as we havethe enemy licked to afrazzle everythingis gloom and americais about to save theworld…
Like all great political humor, these little poems have you laughing even as they force you to confront a big question: should we ponder the ills of the world, fight off our own despair, and speak truth to power à la Archy, futile though it may be? Perhaps it’s better to emulate Mehitabel—embrace the promise of pleasure as a duty, keep consuming and ignore the refuse mound by any means necessary.