Sunday, September 30, 2018

Archy and Mehitabel (literature)

Archy and Mehitabel(1916-1922+)
By Don Marquis

“‘the question is whether the stuff is
literature or not.’’ – Archy

Last week, I wrote about the great George Herriman and Krazy Kat and as I looked over his career, I was reminded of one of his side projects, something that equaled his inventiveness and love of words:  Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel.

Marquis was a newspaperman and columnist for the New York Sun. Back then, columnists weren’t strictly political; their job was to fill the column with entertaining observations and comments One day, in a fit of whimsy, he wrote a bit of a poem

expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into a body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook on life.

According Marquis, he had left a sheet of paper in his typewriter before leaving for the day and Archy* the cockroach, who climbed on the typewriter and banged his head onto the keys to painstakingly write out the letter.

And thus a bard was born. Archy wrote (in all lower case and without punctuation) on whatever seized his fancy. Some where philosophical; others humorous, and others charmingly absurd. He would sometimes talk about Mehitabel the cat, who thought herself the reincarnation of Queen Cleopatra** and whose motto was “toujours gai.”  Marquis would let his imagination run wild.

Archy was a hit.  And why not, with verses like these:

coarse jocosity
captures the crowd
shakespeare and i are
often low-browed


and the spirit of
a camel
in the midnight gloom
can be so very
as it wanders
round the room

Of course, most of the poems are free verse and all of them are a delightful mix of philosophy and entertainment. Marquis wrote in a very direct style that isn’t dated at all.

The poems were popular from the start. Marquis ran them every few days in his column and in 1927, selected ones were put into a collection, Archy and Mehitabel. Herriman added illustrations to some of the poems.*** There have been various editions of the collections through the years, and even attempts at plays and musicals.  None of these achieved any sort of success.

The musical is an interesting case in point. It started as a concept album, with music by George Kleinsinger and lyrics by Joe Darion.**** It was expanded to a stage version with Darion wrote the book with newcomer Mel Brooks and named Shinbone Alley.  Eartha Kitt played Mehitabel and Eddie Bracken was Archy, and it featured an integrated cast, possibly the first on Broadway. Alas, all the talent and good intentions was for nothing; the play only ran 49 performances. There was an animated version made in 1970 with the voices of Bracken and Carol Channing that didn’t fare any better.

This is not surprising. Archy has no overarching story, and the attempt to add one diminished the charm of the original.

But the books are still around. And the answer to Archy’s question is clear:  they are definitely literature.  And still delightful.

*Archy insisted his name be capitalized outside of his own writing.

**Despite getting equal billing, Mehitabel only appears occasionally.

***Mehitabel was clearly Krazy Kat, and some drawings showed Freddy the rat who was clearly Ignatz

****Later to write lyrics for Man of La Mancha.

1 comment:

Joseph said...

I think Marquis is in The Library Of America, so he's clearly not completely forgotten.