July 29: On this day in 1878 Don Marquis was born. Marquis wrote a handful of plays, a dozen books, and a lot of stories and poems, but his fame came mostly from “Archy and Mehitabel,” the cockroach-cat relationship he created for his New York Sun newspaper column. This began in 1916, Marquis having come into his office unusually early one morning to find a gigantic cockroach hunt-and-pecking at his typewriter. Archy, as the reincarnated poet wanted to be called, could not capitalize or easily make a carriage-return, but when his exhausted, muse-spent shell crept feebly to the floor, he gave Marquis his first immortal lines:
expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but 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….
Archy unburdened himself for years, his head-bashings collected by Marquis into a handful of books, the first of which, Archy & Mehitabel, has never been out of print. Once lap-cat to Cleopatra, Mehitabel now lives in the alley and on borrowed, ninth-life time; still, she gazes at life with a clear eye:
… 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
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai….
Marquis’s other books include Hermione and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers, which hoists the world of dabblers, posers, and world-savers Marquis sees on all sides. But it is the Archy books which live on, praised by E. B. White in his introduction for the 1950 omnibus edition, The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel for being not only funny but “rich and satisfying … full of sad beauty … full of rich and exact writing.” White also praises the dedication Marquis wrote for Lives and Times, which deserves to be near the top of any Best Book Dedications list:
… to babs
with babs knows what
and babs knows why
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.