Calvin Trillin Reads Archy and Mehitabel

Calvin Trillin Third in a video series. Scroll down for a link to the video.

Calvin Trillin has many hats — journalist, essayist, humorist, doggerelist — and he wears all of them well. He is that rare writer who can write authoritatively one day and with absurd abandon the next. His profiles in The New Yorker (where he has worked since 1963) are masterpieces of long-form journalism, and his comic essays on food are pure gold. Consider his decades-long campaign to have spaghetti carbonara replace turkey as the national Thanksgiving dish, or his paeans (dozens of them) to a certain Kansas City barbecue restaurant (operated by one Arthur Bryant).

And then there are his stories about Alice, his wife, and her “seemingly uncontrollable attacks of moderation.” Alice, he once wrote famously, “has a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day.”

Trillin has also won praise as a “deadline poet,” writing bits of light, topical verse in The Nation since 1990. Here are two examples from 2003, the first written after former Vice President Al Gore announced that he wouldn’t run for president in the next election:

We now feel warm toward Albert Gore,
Who will not run in aughty-four.
Most candidates, I must admit,
Seem at their best the day they quit.

And after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, ostensibly to destroy weapons of mass destruction, and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein: 

We’re safe from Saddam, tra-la, tra-la,
We’re safe from Saddam, oh goody!
He can’t send a bomb, tra-la, tra-la.
Which he could have done. Or could he?

Trillin’s doggerel deadline poetry has a precedent stretching back more than a century. Take a look at the following verse from Don Marquis’s budding column in the New York Evening Sun on Nov. 8, 1912, three days after Woodrow Wilson’s election as president ended 16 years of Republican control of the White House:

Woodrow, you have my sympathy —
Think of that awful mob
Of seven million Democrats,
Each howling for a job.

They’ve hungered through the long, lean years,
More famished day by day —
Woodrow, my boy, you stand between
The lion and his prey!

Marquis was also poking fun at politicians on the day Archy the cockroach first appeared in print, March 29, 1916. Archy wasn’t at the top of that day’s Sun Dial column; it was a quick, two-line verse about Charles Evans Hughes, the leading contender for the Republican nomination for president in the upcoming election. Hughes had been a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court for six years at that point and had not commented publicly on topics of the day since he took his seat on the bench. The public was curious, and so was Marquis. He wrote, simply:

Justice Hughes,
What are your views?

In the following years Marquis used Archy to remark on current events, too, and gradually the verses touched more broadly on the human condition. As Archy opined:

i do not kick against my fate
i think that life is swell
contentedly i sit and wait
for the world to go to hell

And Marquis, who eventually worked himself to death writing a succession of books, magazine articles, Broadway plays and Hollywood screenplays, reverted to doggerel to remind readers — and himself — to slow down and savor what life is left in us:

The golden-days
We waste in toil
Will nevermore return!
The proper sort of midnight oil
Was made to drink,
Not burn!

From one doggerelist to another, it is especially fitting that Calvin Trillin chose to read a few lines of poetry, ostensibly from Archy, as his gracious contribution to archyFest, the yearlong celebration of Archy and Mehitabel’s first century in print. The poem, “fate is unfair,” is from “archy does his part” (Doubleday, 1935).

Thank you, Calvin Trillin!

Here is his video: 

These videos were conceived by John Batteiger, creator of DonMarquis.com, and edited by Brandon Cuicchi. We are asking a variety of public figures to take a video of themselves reading a selection from one of Marquis’s “archy” books, using a cellphone camera or other simple video recorder. Our goal: “One take, no big production, all for fun.” We plan to present a new video every week (or so) through the end of 2016. If you or someone you know would be interested in recording a video, please contact Batteiger by email at johnbatt (at) me.com.

Up next: Former U.S. Rep. David Obey!

 

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Dave Barry Reads Archy and Mehitabel

Dave Barry Second in a video series. Scroll down for a link to the video.

Archy the cockroach was the embodiment of reincarnation — he had been a poet in a past life, after all, and spent his insect days tapping out verse on a typewriter. So it’s entirely within reason to speculate who might be the reincarnation today of Don Marquis.

My vote would be for Dave Barry. Like Marquis, Barry was one of the most celebrated newspaper columnists of his era, using humor to shine a spotlight on the human condition. He wrote weekly columns in The Miami Herald from 1983 to 2005 that were devastatingly funny, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1988 for “his consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns.” Like Marquis, he has continued writing humor to great effect after leaving the grind of newspaper journalism, with 37 books to his name at last count.

The New York Times has called Barry “the funniest man in America.” The novelist Stephen King put it another way, declaring, “While reading Dave Barry’s ‘Big Trouble’ (Putnam, 1999), I laughed so loud I fell out of a chair. Luckily, there’s a rug, so I didn’t hurt myself.” On a personal level, one of Barry’s column’s from 1985 reduces this writer to disabling fits of laughter even today, after dozens of readings. It is titled “Ask Mr. Manners” and attempts to prepare a young parent for all the horrifying atrocities in store when hosting a birthday party for a preschool child. Popular themes for a young boy’s party, according to Barry, include action figures such as He-Man, G.I. Joe, The A-Team and the always-popular “Testosterone Bob’s Hurt Patrol.”  

When he was asked to recite a few lines from “archy and mehitabel,” Barry chose an excerpt from one of the funniest distillations of humor ever put onto paper: “certain maxims of archy.” His video is short and sweet. It is the second in a series of self-made videos on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Archy and Mehitabel’s first appearance in print, on March 29, 1916 — a yearlong celebration called archyFest.

Thank you, Dave Barry!

Here is his video: 

These videos were conceived by John Batteiger, creator of DonMarquis.com, and edited by Brandon Cuicchi. We are asking a variety of public figures to take a video of themselves reading a selection from one of Marquis’s “archy” books, using a cellphone camera or other simple video recorder. Our goal: “One take, no big production, all for fun.” We plan to present a new video every week (or so) through the end of 2016. If you or someone you know would be interested in recording a video, please contact Batteiger by email at johnbatt (at) me.com.

Next week: Calvin Trillin!

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Neil Gaiman Reads Archy and Mehitabel

Neil Gaiman First in a video series. Scroll down for a link to the video.

Novelist and comic-book writer Neil Gaiman counts Don Marquis’s “archy and mehitabel” among his favorite books. One of his top five, in fact. 

Gaiman has mentioned Marquis in several interviews over the years, and he included Marquis in a rambling and fabulous statement of beliefs in his blockbuster 2001 novel, “American Gods,” in which one of the main characters, Samantha Black Crow, declares, in part: “I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman.”

Gaiman first read “archy and mehitabel” many years ago, and it continues to fascinate him. In a 2011 Australian radio broadcast, he included it in a discussion of his five most favorite books.

“Don Marquis was an American humorist and occasional poet and newspaper journalist, and he created Archy and Mehitabel,” Gaiman said on The Book Show, aired by ABC Radio National. “Archy was a free-verse poet who, for the crime of being a free-verse poet, was condemned to be a cockroach forevermore, in every future life, and he is a cockroach who writes poems by climbing on a typewriter and jumping head-first onto the keys. And Mehitabel is an alley cat who claims to have once been Cleopatra, and Don Marquis wrote these beautiful, funny, strange, mocking, glorious little poems about Archy and Mehitabel.”

Gaiman has won numerous international awards for his fantasy writing, including Carnegie and Newberry medals, so who better to lead off a video series featuring the wit and wisdom of a world-weary cockroach and a dissolute alley cat?

A few months ago, Gaiman was one of several writers, entertainers and other public figures asked to recite a few lines from one of the Archy and Mehitabel compilations (there are six) for a series of short, homemade videos on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Archy and Mehitabel’s first appearance in print, on March 29, 1916 — part of a yearlong celebration called archyFest. Gaiman responded to the call immediately and enthusiastically, and the video below is the result.

Given the choice to read any of more that 300 published sketches and poems, Gaiman chose an obscure but brilliant sketch, “quote buns by great men quote,” from the 1927 book that started it all, “archy and mehitabel.” He explains:

I don’t know if this is my favorite of the Archy and Mehitabel poems. I do know that I fell in love with it before I actually understood what it meant. When I was a boy at school, a ‘bun’ was a large, doughy bread roll with raisins in it that you’d be given at four o’clock at school, and it was many, many years before I discovered that a bun was also 1920s slang — for a hangover. 

Here is the video:

These videos were conceived by John Batteiger, creator of DonMarquis.com, and edited by Brandon Cuicchi. We are asking a variety of public figures to take a video of themselves reading a selection from one of Marquis’s “archy” books, using a cellphone camera or other simple video recorder. Our goal: “One take, no big production, all for fun.” We plan to present a new video every week (or so) through the end of 2016. If you or someone you know would be interested in recording a video, please contact Batteiger by email at johnbatt (at) me.com.

And thanks to Neil Gaiman for his gracious help and support!

Next week: Dave Barry!

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Happy Anniversary, Archy and Mehitabel!

tribune-archyThe following story first appeared 100 years ago, on March 29, 1916, in The Sun Dial column of the New York Evening Sun. It was written by Don Marquis, the newspaper’s star columnist, and it introduced a fantastic fictional character: Archy the cockroach.

Archy was unlike anything that had been seen in print before. Sure, literature was already full of anthropomorphic animals — from the characters in Aesop’s fables to Br’er Rabbit. There was even a talking insect: the Woggle Bug in L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz. But Archy was new and different. There were no illusions of grandeur for a lowly cockroach, and his stories had the immediacy of a daily newspaper deadline. More than anything that had come before, he was a product of his times. Reincarnation was a new topic in the early decades of the last century, and so was free-verse poetry, and Archy was the reincarnation of a free-verse poet.

Marquis, as Archy, used wry humor to comment on the most talked-about topics of the day: on flappers and bold women, on Prohibition and World War One peace negotiations, on new invention such as the radio and on the latest exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was topical and it was current, and it survives to this day, still fresh and on-target, still remarkably fun.

And this is how it began. The text below is slightly different from what you will read in the opening pages of “archy and mehitabel,” collected and published in 1927 by Doubleday Page & Co. There are a few extra sentences in this original version, and Mehitabel the cat wasn’t mentioned by name yet – that would come a few weeks later. Enjoy. Continue Reading →

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It’s archyFest! 100 Years of Archy and Mehitabel!

archyfest logoIt was 100 years ago, on March 20, 1916, that Don Marquis added a fanciful bit of filler material to his daily newspaper column in The Evening Sun. He claimed that a cockroach had crawled onto his typewriter the night before and left a message by diving on the keys, one at a time. Many more messages would follow from the labors of Archy the cockroach, including wild tales of a neighborhood alley cat, Mehitabel. It was brilliant stuff, and it’s still with us today. Let’s celebrate!

Plans in New York City include performances of actor Gale McNeeley’s one-man show, “Archy and Mehitabel”; a walking tour of New York’s old Newspaper Row on Sunday, March 27; and a special gathering of Marquis fans on the evening of Tuesday, March 29, at Jimmy’s No. 43, a bar/restaurant in the East Village, where tales will be told, Archy poems will be sung, and toasts will be raised to Don Marquis, Archy and Mehitabel.

Further events and exhibits will take place throughout 2016, all under the banner of archyFest! See below for event details: Continue Reading →

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Modern Mehitabels

"There's a dance in the old dame yet"The New York Times today printed obituaries for two women whose lives could not have been more dissimilar.

Janet Wolfe, 101, was a New York socialite, “gleeful gadabout” and friend to some of the most powerful and creative men of the last century. Federico Fellini made passes at her, The Times noted, and Orson Welles sawed her in half in a magic show. Holly Woodlawn, 69, was a transgender actress who starred in Andy Warhol’s 1970 underground film “Trash” and was the inspiration for Lou Reed’s epic ballad “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Wolfe and Woodlawn had little in common except a rebellious spirit, bold and unstoppable, and a determination to wring every bit of life out of their time on this planet. So it’s no surprise that The Times has compared both women to Mehitabel, the brassy, bawdy alley cat whose adventures were captured in Don Marquis’s classic 1927 collection of tall tales and light verse, “archy and mehitabel.” The comparisons span many decades but are nonetheless fresh. Continue Reading →

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A New Look for Archy (Several, In Fact)

George Herriman’s drawings of Archy and Mehitabel brilliantly capture the spirit of their subjects: the inquisitive cockroach and the sassy, brassy alleycat. To many most readers, the drawings are as much a part of Archy and Mehitabel’s charm as Don Marquis’s stories about them.

But Herriman was just one of many artists to capture their magic. Edward Gorey drew Archy and Mehitabel, and so did cartoonists at The New Yorker and Collier’s magazines. Animators drew them in a feature film, and artists today continue to draw inspiration from cockroach and cat.

Here is a look at Archy the cockroach through the eyes and pens and pencils of 10 artists, drawn over the course of nine decades. Scroll further down the page for an up-close look at each of the images. And look for drawings of Mehitabel in a future post.

Archy the cockroach, as seen by 10 illustrators. This image is from www.DonMarquis.com.

Click on the thumbnail images below for full-size views: Continue Reading →

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Barsotti Draws Archy in The New Yorker

Archy the cockroach has reappeared quite a few times in newspapers, magazines and blog posts in the decades after Don Marquis’s death. Check out this classic scene, drawn by the ace New Yorker cartoonist Charles Barsotti in 1973:

 newyyorker1973

 

Barsotti was one of the most prolific and best-loved of The New Yorker’s stable of cartoonists. He drew 1,400 cartoons for The New Yorker, from the 1960s until his death in 2014, and was famous for simple line drawings of dogs and kings, outlaw snails and talking pasta. Here’s an appreciation, with lots of classic images, from the magazine’s cartoon editor.

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‘My Dear Miss Snook …’ — An Incredible Letter

Letter to Vera SnookSome of Don Marquis’s most fantastic, imaginative pieces of writing never earned him a dime. They were the private letters he wrote to friends and strangers alike — long, winding affairs, full of whimsey and wild surmise, sometime punctuated with shockingly dark humor.

If you read a letter published on this site earlier this year, “My Dear Miss Hickman …,” you get an idea of what I’m talking about. But perhaps no letter of Don’s can match the current submission: a five-page, single-spaced reply to the librarian of the Little Rock (Arkansas) Public Library, who had innocently inquired, in a letter dated February 7, 1927, if Don would please identify a sampling of his best works and also who did he regard as his contemporaries in the field of humor writing. The librarian, Vera J. Snook, was to give a talk at the library on “Wit and Wisdom of Modern Humorists,” and the date of the program, February 18, was fast approaching — less than two weeks away. Could Don help?

His reply sets a new standard for dark humor. Don’s letter was dated February 11, 1927, and before the end of the second paragraph he tells Miss Snook that she’s in over her head and can’t possibly complete her task in time, and her only recourse is suicide! He explores the pros and cons of various methods of suicide, while admitting that maybe there are a few other options still available to avoid giving that fast-approaching talk. A hastily arranged wedding, perhaps? Or maybe — c’mon, you knew this was coming — maybe she should just read Don’s letter to her audience at the library and be done with it.

This letter has never before been published. A carbon copy was found, along with Miss Snook’s polite missive, among the papers of Don’s biographer, Edward Anthony, in the special collections department of the University of Oregon library in Eugene. Phone calls to the Little Rock Public Library and searches of online databases and Arkansas newspaper archives have failed to provide the rest of the story: What did Miss Snook do? Was she shocked and appalled by Don’s outrageous suggestions? What did she tell her library audience?

We simply don’t know. There is a clue, however, that suggests Miss Snook wasn’t scared off by Don’s bold letter and may have enjoyed the exchange. A second letter from Don to Miss Snook is also among Anthony’s papers at the University of Oregon. It is dated a year later — March 30, 1928 — and in it Don answers several oddball questions that Miss Snook passed along presumably from a library patron. The letter is friendly and engaging and charmingly grumpy in spots, as if Don no longer needed to impress a trusted correspondent.

But back to the bilious letter that introduced Don to the apparently unflappable Vera J. Snook: Continue Reading →

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