In 1927 a young journalism student at the University of Illinois, Frances Hickman, wrote to Don Marquis. She was preparing a class paper on the famous newspaper columnist and boldly decided to ask him directly for details of his life. Don responded with an incredible, 988-word summation of his past, present and probable future — rich with detail, honest to a fault and brutally funny.
Don’s letter, dated December 14, 1927, was eventually given to the Library of Congress. It has been reprinted only once before, in William McCollum Jr.’s “Selected Letters of Don Marquis” (Northwoods Press, 1982).
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My dear Miss Hickman:
I am in receipt of your letter of recent date asking me to tell you something of myself which you can use in your thesis; the way you put it is: “Tell me just as much as you will about yourself.” This at once plunges me into a difficulty—just how much to tell about myself in any perfectly proper thesis submitted to the authorities of any reputable university by any young woman student of Journalism, (for my secretary assures me you must be a young woman on account of the hand writing.)
With regard to my past it can all be summed up by saying I have been a promising young man in literary circles for at least thirty years. With regard to my present, I am in a very low and depressed state of mind, consequent upon having the greatest romantic drama ever written in America [“Out of the Sea”] turn out to be a commercial failure; and in planning a campaign of wholesale murder, mayhem and arson against certain dramatic critics, not to mention a couple of actors. With regard to my future I have no hopes: fountains of evil which have welled up in me on account of various literary disappointments have no legal outlet in the way of dissipation: the time is past when one could get drunk and forget a licking.
I have planned for myself an agreeable and debauched old age, a compensation for the respectability which I have had, hypocritically, to assume all through youth and my middle years; it is my desire to wind up in the gutter, free from all inhibitions, happy, red-nosed, unrespected, loved by everybody, and with no position in society to burden me.
But it is so exceedingly difficult in these righteous days to achieve a state of pleasant and continuing dissipation that I fear I am to be balked even in this.
I am giving you a chart of my soul; and as I said, I do not think it is the sort of thing that really should be used in any reputable thesis in any conventional university. And having given you this map of my psychic purlieus, the mere physical details of my life, past, present, and future, can really matter but very little.
If you must have facts, however, the facts are that I was born in a small town in Northern Illinois of poor but honest parents and the poverty and honesty which I inherited from them I have preserved intact throughout life, with the exception of here and there some brief prosperous interludes. I started writing because there seem to be nothing else so easy to get into for a person of no education and very few ideas. Such ideas as I have been able to express have always been used against me sooner or later; I would have got along a great deal better as a journalist if I had never had any at all. My advice to any class of journalism is to get rid of all ideas whatever right at the start and thus insure happiness and success in your chosen career.
I do not know what the function of a School of Journalism is, or I might be able to give more advice. I have seen several classes in Journalism and they all seem to me to be working very hard about nothing in particular. There isn’t anything fundamental in the newspaper business as I have seen it, that couldn’t be learned in five or six weeks by anyone who is capable ever of learning it.
A reporter gets out and gets a story and either telephones it to the office or comes in and writes it himself and there isn’t anything to it that can’t be picked up overnight by anyone who can use a typewriter and a telephone. The art of writing headlines is something that should be learned in a week. Writing editorials is merely a process of finding what the proprietor of the paper thinks that he thinks and putting it into decent English.
Of course, he never knows what he thinks until he finds out what the most influential advertisers think and the influential advertisers usually never think at all: they just have business convictions. So you see that editorial writing is really quite simple.
The trouble with the newspaper business–or Journalism as the sly word is–is that one thinks early in the game that it is really important; and late in the game one cannot think of it as being as important as it might really be made.
But I suppose the chief iniquity in the newspaper business really lies in the fact that it cuts down thousands and millions of acres of fine trees in order to make paper pulp. The trees are worth far more in a physical and spiritual way than anything that will ever be printed on the paper which they become. There is no way to stop this savage and beastial destruction of forests, for there is no way to impress the public consumers with the rank hellishness of it: publishers in general do not wish the public to become overly interested in it. And unfortunately, it is an era in which the public, more or less, rules. A really enlightened despotism might do something about it, but Democracy is the fashion of the moment in spite of the fact that the plain teachings both of religious prophets and evolutionary scientists point to the superiority of the aristocratic system.
I have another play in rehearsal which I hope will be a success. If it should succeed my view of my own future, and the future of the world in general will probably change at once: that is to say they may not have any more truth in them, but they should prove much pleasanter reading.
/s/ Don Marquis