Some 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, “Canadian zithromax and healthcare,” 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:
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February 11th, 1927.
My dear Miss Snook:
I have your letter saying that you have chosen as a subject for your program, “Wit and Wisdom of Modern Humorists,”—-and I think you have chosen a very hard subject to do anything with. If a magazine editor should ask me to write him something on that subject, in a short space of time, I should have to refuse, even though he dangled great sums of money in front of my eyes.
For a subject such as that can mean only one of two things: either a most wide, patient and thorough investigation and analysis, running into years of work, and resulting in a good-sized book; or else a paper that is merely a mass of perfunctory quotations from various writers. Quotations are usually a bore, and, in the way they are usually presented, apart from the text of their author, they are bores to read or hear. If I were in your fix and had to get up such an article by the third Friday in February I think I should commit suicide right away. It seems to me to be, on the whole, the easiest way out for you.
You can’t get up the book—-and if you did get it up it would be uninteresting—-that is to say all the books of that sort I ever saw were uninteresting—-and mere compilations are surely uninteresting. I, certainly, am not going to do the work for you. Neither am I going to go through the works of half a dozen writers and get up the quotations that will save the day for you and save your face. You can do all that just as well as I can. I don’t think there is anything in the idea myself. I think you had better hang yourself at once because the third Friday in February is getting nearer and nearer and you haven’t a thing done. I do not advise drowning because undoubtedly the water is very cold at the present season, and drowning always runs into a very messy kind of funeral.
Of course, you could run away from town and not kill yourself at all; or you could go to bed and pretend you were sick until after the third Friday in February; or you could worry yourself about the matter until you really get sick. If you were an honest person, and most librarians whom I know have been very honest persons, you will probably take the latter course—-honestly and sincerely worrying about the thing until you do really become ill—-and of course that is one way out.
Is there anybody anywhere about whom you could marry at once, before the third Friday in February, who would take you on a honeymoon? That is always a good excuse for getting out of anything that you have promised to do. I tried it last year myself. I had work promised to a lot of magazine editors and I didn’t do it. They asked me about it later. I explained I had used the winter to get married in and they all said, “Oh, of course. I understand. That’s all right.”
At the present moment I cannot pull that excuse again and I still have work promised to a dozen magazines, and I need the money—-having, as I explained, got married a year ago—-and I think suicide is the only way out for me. A honeymoon only gets you out of work temporarily. Suicide, I hope and trust, gets you out of it permanently. I had been sitting this morning thinking pleasantly of suicide and work I had promised to do, when I got your letter. If you would try it first and then write me about it and tell me whether it is a really satisfactory way of getting out of something which you ought to do, I would be much obliged to you.
I don’t know what in the world you are going to do about this program of yours on the third Friday in February. It is already the second Friday in February, and by the time you get this letter you will only have four days in which to prepare your article—-and there is really no help for you in this letter. You are in almost as bad a fix as I am except probably you won’t lose your job if you don’t do this work. Whereas I, unless I deliver the goods I have promised within a few days, will lose ALL!
I could make selections from my own works if I wanted to help you out in your program—-but I have none of my own works about me at the present moment. Probably there are some of them in the Little Rock Public Library. If there aren’t, let me know, and I will have my publishers send some of them there; I will donate a few volumes to Little Rock.
But if I were surrounded at the present moment by vast stacks of my own works, I should not go through them for the purpose of getting up an article which you could use on the third Friday in February. I should go through them for the purpose of getting up an article that I might sell myself and get some money for. I could write you the history of my life which you could read on the third Friday in February, but I would probably tell a good many lies in it, as I always do when I write about my past, and some way or other it would come back on me sometime after I had forgotten the lies I told.
Why don’t you go to the section on Mark Twain in the Little Rock Public Library and get down all his best stuff and make quotations from it and attribute them to me? You could get up a very readable article in an hour or two that way which would save you from your present difficulty and would advertise me in Little Rock.
You asked me specifically whom I consider the other outstanding American humorists beside myself. I suppose there are others—-but I don’t know much about them. I try to read them sometimes but they don’t interest me. I am interested only in serious writers such as H. L. Mencken, and Dr. Frank Crane.
The longer I think over your situation the more hopeless it seems to me. I don’t know whether it is snowing in Little Rock or not—-or whether it ever snows there or not—-but it is snowing here today, and as I look out at the snow there is something about it that seems to accentuate the pitifulness of your situation. I feel, my dear lady, that you yourself personally, some how, are being buried under those snow flakes, and it is all I can do to keep from crying.—-And yet, your situation is not as bad as mine. You can comfort yourself with that reflection. Somewhere in the world there is somebody else who has to get up not merely one, but several articles, even earlier than the third Friday in February. And this someone else does not have even a subject to write about.
As the snow falls the thought of suicide becomes more and more insistent. Why don’t you end it all? You can go on living for a few years or course, but life will never be the same to you after the third Friday in February.
There are a good many ways of suicide and some of them, I have heard, are painless and some of them are painful. I think only a coward would choose a painless way for suicide. I do not wish to be dictatorial about this matter, or influence you unduly, if you have already made up your mind as to the method of suicide you prefer, but a person’s friends naturally expect something of him a little bit horrible, if he is going to commit suicide. They always feel, if he chooses a painless way, that he is getting out of this world a little too easily, and they always look down on him. I am sure, my dear child, you would not wish to have that happen to you. You still wish to be thought of kindly and affectionately after you are gone. You do not wish to have your suicide a failure, however, so of course I do not insist on anything too painful—-that would be ostentatious. But something like gas might be a good compromise. It is not too quick like shooting or taking a quick poison. It is not so slow as drowning, and it is a rather traditional method amongst literary people who have made promises that they find it impossible to fulfill. Still I do not wish to be insistent.
You must remember this however: it will be impossible for you to get most of the way through with one method of suicide and then change your mind and switch over to another method—-I mention this because of your sex. And also please remember that this is the one and only suicide you can ever have. But do as you like! You are a woman and you will do as you like anyhow!
As I look out the window of my office, into a backyard however, I seem to see you lying in the snow, partially covered by it. You have a beautiful pallid face and I see the blue veins in your forehead, and you are very pathetic looking. The white snow dazzles your raven hair. Your lips are still red in spite of the chill of death for you have taken the precaution to use a lipstick just before you killed yourself.
I advise against jumping from the 8th or 10th story of a high building! It makes so much work for everybody afterwards!
You don’t know how my heart bleeds for you this morning!
At the same time I do not think you are all together frank in the letter which you wrote me for you say, “Any comments you might offer will afford real pleasure to a group of people who are keenly interested in the best forms of literature.” I don’t think there is a group of people anywhere in the world who are interested in the best forms of literature—-or even in the best literature, regardless of the forms it takes! Either they have been kidding you about it or else you are kidding yourself and them. I mean “keenly” interested—-as keenly as they are in making love, or making money, or eating ice cream, or playing golf. Personally, I confess that my own interest in these things is much more keen than my interest in literature—- especially the best forms of literature, but then I always have been a kind of a low brow; I went into the literary line to make a living and get what money out of it I could, and my chief interest in it at the present moment centers around the fact that while a lot of magazines seem to want my stuff, I don’t seem to have any stuff to give them.
When the fatal third Friday in February comes and you haven’t got up on your subject—-for you won’t really get up on it—-you will just get something together to save your face temporarily—-confront your critical audience with this letter and pass the buck to me. I wish to God I was as interested in writing what I ought to write, and have got to write, as I am in writing letters. I will have to sit down now and write a letter like this to every editor I have promised work to, squirming my way out of it. Maybe you can get away with your program by pulling this letter on the assembled multitude, but don’t print it anywhere. I own the copyright on it and am keeping a carbon copy of it. There are parts of it that I will want to use again.
God bless you, little golden-haired girl, and if you ever come out of this scrape alive, it ought to be a lesson to you not to make promises and get up programs unless you know in advance just how you are going to make good!
I wouldn’t be in your fix for anything in the world!
The snow is falling. It is falling like frozen tears. They are my tears and some of them are for you and the fix you are in, but most of them are for me and the fix I am in.
I feel very gloomy today. Hoping that you are the same, I am
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Postscript: Speaking of suicide, the above letter was typed by a secretary who worked for Don in the late 1920s named Harold D. Winney. Winney eventually left Marquis’s employment, and a short time later Don recommended him to a friend, Harold Ross, publisher of The New Yorker. Winney worked for Ross for quite a few years before sticking his head in an unlit gas oven and killing himself in 1941. Soon afterward it was discovered that he had stolen many thousands of dollars from Ross. Let’s hope he didn’t get any ideas from Don!