Help Celebrate Archy’s 100 anniversary in March 2016!

archyMark your calendars! Fans of Archy and Mehitabel are already making plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Archy’s first appearance in Don Marquis’ Sun Dial column in the New York Evening Sun. March 29, 2016 will be a cockroach centenary like no other, and we’d like to hear about your plans — in New York and around the world. (The 1927 classic “archy and mehitabel,” after all, was popular in Canada, England, India and Australia as well as the United States, and translated editions were published in German and Italian.)

Is your theater group planning a production of “archy & mehitabel”? Maybe your school, library or book club can host a poetry reading, or a poetry slam. Or host a showing of the 1971 animated feature “Shinbone Alley.” A group in New York hopes to sponsor public displays and performances, and we welcome your ideas and involvement. Check out the link at the top of this page, “archyFest!” for more, and use the Twitter hashtag #archyfest! to keep in touch!

99 Years of Archy and Mehitabel!

Gale

Gale McNeeley as Archy. Click the photo for a link to Gale’s performance.

It was 99 years ago — March 29, 1916 — that Archy the cockroach first spoke to the world. Don Marquis had come into his office at The Evening Sun earlier than usual and discovered “a gigantic cockroach jumping about upon the keys” of his typewriter.

“He did not see us, and we watched him,” Don wrote in his newspaper column that day. “He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters, and he had a great deal of difficulty operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started.

“We never saw a cockroach work so hard or perspire so freely in all our lives before. After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a nest of the poems which are always there in profusion.”

It was the first of hundreds of stories, poems, japes, jests and epigrams by Archy that would appear in Don’s writings over the next 20 years, often accompanied by comments from an alley cat of questionable morals, Mehitabel. 

Sam Waterston Reads ‘archy interviews a pharaoh’

Here’s a treat: a YouTube video of actor Sam Waterston reading, with great solemnity, one of Don Marquis’ craziest and most enjoyable poems, “archy interviews a pharaoh.”

The occasion was a May 14 gala in Manhattan to benefit the literary magazine Lapham’s Quarterly — the first of a series of “Decade Balls.” This one celebrated the 1920s and included readings of works by Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and Don. 

Waterston’s selection was a poem that first appeared April 26, 1922, in Don’s Sun Dial in The Evening Sun and was later included in the 1927 book “archy and mehitabel.” Archaeological digs were making headlines at the time and so was Prohibition, making a perfect combination for satire.

 

Christopher Morley Pens a Paean to a Cockroach

Christopher Morley

The essayist and novelist Christopher Morley (1890-1957) was one of Don Marquis’ dearest friends. As a young writer Morley was an unabashed fan of Don’s breezy, brilliant humor, and Morley looked to him as a mentor. They became frequent lunch companions (the Three Hours for Lunch Club), fellow collaborators (“Pandora Lifts the Lid,” 1924) and lifelong boosters of each other’s works.

It’s no surprise that Morley would dedicate a poem to Marquis, but the subject matter makes the poem copied here a special treat. It first appeared in Morley’s Bowling Green column in the New York Evening Post and was reprinted in his 1920 book of light poetry, “Hide and Seek.” Enjoy.

NURSERY RHYMES FOR THE TENDER-HEARTED
By Christopher Morley
From “Hide and Seek,” 1920

Dedicated to Don Marquis

Scuttle, scuttle, little roach —
How you run when I approach:
Up above the pantry shelf,
Hastening to secrete yourself.

Most adventurous of vermin,
How I wish I could determine
How you spend your hours of ease,
Perhaps reclining on the cheese.

Cook has gone, and all is dark —
Then the kitchen is your park:
In the garbage heap that she leaves
Do you browse among the tea leaves?

How delightful to suspect
All the places you have trekked:
Does your long antenna whisk its
Gentle tip across the biscuits?

Do you linger, little soul,
Drowsing in our sugar bowl?
Or, abandonment most utter,
Shake a shimmy on the butter?

Do you chant your simple tunes
Swimming in the baby’s prunes?
Then, when dawn comes, do you slink
Homeward to the kitchen sink?

Timid roach, why be so shy?
We are brothers, thou and I.
In the midnight, like yourself,
I explore the pantry shelf!

Archy’s Dream Realized: A Tribute in Gold

How many public buildings in the United States pay homage to a lowly cockroach? Just one: the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library’s Central Library at Grand Army Plaza. There, atop a majestic, 50-foot-high entryway, Don Marquis’s Archy is cast in bronze and coated in gilt, standing tall (well, as much as a cockroach can) beneath Mehitabel the cat.

Archy, who always dreamed of public acclaim yet endured a life in lowercase letters, must indeed be proud.

Archy and Mehitabel occupy one of fifteen panels that make a massive screen above the library’s front doors. Cockroach and cat are in the the top row, front and center, near other famous characters from America’s literary past such as Tom Sawyer, Rip Van Winkle, Moby Dick and Poe’s raven.

Brooklyn was proud to call itself home to Marquis during his most creative years. He lived there, with only a brief interruption, from 1910 to 1921, before moving his family to Forest Hills in nearby Queens (and later Manhattan). Marquis died three years before the Central Library opened in February 1941, but he was still fondly remembered and “archy and mehitabel” was still selling strong — and would continue to for another 20 years.

The bronze screen was designed by sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones and the massive pylons on either side by Carl Paul Jennewin. The Central Library, shaped to look like an open book, was designed by the architectural firm Githens & Keally and built of Indiana limestone in the Modern Classical style.

For more on the Central Library and a full description of all 15 panels in the bronze screen, visit the Brooklyn Public Library’s web site at www.brooklynpubliclibrary.org/central.

(Credits: Accompanying photos were found on Flickr.com and used according to their Creative Commons licenses. Wally Gobetz shot the photos of the Central Library entryway and the cropped close-up of Archy and Mehitabel’s panel. Thanks!)

Happy Birthday Don Marquis!

 

Don Marquis in Atlanta, circa 1903

Happy birthday Don Marquis!

July 29, 2011, is the 133rd anniversary of Don’s birth. He entered the world in Walnut, Illinois, the eighth and youngest child of Dr. James S. and Elizabeth (Whitmore) Marquis.

Growing up in “a little town with muddy streets” on the Illinois prairie, 100 miles west of Chicago, Don spent his childhood fishing when he could, tending the family garden when he had to, and reading every book he could get his hands on. He worked brief stints as a chicken plucker, canal digger, sewing machine salesman, schoolteacher and weekly newspaper editor (and printer) before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1900 to take a job with the Census Bureau. He drifted into big-city newspaper work as a part-time reporter for the Washington Times.

After an exceptionally brief editing job at the Philadelphia North American — it’s unclear whether he was fired or just supremely unhappy — Don moved to Atlanta in 1902 to take a job at the Atlanta News and then the Atlanta Journal as editorial writer.

Don was a popular newspaperman in Atlanta, and his carousings with sportswriter Grantland Rice and columnist Frank L. Stanton were literally the stuff of legends (more on that another day). In 1907 he was recruited by Joel Chandler Harris to join a new publishing venture, Uncle Remus’s Magazine, as associate editor, and his star never stopped rising. But there’s another reason why Don always talked fondly of Atlanta: That’s where he met and married Reina Melcher, a freelance writer at Uncle Remus’s. She was the great love of his life.

Don and Reina moved to New York City in 1909 without a job but with plenty of enthusiasm, and in 1912 — after more than a year at the Brooklyn Eagle and his first book, “Danny’s Own Story,” getting strong reviews — he joined The Evening Sun, where his daily column, The Sun dial, debuted a year later to instant acclaim. Archy the cockroach made his first appearance in print on March 29, 1916, and the rest, as they say, is history. Happy birthday Don!