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, “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 →
Some of the very best commercial artists of the early 20th century were called in to draw distinctive dust jackets and illustrations for Don Marquis’s books. E.W. Kemble, who illustrated Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and many of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus books, also did the cover and inside artwork for Don’s first book, “Danny’s Own Story,” in 1912. Tony Sarg did the cover and inside art for “Prefaces” and “Noah an’ Jonah an’ Cap’n John Smith,” and John Held Jr. did a cover for “The Old Soak” as well as illustrations for several of Don’s feature pieces in The Sun.
But none compares with the brilliant, iconic drawings for Don’s three Archy books by George Herriman. The creator of the quirky, beloved Krazy Kat comic strip produced 93 illustrations plus dust jackets for “archy and mehitabel,” “archys life of mehitabel” and “archy does his part.” Herriman’s cartoons are an integral part of the books, and we imagine that Archy and Mehitabel look exactly as Herriman drew them.,
Among the three Herriman dust jackets, one stands head and shoulders above the others. The cover for “archys life of mehitabel” is a riot of color and characters that only could have come from the creator of Krazy Kat. In fact, except for Mehitabel herself, none of the characters on the dust jacket are in the book at all; they’re straight out of Krazy Kat’s Coconino County. (Archy, for that matter is nowhere to be seen.)
Few people today have ever seen the dust jacket for “archys life of mehitabel.” The last hardback edition appeared in 1938, and as a rare-books catalog might note, it is “extremely scarce in jacket.”
Click on the photo above to open an enlarged image of George Herriman’s masterpiece. And enjoy.
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The back story: Herriman’s covers were not the first to appear on two of the three Archy books. The first edition of “archy and mehitabel” appeared in 1927 with a stunning, minimalist cover by an artist identified only as “J.W.” It was replaced, for one printing only, with 20 thumbnail-size Herriman cartoons in 1930, before a full-size Herriman illustration was put on the cover, also in 1930. It shows Mehitabel in a garbage can, eating a sardine, while Archy types furiously on a small typewriter. This dust jacket appeared from 1930 to 1943 before it was replaced with another Herriman drawing.
The first-edition cover of “archys life of mehitabel,” in 1933, had a drawing of Mehitabel by the artist “Jay.” It was replaced later that year by the cover above. The final book in the trilogy, “archy does his part,” in 1935, was the only one to have an Herriman drawing on the cover from the first edition through the last (the fourth printing, in 1936). It shows Mehitabel peering through a brick wall at Archy, clearly both at home in Coconino County.
Photos of all the covers will be coming soon.
Today is the birthday of Don Marquis — born Robert Perry Marquis on July 29, 1878, and given the nickname Don when he was a small child. The nickname stuck, and then it doubled in size in 1909 when his fiancee, Reina Melcher, sent out wedding invitations and assumed that Don was short for Donald. The new name also held, although only on formal occasions. Don was simply “Don” to his many friends.
Don was born and raised in Walnut, Illinois, a small, dusty town on the Midwestern prairie. Walnut, he wrote, is “one of those towns that prop two cornfields apart.” Don was known for telling tall tales, and perhaps one of them — or perhaps not; who can say for sure? — was his claim that he was born during a solar eclipse, which he believed had imported some special significance to his life, although he could never find direct evidence of that.
You can read much more about Don in the page on this website titled “His Life and Times.” Suffice it here to simply join other folks in wishing a hearty happy birthday — number 137! — to the spirit of a writer who made untold numbers of people take a moment out of their busy, difficult lives and laugh. And keep on laughing today. Here’s to the jesters! Happy birthday, Don!
P.S. My favorite biographical description was by Don himself, written in 1916 at the request of a young writer and admirer, Christopher Morley. If you haven’t read it before, please take a look.
(The illustration accompanying this post is by the great Tony Sarg, one of the most in-demand illustrators in the 19-teens and ’20s. His whimsical drawings can also be found in Don’s 1919 book, “Prefaces.”)
This is a shame, because two songs based on light verses by Don Marquis have been written by a world-renowned composer and are waiting to be heard and enjoyed, but they need someone to perform them.
“A Seaside Romance” and “Frustration” are short, silly poems in Don’s 1921 book “Noah an’ Jonah an’ Cap’n John Smith.” They were set to music (for piano and tenor) in 2010 and 2011 respectively by Gary Bachlund, who won fame as an opera singer in the 1980s (Carnegie Hall, Metropolitan Opera, etc.) before switching to composition. Continue Reading →
Here’s a thought that might keep you up at night: The real, live descendants of Archy the cockroach may be scurrying around the streets and alleyways and high-priced real estate of lower Manhattan at this very moment.
That’s right, Archy, the most famous insect in American literature, was based on a cockroach that once was very much alive. His home was in the newsroom of the old Evening Sun newspaper, but his real name was Erasmus, not Archy. Don Marquis revealed Archy’s origins and commented on his enduring appeal — and his frequent reincarnations — in an essay he wrote in 1934 for The Cornell Daily Sun, the student newspaper at Cornell University.
“Archy crawled into my life about twenty years ago, when I was doing a daily column on the New York Evening Sun,” Don wrote. “There was a story in the news columns about a garage up town somewhere that was haunted, . . . the type-writer in the garage office would keep clicking of nights, when no one was in there. So they thought it was a ghost, which is about what a lot of garage loafers would think. It didn’t occur to any of them to put a sheet of paper in the machine and give the ghost a chance to have his say. One night they found a mouse running back and forth on the keyboard; he was the ghost. Continue Reading →
The 1912 publication of Don Marquis’ first book, the novel “Danny’s Own Story,” created a stir in literary circles. Doubleday, Page & Co., Don’s publisher, heralded the young writer as a rising star, and reviewers favorably compared him with Mark Twain, who had died less than two year earlier. (It didn’t hurt that “Danny’s Own Story” bore a passing resemblance to “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Both were written in a backwoods vernacular and both used wry humor to tell the adventures of young boys, one an orphan and the other nearly so, who ran away from home and lived by their wits.)
Don wrote “Danny” while on the staff of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, but he moved to The Evening Sun just before its publication on January 17, 1912. To celebrate the new book, Doubleday hosted a reception a few weeks later at its headquarters in Garden City, Long Island, and among the guests was Ellis Parker Butler, a well-known humor writer at the time whose best-known work, the short story “Pigs Is Pigs,” had been published six years earlier.
At one point during the festivities a Doubleday photographer asked Don and his wife, Reina, to pose with Butler. No one at the time paid attention to an alarm clock sitting on a bookshelf directly above Don’s head, but when the photograph was developed the clock was gone — its glass face wiped out by glare from the camera’s flash. In its place, it looked for all the world as if an angel had come down from heaven and anointed Marquis with a halo.
Doubleday sent copies of the photograph to both Butler and Marquis, and a short time later it reported their separate responses in a statement it gleefully released to newspapers across North America. The following exchange was published in the March 2, 1912, editions of The Toronto World, with comments first from Butler, then Marquis. Continue Reading →
A few fans will be gathering that evening to talk, relax and tell stories about Don and his crowd. If someone feels the urge to channel Archy and recite some poetry (nothing too serious, of course), that’s fine, too!
A location hasn’t been determined yet, but perhaps a tavern with a dining room near City Hall (and the former homes of The Sun and the Tribune), or maybe Keen’s Steakhouse, further uptown, where Don’s co-workers toasted him in 1922, when he left The Sun to join the Tribune staff.
If you’re interested in attending, send a note to email@example.com. And if you’re in Boston a few days beforehand, some folks plan to be there July 25-26 to see the Blunderwood typewriter (see below) on display in the Rose Kennedy Greenway. An early birthday toast might be in order.
Mark 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!
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. Continue Reading →