Archy Was Real, but That’s Not His Original Name

170 Nassau St., NYC

170 Nassau Street: “Vermin Castle.”

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 →

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. 

The Kardashians? A Century Late and a Dollar Short

When the reality TV show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” first appeared, in 2007, Americans justifiably wondered who in the hell were these dysfunctional egotists and why did they deserve to be on television? They were simply “famous for being famous,” a strange concept that seemed to be a result of today’s celebrity culture. 

But there’s nothing new under the sun. Don Marquis was laughing at the same sort of people more than a century ago, as the following poem makes clear. It appeared in The Evening Sun on February 14, 1912, and is reprinted here for what is almost certainly the first time since then. This was Don’s first byline in The Evening Sun — barely a month after he joined the newspaper and a year before he started writing his Sun Dial column. Continue Reading →

‘Letters We’d Write if We Dared to’

Don Marquis used his newspaper columns to poke fun at popular fads and conventions of the day. Reincarnation and free-verse poetry were skewered with every mention of Archy and Mehitabel, and Don’s Old Soak character owed its long and successful run to the nagging persistence of Prohibition. The era’s rich and powerful politicians and business leaders were targets, too, as evidenced by the following item from Don’s Sun Dial column, reprinted here for the first time since it appeared nearly a century ago. Continue Reading →

Don Tells the Story of ‘Moister Oysters’

Many of Don Marquis’ funniest pieces have never been published in books. Unless they involved Archy, Mehitabel or the Old Soak, almost none of the sketches, poems and smart-aleck observations that made his newspaper columns so much fun were include in later compilations

The following poem is one of those forgotten gems. It’s from one of Don’s earliest columns in The Evening Sun – even before the column got its name, “The Sun Dial,” and before Don was given a byline. It has never been directly attributed to him until now. Continue Reading →

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.

 

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!