The Enduring Charms of Don Marquis
by Douglas Penick
Six days a week, from 1925 ‘til he retired forty years later, my father commuted by train and ferry from his home in New Jersey across the Hudson River, to his office in New York and back. This was a time when newspapers contained all kinds of entertainments and he read two or three newspapers on each journey. The column that afforded his most lasting pleasure was devoted to the prose and semi-comic poems of Don Marquis whose work appeared in the NY Sun and later the Herald Tribune. My father often spoke fondly of this poet-journalist, but I don’t recall him reading anything aloud to me. I forgot the name completely until two years ago I came across a battered collection of Mr. Marquis’ work (illustrated by the strangely marvellous George Herriman) in a dusty and chaotic used bookstore in Fort Collins, Colorado. Its almost falling-off cover had a stamp saying that the book had once been in the Cornell University Library. No matter what obscure journey the book had taken to reach my hands, it was a revelation.
This book, the lives and times of archie and mehitabel, tells of the opinions, activities and longings of archie, a cockroach who lives in the office of a newspaper’s editorial department, and his companion, mehitabel, a stray female cat who loiters there. archie believes himself to be the reincarnation of a poet, a deceased writer of vers-libre. He is determined once again to practice his art. This he can only do by scuttling up to the highest point on the typewriter and hurling himself down onto the key or space bar to type out his obsessive musings. These he addresses to Mr. Marquis. This exhausting labour does not allow for capitalisation. Here archie introduces himself:
expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but I died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
i see things from the under side now
thank you for apple peelings in the wastepaper basket
archie becomes offended when constantly criticised for his absent capitalisation and punctuation. Here he protests:
say comma boss comma capital
i apostrophe m getting tired of
being joshed about my
punctuation period capital t followed by
he idea seems to be
that capital I apostrophe m
ignorant where punctuation
is concerned period capital n followed by
o such thing semi
colon the fact is that
the mechanical exigencies of
the case prevent my use of
all characters on the
typewriter board period
capital I apostrophe m
doing the best capital
I can under difficulties semi colon
And capital I apostrophe m
Grieved at the unkindness
Of the criticism period please
Consider that my name
Is signed in small
This is followed by:
CAPITALS AT LAST
I THOUGHT THAT SOME HISTORIC DAY
SHIFT KEYS WOULD LOCK IN SUCH A WAY
THAT MY POETIC FEET WOULD FALL
UPON EACH CLICKING CAPITAL
AND NOW FROM KEY TO KEY I CLIMB
TO WRITE MY GRATITUDE IN RHYME
YOU LITTLE KNOW WITH WHAT DELIGHT
THROUGHOUT THE LONG AND LONELY NIGHT
I’VE KICKED AND BUTTED (FOOT AND BEAN)
AGAINST THE KEYS OF YOUR MACHINE
TO TELL THE MOVING TALE OF ALL
THAT TO A COCKROACH MAY BEFALL.
The book goes on for 475 pages to retail adventures of archie and his side-kick mehitabel as they interview pharaohs at NY’s Metropolitan Museum, visit bars, encounter many dubious characters and tour the country. All the while, archie retains his somewhat brusque cynicism and outrage even as he remains a perpetually misunderstood loner.
This may have reflected some of the inner sensibility of Don Marquis. His life was successful but those with whom he might have most wanted to share it, his wives, his daughter, died unexpectedly. He drank a lot. He died in 1937.
These all are echoes from a time, now very distant, where there were whimsical poetic entertainments in newspapers to the enduring delight of hard-working businessmen on the move. And his place in society was not, in those days, deemed marginal. Four years (now an eternity) after Marquis’ death, the U.S. Navy still thought it a duty to remember the author and named a liberty ship after him.
 P. 22 don marquis, the lives and times of archie and mehitabel (Doubleday and Co., Garden City, New York, 1927-1950)
 P. 202-203 ibid
About the Author
Douglas Penick’s work appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.
Comics by George Herriman are in the public domain.