Posted by: Lizzie Ross | July 6, 2010

toujours gai, toujours gai

the lives & times of archy and mehitabel, don marquis (1916-1935), illus. george herriman, doubleday & co, 477 pp.

You may be wondering why there are no caps in the title and names above. Remember the days of the non-electric typewriter? (If you don’t, you’ll just have to use your imagination.) Those keys were never easy to operate, but a good typist could work up some speed on a well-oiled machine.

So, if you’re a huge cockroach with a need for self-expression, and you come upon a typewriter already loaded with a sheet of paper, the opportunity must be taken, no matter how painful. Marquis happened to catch one at work:

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.

Archy (“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”) and his friend Mehitabel (who believes in “the pythagorean/theory of the transmigration/of the soul and she claims/that formerly her spirit/was incarnated in the body/of cleopatra”) are philosophical poets, perhaps the only animals suffering from graphomania.

Mehitabel’s song is appropriate for an alley cat who has come down in the world:

i have had my ups and downs/but wotthehell wotthehell/yesterday sceptres and crowns/fried oysters and velvet gowns/and today i herd with bums/but wotthehell wotthehell

And Archy’s thoughts about life and death have often made me hesitate when I chase down the occasional bug that appears in my apartment.

well boss did it/ever strike you that a/hen regrets it just as/much when they wring her/neck as an oriole but/nobody has any/sympathy for a hen because/she is not beautiful/while every one gets/sentimental over the/oriole and says how/shocking to kill the/lovely thing this thought/comes to my mind/because of the earnest/endeavor of a/gentleman to squash me/yesterday afternoon …

Poor Archy must cope with Mehitabel’s antics in Shinbone Alley as well as a gentleman who sends messages like The Godfather‘s infamous horsehead-in-the-bed:

look a here boss this thing/has gotta stop i/appeal to you for protection that/roughneck guy down cellar who/sent up the desiccated remnant of/a common chocolate colored water bug/and put it down by our typewriter/labeled exit archy is a person wholly/devoid of any real human/sensibility it/wasnt even decently preserved frag/mentary if you get what i mean …

And as for Mehitabel, there’s always “a dance in the old dame yet”. For more on Don Marquis and his writings, go to this fansite.


  1. I have strong memories of those typewriters.
    My father used to use one.
    Its now become a romantic vision of the past now though

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