In one of the passages from Here Is New York that Cyrus read during his lecture this morning, we find White wandering the city in his imagination, locating himself geographically and artistically in relation to NYC writers who came before him. At one point, recalling his first arrival in Manhattan, full of writerly ambition, he describes himself standing at the corner of Chambers and Broadway and thinking to himself: “Somewhere in that building is the typewriter that archy the cockroach jumps on at night.”
This is likely one of the references that would have been completely meaningful to White’s original audience but not very recognizable to readers today. Am I right?
If you’re among those who need a little archy the cockroach footnote, this post’s for you. Via a website dedicated to the newspaper humorist Don Marquis, the creator of archy the cockroach:
THEY ARE THE MOST UNLIKELY OF FRIENDS: Archy is a cockroach with the soul of a poet, and Mehitabel is an alley cat with a celebrated past — she claims she was Cleopatra in a previous life. Together, cockroach and cat are the foundation of one of the most engaging collections of light poetry to come out of the twentieth century.
“expression is the need of my soul,” declares Archy, who labored as a free-verse poet in an earlier incarnation. At night, alone, he dives furiously on the keys of Don Marquis’ typewriter to describe a cockroach’s view of the world, rich with cynicism and humor. It’s difficult enough to operate the typewriter’s return bar to get a fresh line of paper; all of Archy’s dispatches are written lowercase, and without punctuation, because he is unable to hit both shift and letter keys to produce a capital letter.
“boss i am disappointed in some of your readers,” he writes, weary of having to explain the mechanics of his literary output. ” … they are always interested in technical details when the main question is whether the stuff is literature or not.”
This Web page celebrates the genius of Don Marquis, the creator of Archy and Mehitabel. Marquis was a writer for The Evening Sun in New York when, in 1916, he introduced Archy the cockroach in his daily column, The Sun Dial. For six years Archy’s prodigious output found a home in The Evening Sun (later renamed The Sun), and for four years after that in the New York Tribune. When Marquis left newspapering in 1926 he took Archy with him, to Collier’s magazine and a handful of other publications. In all, he wrote nearly 500 sketches featuring Archy, Mehitabel, Pete the pup, Freddy the rat, and assorted fleas, spiders, ghosts and martians. The vast majority of the sketches were written under daily deadline pressure, but the simplicity of their style and the humanness of cockroach and cat give them timeless appeal.
The first collection of Archy’s writing, “archy and mehitabel” (1927), is still in print in paperback, and used hardbacks appear regularly in bookstores and online auctions. Other titles include “archys life of mehitabel” (1933), “archy does his part” (1935) and the omnibus volume “the lives and times of archy and mehitabel” (1940), as well as two recent anthologies of long-forgotten sketches: “archyology” (1996) and “archyology ii” (1998).
The drawing at the top of this page and those accompanying some of these poems are by the brilliant cartoonist George Herriman, creator of the Krazy Kat comic strip. You’ll find them in all but the earliest editions of Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel books.
Click on the paragraph above to see Don Marquis’ complete Sun Dial column from March 29, 1916, where Archy first made himself known. Following his customary style, the column is a mix of news commentary, doggerel poetry and short sketches. Archy’s appearance came at a time of great public interest in the supernatural: Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle had recently claimed to see fairies, and spiritualists held sway at elaborate seances. Marquis used Archy to poke fun at this latest fad, and also at free-verse poetry, which then was spreading like influenza through New York’s Greenwich Village.
This first Archy column also introduces an alley cat of questionable character. Marquis wouldn’t give a name to the cat for several months yet, but eleven years later Mehitabel’s name was slipped into the opening text when it was republished in a book, the first of many editions of the beloved “archy and mehitabel.”
The rest of the summary here.
White wrote an introduction to a reprint edition of archy and mehitabel in 1950, around the same time he was working on Here Is New York. In his intro he has mostly nice things to say about the poor little cockroach who couldn’t manage to capitalize his own name. It’s hard to tell whether White identifies more with archy or with Marquis:
The creation of Archy, whose communications were in free verse, was part inspiration, part desperation, It enabled Marquis to use short (sometimes very, very short) lines, which fill space rapidly, and at the same time it allowed his spirit to soar while viewing things from the under side, insect fashion. Even Archy’s physical limitations (his inability to operate the shift key) relieved Marquis of the toilsome business of capital letters, apostrophes, and quotation marks, those small irritations that slow up all men who are hoping their spirit will soar in time to catch the edition. Typographically, the vers libre did away with the turned or runover line that every single-column practitioner suffers from.
Archy has endeared himself in a special, way to thousands of poets and creators and newspaper slaves, and there are reasons for this beyond the sheer merit of his literary output. The details of his creative life make him blood brother to writing men. He cast himself with all I his force upon a key, head downward. So do we all. And when he was through his, labors, he fell to the floor, spent. He was vain (so are we all), hungry, saw things from the under side, and was continually bringing up the matter of whether he should be paid for his work. He was bold, disrespectful, possessed of the revolutionary spirit (he organized the Worms Turnverein), was never subservient to the boss yet always trying to wheedle food out of him, always getting right to the heart of the matter. And he was contemptuous of those persons who were absorbed in the mere technical details of his writing. “The question is whether the stuff is literature or not.” That question dogged his boss, it dogs us all. This book–and the fact that it sells steadily and keeps going into new editions–supplies the answer.
The rest of the intro here.
Listening to Cyrus’ lecture this morning, I was struck that White’s description of the sweltering hotel room from which he writes Here Is New York shares something with Whitman’s imagination of future generations crossing Brooklyn Ferry, though White seems to look back rather than forward, and the people he imagines occupying the sweat-box of a hotel room before he did mostly happen to be writers or other celebrities of some sort. His imagined tribe, that is, isn’t quite as democratic as Whitman’s. Or is it? Maybe an alliance with a typing cockroach is about as democratic as you can get. Thing is, the cockroach will outlive us all, even if people forget his name.
The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel is available as a Penguin Classics paperback.