Invisible Ink: No 142 - Don Marquis
Not all of our forgotten authors led amazing secret lives. Marquis was the quintessential all-American small-town boy, growing up in Walnut, Illinois, but he eventually came to have a US Navy ship named after him. He reached this level of fame through a pair of highly unlikely creations.
Donald Robert Perry Marquis, 1878-1937, was a newspaper columnist, poet, humorist, and the author of around 35 books. He began work for The Evening Sun in New York in 1912, where he edited a column called "The Sun Dial". Remaining a columnist all his life, he also produced short stories for many popular US magazines. His poetry-laced musings were whimsical, genteel and lightly philosophical slices of Americana, delivered by characters such as Pete the Pup, Clarence the Ghost, Freddy the Rat and The Old Soak. He wrote several forgettable novels, much of his output appealing to the same readers who liked Norman Rockwell's nostalgic paintings of a lost America. Indeed, Rockwell went on to illustrate one of Marquis's stories.
However, in a 1916 column, Marquis introduced the character that made his name, a cockroach called Archy who had been a free-verse poet in a former life. By accident, Marquis had combined two great enthusiasms of the period, vers libre and spiritualism, which had become popular in large part because of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's experiments with the hereafter.
Archy wrote poems by chucking himself on to the keys of a typewriter, but was incapable of operating the shift key so there was no punctuation. The bug was loved by an alley cat called Mehitabel, whose soul once belonged to Cleopatra, and who now sounds like a speakeasy dame: "wotthehell archy wotthehell it s cheerio my deario that pulls a lady through". George Herriman, the artist of the surreal, dreamlike "Krazy Kat", illustrated these odd little poems, which still exert a fey charm, and their language is a slangy delight. Says Archy: "i with the brain of a Milton fell into the mincemeat at Christmas and was damned near baked into a pie". The pleasure is derived from these falls from grace, an Egyptian queen and a poet reduced to the bodies of a cat and a cockroach. "The main question is whether the stuff is literature or not," asked Marquis. The hippies who rediscovered the books in the Sixties answered yes, and sales soared. But the wheel has turned once more, and here they languish in obscurity.
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