Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

archy and mehitabel – a buyers’ guide

actually i think that should be archy and mehitabel a buyers guide as poor little archy couldn t shift the keys to insert any capitals or punctuation so in homage i shoudn t either

51catxjdy5l-_sx328_bo1204203200_I’ve brought back tales from the poetry group before. This time, we were asked to bring along a favourite anthology. One of our number brought along a collection of American verse, and his choice to read from it was Don Marquis’s work of towering genius, pete the parrot and shakespeare. Once I’d stopped laughing and regained the power of speech, it reminded me that I hadn’t got nearly enough archy and mehitabel in my life at the moment, which was making me grumpy. So I came home and dug out my faithful old Faber collections archy and mehitabel and archy s life of mehitabel. Out of the first one fell a bookmark: a deep purple card bearing a grim reaper skeleton and the words ‘DEATH a travelling discotheque’ with the names of the two posh boys who ran it and a 3-digit Wheatley phone number. Yes, archy mehitabel and I have been together for a long, long time. I also brought out my latest purchase, that I hadn’t really looked at properly, the Penguin Classics Annotated Archy and Mehitabel, and discovered that I really should have done more market research before I bought that one – more anon in the buyer’s guide.

New readers start here: Don Marquis bridged the generations of American humorists between Mark Twain and James Thurber. He wrote a daily newspaper column and got a tremendous following for a cast of regular characters, but of these only two, and their friends, rose above their era and survived, because they are works of incomparable fantasy. They are archy (to capitalise or not to capitalise? that is the question) the cockroach with the soul of a vers libre poet, and mehitabel the cat whose life is her art. Both creatures have transmigrated souls: archy that of an avant garde poet, mehitabel that of Cleopatra, naturally. Archy feels he has got the rough end of it and frequently muses on ending it all as a cockroach (sadly thwarted when he does by being reincarnated as another cockroach), while mehitabel’s ego feeds on a monstrous sense of entitlement dragged behind her from a past life (or several).

The conceit is that archy is discovered by Marquis one day tapping out his free verse on the office typewriter, laboriously hurling himself head first at each key, lacking the strength to work the shift key or the energy to waste on punctuation marks. Thereafter Marquis (the ‘boss’) leaves a sheet of paper in the machine overnight, and returns to find his work for the day done by archy. Leaving aside the hilarity of the results, let’s just pause and think of the technical challenges Marquis just sweeps away in producing these daily poems of elegance and humour. In the instantly recognisable voice of a unique character, with all the coherence and rhythm you could ask for, and no punctuation, it’s just breath-taking. Mehitabel starts off as a nameless alley cat, generally eyeing archy with such a hungry look that he prefers to retreat right inside the typewriter’s works and engage in conversation with her from there. He becomes her chronicler and his life is not in such constant danger. Vers libre is his chosen medium, but when called upon he can rhyme like Longfellow.

Archy is the stoic observer, his transmigrated soul lets him wander through the centuries to the age of Shakespeare (sorry, shakespeare) and the pharaohs, to chat with their contemporaries such as pete the parrot from the Mermaid Tavern, and the dead scarab from the pharaoh’s mummy, and to play with the ghosts in Westminster Abbey. Cockroaches can get everywhere. He muses on the world as he finds it in a modern set of fables; his encounter with warty bliggens the solipsistic toad, who believes that his very own toadstool is at the centre of a universe created just for him, resonates in this or any age.

71kwfq6ulglMehitabel is forever being seduced and betrayed by sleek smooth-talking tom cats who lure her to their opulent kitchens with promises of unlimited access to the icebox. But she gives as good as she gets – a generation of pampered house cats in New York have missing ears after showing her disrespect. Her indomitable spirit is never conquered, her catchphrases ‘wotthehell wotthehell’ ‘toujours gai toujours gai archy and always the lady’ and ‘there’s a dance in the old dame yet’ the best therapy I know when life takes a dismal turn.

Comrade Kirsty and I share a brain, or maybe a heart, or more likely a callus on our respective foreheads – we have had a sideline here of recommending to you the works of writers who can make us both helpless with laughter, and this is my latest offering. Funny is hard enough to achieve; helpless with laughter is something else again (and yes, I do know humour is the most personal taste of all, but I’d still look sideways at someone who didn’t crack a smile at archy and mehitabel). a&m are the fruits of genius. This one’s a favourite – long before Gus the Theatre Cat from Old Possum’s Practical Cats, we have the old trouper, Mehitabel’s latest beau with whom she’s living in a theatrical trunk in a Greenwich Village alley, the nearest she finds to a kindred spirit rather than a vile seducer I feel.

the stage is not what it
used to be tom says
he puts his front paw
on his breast and says
they don t have it any more
they don t have it here
the old troupers are gone
there s nobody can troupe
any more
they are all amateurs nowadays
they haven t got it

modjeska was a real
trouper she knew how to pick
her support i would like
to see any of these modern
theatre cats play the owl s eyes
to modjeska s lady macbeth
but they haven t got it nowadays
they haven t got it

mehitabel he says
both our professions
are being ruined
by amateurs

T S Eliot, eat your heart out.

The tales of archy and mehitabel are not only about as funny as can be, they are also poignant and full of unquenchable spirit. These tales appeared in a daily newspaper column, and so there are many of them, far more than were published in book form. Two selections appeared in Marquis’s lifetime, collections published by Faber in the UK from the 30s, still available in the 70s but out of print now. My retrospective market research tells me that these are still the best. The exercise of archyology (sic) by Jeff Adams produced a couple more collections of ‘long lost tales’ in the 90s, but they too are now out of print. Penguin Classics seemed to ride to the rescue with The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel edited by Michael Sims (see? The trouble starts early with too many capital letters). This collection is of some interest in arranging its chosen poems chronologically, but while it includes some of the previously unpublished material, it leaves out indispensable poems. No pete the parrot? No old trouper? That really is so sad. Nowhere that I could find does it say what the editorial method is, yet with its reassuring little penguin and black cover it is luring people into believing that it is a complete edition. I’m seeing reviews online that say ‘At last! A complete archy and mehitabel!’ and here I offer a corrective – complete it is not. The rest of the charge sheet reads: the cover illustration is the very drawing, of archy typing with two of his six legs that not only Don Marquis, but archy himself, objected to as plain wrong. The titles of the poems are capitalised (why? it breaks the mood). The notes are not so very full and rather random when it comes to picking out references that need explaining. I’m sorry, but I really don’t recommend it.

41ypppupuvl-_sx325_bo1204203200_It is worth looking for the Faber editions through second-hand sellers – there are still some around at a reasonable price. I still think they contain the very best of the material. A better in print choice than the Penguin Classic is The Best of Archy and Mehitabel, the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets edition, which has an affectionate introduction by E B White and super little illustrations by George Herriman. There are also some Kindle editions that I have not fully explored, though I have checked one of them – this edition of archy and mehitabel is the original 1927 US one, which is good news. Whichever choice you make, if this is your first encounter with archy and mehitabel, you are in for the most wonderful treat.

Don Marquis: archy and mehitabel London: Faber, 1958. 166pp
First published 1927 (US); 1931 (UK)
Don Marquis: archy s life of mehitabel London: Faber, 1961. 192pp
First published 1933 (US); 1934 (UK)
Don Marquis: The Best of Archy and Mehitabel. New York, London: Knopf, 2011. 223pp
ISBN 9781841597911 (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets)
Don Marquis: The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel. Edited with notes and introduction by Michael Sims. London: Penguin Books, 2006. 346pp
ISBN 9780143039754 (Penguin Classics)

2 comments on “archy and mehitabel – a buyers’ guide

  1. kikishua
    September 30, 2016

    I adore being reminded of much loved reading from my teenage years. Takes me back to rummage!

  2. Jackie
    September 30, 2016

    Thanks for reminding me of these poems, it’s been too long since I’ve read them and they used to provide much amusement.

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This entry was posted on September 30, 2016 by in Entries by Hilary, Non-fiction: Humour, Poetry, Poetry: Humorous and tagged , , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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