Archy and Mehitabel are reborn -- and we still don't know if we're gods or monkeys

April 28, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

In this life one can be truly in love with only a precious few significant beings at most. Don't trust me when I talk of Mehitabel; my devotion is unconditional. She is the embodiment of everything that is splendid in Holly Golightly, Zuleika Dobson, Miss Piggy, Auntie Mame - all of their indomitability, all of their confirmation of the immortality of spirit.

Mehitabel was an alley cat. Perhaps she is one today. I don't know; it was almost 75 years ago when she was last reported upon by Archy , her amanuensis, and even the toughest of alley cats doesn't live forever. But that she lives on in some form there can be no doubt.

Archy and Mehitabel first entered public awareness in 1916 in "The Sun Dial," a column by Don Marquis in the old New York Sun. They continued in a column called "The Lantern" he wrote for the New York Tribune fn the early 1920s. After that, they showed up in various forums into the 1930s, after Marquis ceased regular newspaper work.

A respected critic, novelist, playwright, essayist and poet, Marquis came down to his library that first fateful morning and found a piece of free verse typed on a blank sheet that chance had left in his typewriter.

The verse proclaimed that it had been written by a cockroach, who laboriously struck each key by diving headfirst at it, then climbed up and jumped down on another. He could not, of course, hold down the shift key, so everything was without capital letters or punctuation.

(Thus Archy's and Mehitabel's names are always in lower case letters in the verses and their titles, but Marquis in writing about them in his own voice used proper capital initials.)

Overroaching

Moving the manual carriage had to have been terribly demanding even for a roach of deep commitment, but somehow Archy managed, time and again. Archy dismissed doubters who "are always interested in technical/details when the main question is/whether the stuff is/literature or not". It was. And is.

Archy's self-introduction: "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". And with passing wistfulness, in "the wail of archy ," he yearns: "gods i am pent in a cockroach/i with the soul of a dante/am mate and companion to fleas/i with the gift of a homer/must smile when a mouse calls me pal."

And a magnificent outlook it is: erudite, forgiving, celebratory, indomitable, wise, loving - humane and human in the finest senses of both terms.

Archy's earliest adequate explication of his pal the cat comes in "the song of mehitabel": "mehitabel is a believer/in the pythagorean/theory of the transmigration/of the soul and she claims/that formerly her spirit/was incarnated in the body/of cleopatra". Her own declaration of self is quoted in immortal form in "mehitabel has an adventure": "well archy the world is full of ups/and downs but toujours gai is my motto/cheerio my deario" - arguably one of the most memorable and convincing affirmative statements in all literature.

Don Marquis had moved to New York in 1912 and soon emerged as a highly visible literary journalist. In 1922, he left newspapering to devote full time to other writing.

He died on Dec. 29, 1937, at 59. For the last six years of his life

he was virtually paralyzed from a stroke. His finances drained by illness, he died broke. In all, he had published 22 books. He has not been forgotten. In 1957 a Broadway musical called "Shinbone Alley" had Eartha Kitt playing Mehitabel.

The first anthology, "archy and mehitabel," gloriously illustrated by George Herriman, the artist whose Krazy Kat cartoons live on in immortality, was published in 1927 and now is available in paperback from Anchor Books for $8.95. There is also "the lives and times of Archy and mehitabel," which though not now officially in print can be found in some bookshops and any competently run library.

Now comes "archyology: the long lost tales of archy and mehitabel," edited by Jeff Adams (University Press of New England, 103 pages. $14.95).

Adams learned of a trunkful of material that had been kept by Marquis's two sisters who had taken care of him in the last years of his life. Among the papers were copies of Marquis' columns, with those that had been anthologized marked. Adams put together those that had not been republished. The new book is the result.

Elegance, finesse

There were and are good reasons that most of the contents of "archyology" were not included in previous collections. But, then, second-rate Archy and Mehitabel is something like a poor vintage from Chateau Lafitte: There is unmistakable classic structure, great underlying elegance and finesse; the flaw is simply diminished levels of substance and brilliance.

There are some gems of genius. Among them is "archy crawls among the h s": 29 lines of pure glory. The new collection begins with Archy blackmailing "boss" - Marquis - into taking him and Mehitabel on a trip to Europe. The voyage is eventful, and the foreign travel broadening. The results fill the first three-fifths of the book, good stuff but missing the counterpoint of the street smarts of hometown New York and America.

In the first anthology, in "archy hears from mars," the noble roach was amiably challenged to explain the human race, which of course he was doing his best to bring around to being something worthy. He got to the core of the distress of the earth, for it "is in charge of a/two-legged animal called/man who is genuinely/puzzled as to whether/his grandfather was a god/or a monkey".

As deep a truth today as it was in 1919.

And, perhaps, more puzzling.

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