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.”
Don Marquis, a writer form The Evening Sun, introduced Archy the cockroach in his daily column The Sun Dial on March 29, 1916. 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.
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.”
First-edition covers for the original Archy and Mehitabel books, published in 1927, 1933 and 1935