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Don Marquis and George Herriman


Kristy Valenti looks at a lesser known facet of George “Krazy Kat” Herriman’s career — his illustrations for archy and mehitabel. Written by journalist Don Marquis, these popular blank verse poems supposed a friendship between a cockroach (archy) and an alley cat (Mehitabel) who liked to dance in the moonlight. The poems had no punctuation because archy typed them out by jumping up and down on the keys of a typewriter:

Though Mehitabel resembles a gendered (Mehitabel is both intensely feminine and pointedly undomesticated), more feline version of Krazy Kat, Herriman’s Archy suggests, more than resembles, a cockroach (if one could pinpoint what kind of cockroach Archy is, in my humble opinion it would be an American one): it may be the hat. Which is not to say that Herriman’s version of Archy isn’t definitive: it is. Other illustrators, before and after Herriman, have tried their hand (including Edward Gorey), but none have matched Herriman: his rendering of Archy is simply a whole other layer of characterization. And, though the font (and the lack of capitalization) is diegetic, Marquis couldn’t possibly have found an illustrator more sensitive to language: when certain lines are transcribed in Herriman’s lettering, they seem especially to sing (they’re so full of life, they’re practically vibrating).

If you’ve never read archy and mehitabel, it’s worth searching out — jangling and whimsical odes to the Bohemian life, as in “the song of mehitabel”:

i have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthehell
yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell
i wake the world from sleep
as i caper and sing and leap
when i sing my wild free tune
wotthehell wotthehell
under the blear eyed moon
i am pelted with cast off shoon
but wotthehell wotthehell

  1. {Editor: If this is inappropriate, please delete with my apologies. :D Regular reader, first-time commenter. Archy and Mehitabel fan!}

    I love Don Marquis! A couple of years ago, a friend and I had a music project that we called “Archy and Mehitabel”. We would have some drinks, read some Marquis and write music. The connection isn’t always immediately clear, but the songs are all inspired by A & M. :D So good to see The Beat giving the old dame some much-needed press.

    If you’re interested: http://www.archyandmehitabel.net

    I have acoustic versions of some on my own site: http://leewaters.com/?page_id=22

  2. OH MY GOD thank you for bringing up archy and mehitabel! I read these poems when I was fourteen or so and completely forgot about them until now. I loved these!

  3. http://www.donmarquis.com/archy/

    The first edition of the first collection is still in print, courtesy of Random House:

    In a strange bit of synchronicity, I was reading Simon Oliver’s “The Exterminators” on the subway this morning. How soon before Page mentions Don Marquis?

    And some other interesting connections: Carol Channing, Mel Brooks, Eartha Kitt, Fred Flintstone, and Eddie Bracken.

  4. Before I even knew of Krazy Kat, I was familiar with — and enthralled by — the work of George Herriman, thanks to archy and mehitabel. I wore out my paperback copy of the poems and used some in high school poetry competitions. And I still love ’em.

    Thank you, Don Marquis, wherever you are.

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