No matter how hard it is for you to write, you probably have an easier time of it than Archy, a New York cockroach who made his public debut 100 years ago today in the pages of the Evening Sun newspaper. Columnist Don Marquis wrote that he had left a sheet of paper in his typewriter the night before. As Marquis described it:
We came into our room earlier than usual in the morning, and discovered a gigantic cockroach jumping about on the keys.
He did not see us, and we watched him. He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters, and he had a great deal of difficulty operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started.
We never saw a cockroach work so hard or perspire so freely in all our lives before. After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a nest of the poems which are always there in profusion.
Archy’s inaugural composition began:
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 on life
i see things from the under side now
thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket
but your paste is getting so stale i can’t eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why don’t she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for
there is a rat here she should get without delay
Mehitabel, by the way, insisted that she was the reincarnation of Cleopatra.
At Archy’s request, Marquis left a sheet of paper in the typewriter every night thereafter.
Considering that Archy was his alter-ego, Marquis may have been hinting at the effort he put into his own writing. His choice of a cockroach also opens up quite a few lines of inquiry. Was he saying something about the way newspapers treated their employees? Did he see himself as a man of literature forced into a lower station of life? Or was the cockroach supposed to represent an indomitable spirit, one that would survive long after the rest of civilization had collapsed?
Marquis died in 1937. The newspaper he worked for died in in 1950. Archy and Mehitabel are still easy to find in books and online. As Archy once wrote:
you simply cannot
keep a good bug down
as a cockroach friend
of mine once
remarked to a fat man
swallowed him along
with a portion
of hungarian goulasch