Marquis, Don

Tagged: Author

(1878-1937). US playwright, poet and author, largely self-educated. Active from about 1900, he began his career as a columnist in 1907 for Uncle Remus's Magazine edited by Joel Chandler Harris; he eventually moved to New York in 1909 and in 1912 secured a column on The Evening Sun (an evening offshoot of The Sun) which he called "The Sundial" and used as a vehicle for Satirical prose vignettes and humorous poetry with a cast of recurring characters including The Old Soak and Hermione the Beautiful Communist, much of this material being assembled in Hermione and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers (coll 1916) and elsewhere. With the outbreak of World War One his satire darkened, and became at times savage, as can be seen in his columns, and in the poetry assembled in such volumes as Poems and Portraits (coll 1922).

In March 1916 – just before America entered the war – the first archy and mehitabel episode appeared in The Sun, commencing a series that remains the most famous of Marquis's contributions to fabulation, and which owes a strong debt to the Uncle Remus Beast Fables created by his mentor Harris, though in fact archy and mehitabel are more like Talking Animals [for Beast Fables, Joel Chandler Harris and Talking Animals see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. The series moved later to the New York Herald Tribune. archy is a cockroach who had been a human being in his previous life, and who provides accounts of his own adventures and of other creatures by jumping painfully from key to key of a manual typewriter in order to produce free verse poetry in lower case (he cannot operate the shift key); tellingly, he frequently compares his lot to that of an overworked journalist. mehitabel is an alley cat who claims to be the Reincarnation of Cleopatra. The poems themselves contain many bold speculative ideas and deal with such topics and themes as Aliens, anthropocentrism, ESP, First Contact, Linguistics, Reincarnation, Sociology and Supernatural Creatures. Several Parodies are included, including "archy experiences a seizure" (original newspaper publication not established), which takes off on Rudyard Kipling's early manner, perhaps as filtered through Robert W Service. The series has been sorted and resorted in various volumes beginning with archy and mehitabel (coll 1927) [see Checklist below].

Marquis published many books. Further titles of interest, though his use of sf was unfailingly tangential, include Prefaces (coll 1919) a book of pseudo-essays that discusses imaginary books and anticipates Stanislaw Lem in this regard; Noah an' Cap'n Smith: A Book of Humorous Verse (coll 1921), the title poem of which is an Afterlife fantasy; The Revolt of the Oyster (coll 1922), the title story of which is spoof Prehistoric SF; Pandora Lifts the Lid (1924) with Christopher Morley, featuring six simultaneously "kidnapped" aspirational flappers whose high jinks on the high seas, which involve Pirates, edge into the fantastic; Out of the Sea: A Play in Four Acts (performed 1927; 1927), a Twice-Told version in modern dress of the Tristan and Isolde legend [for Afterlife and Pirates above, and Twice-Told here, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; The Almost Perfect State (some parts 1927 New York Sun; coll 1927), which contains spoof descriptions of Utopias, all deemed impossible of realization; Love Sonnets of a Cave Man and other verses (coll 1928), with the titular sonnets ascribed to a Reincarnated Neanderthal; and Chapters for the Orthodox (1934) where Jehovah, Jesus Christ and Satan arrive incognito in modern day New York where they perform various miracles with unexpected consequences. Samples of his work, some ample, appear in The Best of Don Marquis (coll 1946).

Marquis had witnessed the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, which had a profound affect on his view of the world, giving him a cynicism and distrust of humanity that contrasted with his optimism and levity, resulting in a style of poignant comedy in which pain and distress coexist with a sometimes forcedly cheerful hedonism; the similarity of his work in general to that which Mark Twain produced towards the end of his life is notable. [RHu/JC]

Donald Robert Perry Marquis

born Walnut, Illinois: 29 July 1878

died New York City: 29 December 1937

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archy and mehitabel

individual titles (selected)

collections and stories (including poetry; selected)

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