Archy & Charlotte

Archy was a free verse poet reincarnated as a cockroach, created by the humor columnist Don Marquis in 1916. Marquis left a blank sheet of paper in his typewriter each night, and Archy would compose his contributions by painfully head-butting a single key at a time. He couldn’t use the shift key, so there’s no capitalization or punctuation in his writing, as you can see in his first appearance:

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 cant eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why dont she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for
there is a rat here she should get without delay…

Mehitabel, a carefree middle-aged cat with an adventurous life behind her, would become a major secondary character in the Archy columns, which Marquis used to satirize art, literature, philosophy and current events. (If you’re new to Archy, two more good ones are the Lesson of the Moth and Why Mehitabel Jumped.)

I’ve been a fan of these Archy columns for a while (and my other blog is named after one) but I still learned a lot of new things about them from reading this annotated collection by Michael Sims. The most interesting was their influence on E.B. White, who wrote in his much-quoted essay Here is New York that as a young writer he would “hang around the corner of Chambers Street and Broadway, thinking: ‘Somewhere in that building is the typewriter that archy the cockroach jumps on at night.’ ”

Marquis was a particularly strong influence on White’s most famous book:

In 1949, prior to writing an affectionate tribute to Marquis for Doubleday’s omnibus volume, White reread all three Archy collections. Soon he began writing his own story about a talking animal, and his hero was also an invertebrate writer. In letters he specifically compared Charlotte the spider to Mehitabel the cat. When a film studio representative wrote White about plans for an animated adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, White was anxious to avoid the imposition of some kind of moral upon his novel. “I would hate to see Charlotte turned into a ‘dedicated’ spider: she is, if anything, more the Mehitabel type — toujours gai.” But surely the philosophical ancestor of Charlotte — who is compassionate, opposed to injustice, and able to extract words from her very essence at great personal toll — is actually Archy.

Charlotte’s Web, like many of the best children’s books, does avoid any kind of heavy moralizing. Its hero, the piglet Wilbur, avoids the slaughterhouse not by any effort on his own part but through the dumb luck of meeting the right spider, as this “ultra-condensed summary” makes clear:

Wilbur, the Pig
I don’t want to die.
Charlotte, the Spider
Fear not. I have a plan.
(Charlotte spins a web over the pig with words like GREAT and SUPER in it.)
The pig is amazing.
spider is amazing.

I wonder if Charlotte’s Web is one of those books that turn kids into lifelong vegetarians. It certainly doesn’t mince words about the fate of farm animals:

“Well, I don’t like to spread bad news,” said the sheep, “but they’re fattening you up because they’re going to kill you, that’s why.”
“They’re going to what?” screamed Wilbur.
“Kill you. Turn you into smoked bacon and ham. Almost all young pigs get murdered by the farmer as soon as the real cold weather sets in. There’s a regular conspiracy around here to kill you at Christmastime. Everybody is in the plot… I’m an old sheep and I see the same thing, same old business, year after year. Arable arrives with his .22, shoots the–”
“Stop!” screamed Wilbur. “I don’t want to die!… Is it true what the old sheep says, Charlotte?”
“Well,” said the spider, plucking thoughtfully at her web, “the old sheep has been around this barn a long time. If she says they plan to kill you, I’m sure it’s true…”

On the other hand, death is presented as a fact of life throughout the book — and Charlotte’s decision to help Wilbur seems almost arbitrary, done mainly out of boredom or just to stop his whining:

Wilbur burst into tears. “I don’t want to die,” he moaned. “I want to stay alive, right here in my comfortable manure pile with all my friends. I want to breathe the beautiful air and lie in the beautiful sun.”
“You’re certainly making a beautiful noise,” snapped the old sheep.
“You shall not die,” said Charlotte, briskly.
“What? Really?” cried Wilbur. “Who’s going to save me?”
“I am,” said Charlotte.
“How?” asked Wilbur.
“That remains to be seen. But I am going to save you, and I want you to quiet down immediately. You’re carrying on in a childish way. Stop your crying! I can’t stand hysterics.”

No such luck for Wilbur’s brothers and sisters, whose slaughter we hear about only in passing — nor, in the end, for Charlotte herself. But as Archy once put it:

…kismet and karma and
that bunch of bullies vote us the way
they please we are only instructed delegates
in the universal convention every
time i die it makes me more of a fatalist