Don Marquis was a newspaperman back in the day. His name rarely rings a bell in our times, but 80 or 90 years ago he was one of the most popular humorists in America. People read him in the morning with their coffee.
I feel an affinity with Don Marquis. He was, after all, the creator of Archy and Mehitabel, precursors to our own Ted the Cat. That’s no coincidence. I’ve been reading Archy’s free-verse poetry since the 2nd grade, when Miss Dawkins kindly introduced me to his work. When Miss Dawkins—that classic Irish schoolmarm—was a girl, everybody read Archy, who was, of course, a cockroach.
Any friend of Marquis would have called his career a success—that he was a nationally popular newspaper columnist; that he’d written innumerable short stories for the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Scribner’s, Golden Book, Harper’s, etc., just like, say, Scott Fitzgerald; that among his thirty-five books were four novels and a volumes of sonnets; that he’d had a play on Broadway.
But he’d never written The Book.
I thought of Marquis over the weekend while I was cleaning out the garden. I have to say that there are few pleasures to rival a sunny day in November. Every cell’s getting ready for winter, and the whole process makes your ordinary suburban subdivision backyard look like Valhalla. It’s funny how the end drawing within view compels a certain euphoria. It’s got a kind of headlong-into-the-guns quality to it. Call it irrational exuberance.
So the reason I was thinking of Marquis, as I took my half-assed amateur snapshots of the garden, is that I’d just read something he wrote for Harper’s in 1934, called “On Turning Fifty-Five.” I just turned 60, but that’s close enough to make me pay attention.
Here’s what he said:
I don’t know how to account for it, or explain it, but I have suddenly got to feeling young again. From somewhere or other, and I don’t care where or how, there has curiously drifted into my consciousness the conviction that I am getting a second start in life, a kind of second wind, that I am beginning all over again, and that, damn it all, fifty-five isn’t so very old.
Well, neither’s 60, I was thinking . . . in the garden, the sun on my back. He’d also said this:
I am experiencing a kick of hope, an illusion of youth and a flush of self-confidence that is based upon nothing I could justify by any rational process. I even believe I may yet write something worth while. Oh, yes, I know—and thank you for the pretty speech and the nice thought behind it—but I know better than you do what I intended to write when I was thirty, and that I haven’t written it.
Whoa. I told you he and I have an affinity. A fatalist writing light-heartedly. A poet deep-down and a talented guy, but he had to live with never having written that . . . that what? That grail-like book. The Book. And meanwhile, tick-tock, tick-tock.
And yet that strange euphoria came to him. William Yeats—a genuinely great poet, an immortal—wrote a poem when he was way past 60, called “The Tower.” He said that even as his body aged,
Never had I more
Excited, passionate, fantastical
Imagination, nor an ear and eye
That more expected the impossible –
Don Marquis felt something similar. It’s irrational, perhaps, but out of it comes hope in autumn. There are worse things to feel, no?
(Get used to me talking about Don Marquis. I’ll run some of his stuff for you from time to time. He deserves readers.)