There is nothing more pathetic than the case of the author who is the victim of a supposedly critical essay. You hold him in the hollow of your hand. You may praise him for his humour when he wants to be considered a serious and saturnine dog. You may extol his songs of war and passion when he yearns to be esteemed a light, jovial merryandrew with never a care in the world save the cellar plumbing. You may utterly misrepresent him, and hang some albatross round his neck that will be offensive to him forever. You may say that he hails from Brooklyn Heights when the fact is that he left there two years ago and now lives in Port Washington. You may even (for instance) call him stout….
Don Marquis was born in 1878; reckoning by tens, ’88, ’98, ’08–well, call it forty. He is burly, ruddy, gray-haired, and fond of corncob pipes, dark beer, and sausages. He looks a careful blend of Falstaff and Napoleon III. He has conducted the Sun Dial in the New York Evening Sun since 1912. He stands out as one of the most penetrating satirists and resonant scoffers at folderol that this continent nourishes. He is far more than a colyumist: he is a poet–a kind of Meredithian Prometheus chained to the roar and clank of a Hoe press. He is a novelist of Stocktonian gifts, although unfortunately for us he writes the first half of a novel easier than the second. And I think that in his secret heart and at the bottom of the old haircloth round-top trunk he is a dramatist.
He good-naturedly deprecates that people praise “Archy the Vers Libre Cockroach” and clamour for more; while “Hermione,” a careful and cutting satire on the follies of pseudokultur near the Dewey Arch, elicits only “a mild, mild smile.” As he puts it:
A chair broke down in the midst of a Bernard Shaw comedy the other evening. Everybody laughed. They had been laughing before from time to time. That was because it was a Shaw comedy. But when the chair broke they roared. We don’t blame them for roaring, but it makes us sad.
The purveyor of intellectual highbrow wit and humour pours his soul into the business of capturing a few refined, appreciative grins in the course of a lifetime, grins that come from the brain; he is more than happy if once or twice in a generation he can get a cerebral chuckle–and then Old Boob Nature steps in and breaks a chair or flings a fat man down on the ice and the world laughs with, all its heart and soul.
Don Marquis recognizes as well as any one the value of the slapstick as a mirth-provoking instrument. (All hail to the slapstick! it was well known at the Mermaid Tavern, we’ll warrant.) But he prefers the rapier. Probably his Savage Portraits, splendidly truculent and slashing sonnets, are among the finest pieces he has done.
The most honourable feature of Marquis’s writing, the “small thing to look for but the big thing to find,” is its quality of fine workmanship. The swamis and prophets of piffle, the Bhandranaths and Fothergill Finches whom he detests, can only create in an atmosphere specially warmed, purged and rose-watered for their moods. Marquis has emerged from the underworld of newspaper print just by his heroic ability to transform the commonest things into tools for his craft. Much of his best and subtlest work has been clacked out on a typewriter standing on an upturned packing box. (When the American Magazine published a picture of him at work on his packing case the supply man of the Sun got worried, and gave him a regular desk.) Newspaper men are a hardy race. Who but a man inured to the squalour of a newspaper office would dream of a cockroach as a hero? Archy was born in the old Sun building, now demolished, once known as Vermin Castle.