Archy and Mehitabel

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In 1916, New York Sun columnist Don Marquis told his readers an unlikely story: He had arrived early at work to discover a gigantic cockroach jumping about on the keys of his typewriter.

“He did not see us, and we watched him,” Marquis wrote. “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.” The result was poetry:

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 upon life …

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

In the years that followed, the sensitive cockroach helped Marquis fill hundreds of pages with wry and sometimes trenchant social commentary:

as i was crawling
through the holes in
a swiss cheese
the other
day it occurred to
me to wonder
what a swiss cheese
would think if
a swiss cheese
could think and after
cogitating for some
time i said to myself
if a swiss cheese
could think
it would think that
a swiss cheese
was the most important
thing in the world
just as everything that
can think at all
does think about itself

And:

a good many
failures are happy
because they dont
realize it many a
cockroach believes
himself as beautiful
as a butterfly
have a heart o have
a heart and
let them dream on

It’s not clear what inspired Marquis to create such an unlikely pair of characters, but his friend Christopher Morley offered one idea. “I remember that in the early days of the ‘Sun Dial,’ when the paper moved from Park Row to Nassau Street, Don’s typewriter desk got lost in the skirmish; so for some years he rattled out his daily stint with his machine perched on an up-ended packing case. This box had stenciled on it the statement 1 GROSS TOM CAT, which meant Tomato Catsup, but became by legend the first suggestion of mehitabel.”

Inner Space

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In 1914 Edgar Rice Burroughs published At the Earth’s Core, a fantastic tale in which an elderly inventor and his young friend discover that the earth is hollow and contains a concave world lit by a tiny sun. This land, known as Pellucidar, is peopled by intelligent races and inhabited by monstrous prehistoric creatures.

Strikingly, a year earlier Marshall Blutcher Gardner had proposed nearly the same idea in earnest. In A Journey to the Earth’s Interior he had described a hidden land lining the interior of our hollow planet:

Here, indeed, we may expect to find a new world — a world the surface of which is probably subdivided, like ours, into continents, oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. Here, through the heat of the interior sun, plant life may exceed in size and luxuriance any vegetation that ever grew upon the outside surface of the earth. Here may be found strange animals of every description; some of them even larger, perhaps, than the prehistoric mammoth or mastodon, on account of the abundant supply of vegetation, and others of species unrecorded by zoologists. Here, also, may tread the feet of a race of people whose existence is entirely unknown or hitherto unsuspected by us.

Gardner had even patented a hinged globe to help explain his theory. He concluded his book with a call for an expedition to explore this new world, declaring that “the whole truth apparently has not yet been revealed.” In a strange sense, Burroughs’ characters discovered that world the following year.

Tacet

William Bliss’ 1949 book The Real Shakespeare concludes with a “Shakespeare examination paper for reasonably advanced students.” It includes this question:

5. What character (and in what play) has the shortest part; appears only once (and that in a stage direction); and says nothing — and yet is essential to the plot?

I thought this might make a good puzzle — but I don’t know the answer! Bliss withholds his, and despite a lot of fumbling research I can’t find a significant player in Shakespeare who says nothing at all. Maybe the bear in The Winter’s Tale? I’ll leave it here as an open-ended riddle.

UPDATE: In the messages I’ve received, the most popular candidate is Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth. Banquo appears alive and speaks early in the play, but Macbeth has him murdered in Act III and his ghost haunts Macbeth silently thereafter, plaguing his conscience. In the stage directions, the ghost is called “Ghost of Banquo,” so arguably this is a distinct character.

09/13/2013 Another possibility: the corpse of Henry VI in Richard III. He appears once, carried in a coffin while Richard woos the mourning Lady Anne; he certainly says nothing; and his death and the victory of the Yorkists set off the events of the play. (Thanks, Josh.)

08/18/2015 An even better guess: Elizabeth I appears once, says nothing, and is onstage for less than 100 lines in Act V, Scene V of Henry VIII:

All the expected good we’re like to hear
For this play at this time, is only in
The merciful construction of good women;
For such a one we show’d ’em …

(Thanks, Joe.)

The Best Masters

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Finally, consider what delightful teaching there is in books. How easily, how secretly, how safely in books do we make bare without shame the poverty of human ignorance! These are the masters that instruct us without rod and ferrule, without words of anger, without payment of money or clothing. Should ye approach them, they are not asleep; if ye seek to question them, they do not hide themselves; should ye err, they do not chide; and should ye show ignorance, they know not how to laugh. O Books! ye alone are free and liberal. Ye give to all that seek, and set free all that serve you zealously. By what thousands of things are ye figuratively recommended to learned men in the Scripture given us by Divine inspiration!

— Richard de Bury, Philobiblon, 1344

House Call

Letter from Charles Dickens to a chimney sweep, March 15, 1864:

Dear Sir,

Since you last swept my study chimney it has developed some peculiar eccentricities. Smoke has indeed proceeded from the cowl that surmounts it, but it has seemingly been undergoing internal agonies of a most distressing nature, and pours forth disastrous volumes of swarthy vapour into the apartment wherein I habitually labour. Although a comforting relief probably to the chimney, this is not altogether convenient to me. If you can send a confidential sub-sweep, with whom the chimney can engage in social intercourse, it might be induced to disclose the cause of the departure from its normal functions.

Faithfully yours,

Charles Dickens

Prose Poetry

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In scenes of pathos, Charles Dickens often wrote unconsciously in blank verse. These paragraphs from The Old Curiosity Shop, arranged as poetry, show a strong iambic rhythm:

And now the bell — the bell
She had so often heard by night and day
And listened to with solid pleasure,
E’en as a living voice —
Rung its remorseless toll for her,
So young, so beautiful, so good.

Decrepit age, and vigorous life,
And blooming youth, and helpless infancy,
Poured forth — on crutches, in the pride of strength
And health, in the full blush
Of promise — the mere dawn of life —
To gather round her tomb. Old men were there,
Whose eyes were dim
And senses failing —
Granddames, who might have died ten years ago,
And still been old — the deaf, the blind, the lame, the palsied,
The living dead in many shapes and forms,
To see the closing of this early grave!
What was the death it would shut in,
To that which still would crawl and creep above it!

Along the crowded path they bore her now;
Pure as the new-fallen snow
That covered it; whose day on earth
Had been so fleeting.
Under that porch where she had sat when Heaven
In mercy brought her to that peaceful spot,
She passed again, and the old church
Received her in its quiet shade.

Richard Horne presented these stanzas in New Spirit of the Age in 1844. “Throughout the whole of the above, only two unimportant words have been omitted — in and its; ‘granddames’ has been substituted for ‘grandmothers,’ and ‘e’en’ for ‘almost.’ All that remains is exactly as in the original, not a single word transposed, and the punctuation the same to a comma.”

“It is not an affectation in me, nor have I the least desire to write them in that metre,” Dickens wrote to an inquirer that April, “but I run into it, involuntarily and unconsciously, when I am very much in earnest. I even do so, in speaking.”

“I am not prepared to say that this may not be a defect in prose composition, but I attach less importance to it than I do to earnestness. And considering that it is a very melodious and agreeable march of words, usually; and may be perfectly plain and free; I cannot agree with you that it is likely to be considered by discreet readers as turgid or bombastic, unless the sentiments expressed in it, be of that character. Then indeed it matters very little how they are attired, as they cannot fail to be disagreeable in any garb.”

But he seems to have grown self-conscious about it. In 1846 he wrote to John Forster regarding The Battle of Life, “If in going over the proofs you find the tendency to blank verse (I cannot help it, when I am very much in earnest) too strong, knock out a word’s brains here and there.”

The Shoe Fits

William F. Buckley Jr. called Norman Mailer an egotist, “almost unique in his search for notoriety and absolutely unequalled in his co-existence with it.”

Mailer called Buckley a “second-rate intellect incapable of entertaining two serious thoughts in a row.”

In 1966 Buckley sent Mailer an autographed copy of The Unmaking of a Mayor, the memoir of his unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City the previous year.

Mailer turned to the index and looked up his own name. There he found, in Buckley’s handwriting, the words “Hi, Norman.”

To Do

Titles of actual publications collected by librarian Eric v.d. Luft:

How to Abandon Ship (1942)
How to Abduct a Highland Lord (2007)
How to Attract the Wombat (1949)
How to Avoid Intercourse With Your Unfriendly Car Mechanic (1977)
How to Be an Ocean Scientist in Your Own Home (1988)
How to Become Extinct (1941)
How to Boil Water (1976)
How to Break Out of Prison (2003)
How to Bribe a Judge (2002)
How to Buy an Elephant (1977)
How to Deep-Freeze a Mammoth (1986)
How to Dig a Hole to the Other Side of the World (1979)
How to Embalm Your Mother-in-Law (1993)
How to Get a Gorilla Out of Your Bathtub (2006)
How to Hold a Crocodile (1981)
How to Label a Goat (2006)
How to Ride a Tiger (1983)
How to Run a Bassoon Factory (1934)
How to Tell a Blackbird From a Sausage (2007)
How to Tell If Your Boyfriend Is the Antichrist (2007)
How to Travel With a Salmon (1994)
How to Trick or Treat in Outer Space (2004)
How to Wreck a Building (1982)

The list was begun by librarians at Bowdoin College in the 1970s; Luft inherited it there and has maintained it ever since. He published a selection in 2008 as The Inscribed List: Or Why Librarians Are Crazy. “We librarians don’t go deliberately looking for these little nuggets of delight,” he writes. “We don’t have to. They just appear.”

Morphology

nabokov on kafka

This is the opening page of “The Metamorphosis,” from Vladimir Nabokov’s teaching copy. Kafka’s novella held a special interest for Nabokov, who was a trained entomologist. From his lecture notes at Cornell:

Now, what exactly is the ‘vermin’ into which poor Gregor, the seedy commercial traveler, is so suddenly transformed? It obviously belongs to the branch of ‘jointed leggers’ (Arthropoda), to which insects, and spiders, and centipedes, and crustaceans belong. … Next question: What insect? Commentators say cockroach, which of course does not make sense. A cockroach is an insect that is flat in shape with large legs, and Gregor is anything but flat: he is convex on both sides, belly and back, and his legs are small. He approaches a cockroach in only one respect: his coloration is brown. That is all. Apart from this he has a tremendous convex belly divided into segments and a hard rounded back suggestive of wing cases. In beetles these cases conceal flimsy little wings that can be expanded and then may carry the beetle for miles and miles in a blundering flight. … Further, he has strong mandibles. He uses these organs to turn the key in a lock while standing erect on his hind legs, on his third pair of legs (a strong little pair), and this gives us the length of his body, which is about three feet long. … In the original German text the old charwoman calls him Mistkafer, a ‘dung beetle.’ It is obvious that the good woman is adding the epithet only to be friendly. He is not, technically, a dung beetle. He is merely a big beetle.

“Curiously enough,” he added, “Gregor the beetle never found out that he had wings under the hard covering of his back. This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings.”