Monday, April 15, 2013

In Praise Of Don Marquis

I went to a secondhand bookstore the other day and paid five dollars for a circa-1937 book called Chapters for the Orthodox by Don Marquis (best known for writing archy and mehitabel-- all lower-case letters and no punctuation because archy was a free-verse poet reborn into the body of a cockroach, who now writes his poems by jumping on individual typewriter keys). Chapters for the Orthodox is a book of satirical short stories which, I suspect, were considered very shocking in pre-World War Two America: every story I've read thus far features God, Jesus and/or Satan as a character and the book pokes fun ... not at Christianity per se, but at certain overly pious breeds of Christian.

The very first story in the book, Miss Higginbotham Declines, shows God (going by the name Jehovah) at an elegant men's club in New York City, pondering how, of all the things he's done for humanity, his Begotten Son was the best but that was 1900 years ago and folks nowadays are kind of forgetting his message, so maybe the world could use another Begotten Son? Of course, in today's modern times finding a virgin isn't as easy as it used to be and also (God thinks) he needs someone whom everyone knows is a virgin, someone who will be instantly recognized as a virgin by anyone who hears the name, so he chooses Miss Higginbotham.

But Miss Higginbotham refuses the honor of bearing the next Begotten Son, since she disapproves of having children out of wedlock. God offers to marry her and she still refuses, because she doesn't approve of polygamy and surely God is still married to Jesus' mother? God reminds her that he never married Jesus' mom, which is why Miss Higginbotham refuses again, because she will not marry anyone with such an unsavory past as to have a child out of wedlock.

At one point God humors her -- okay, let's say you're right and you really do know more about proper Christian morality than I do, and you know that having a child out of wedlock is immoral, but ... 
 "Let me ask a sacrifice of you. Will you not swerve from your rightness for the sake of saving a world? Will you not be wrong once so that millions of others may be led to righteousness? Will you not permit your morality, and your sense of what is due yourself and your morality, to go by the board, in order that vast numbers of the population of this struggling earth may be led to the joys and securities of salvation?"

"No," said Miss Higginbotham, uncompromisingly, "I am a virtuous woman."


Jehovah meditated over his next remark before uttering it, as if unwilling to wound Miss Higginbotham if he could spare her feelings. Then he said "When a consciousness of rectitude proceeds to such lengths it is called self-righteousness. It is very evident that your self-righteousness is more important to you than the redemption of the cosmos. Can't you forget yourself and how good you are for one moment in order to make the world better?"

"No, I am afraid I can't."

Confession: I've had a literary crush on Don Marquis for years, ever since I first read his poem "The Big Bad Wolf" in one of the archy and mehitabel books. He was very much ahead of his time regarding things like human rights and equality, and if you brought him to our time he might have difficulty with the technology, but I suspect he'd have no problem whatsoever adjusting to modern (as opposed to 1937) standards regarding "What is morality" (do no harm) and "Which people in America deserve full human rights" (all of them).

Here, in its entirety, is The Big Bad Wolf:
i went to a movie show
the other evening in the cuff
of a friends turned up trousers
and saw the three little pigs
and was greatly edified by the moral lesson
how cruel i said to myself
was the big bad wolf
how superior to wolves are men
the wolf would have eaten those pigs raw
and even alive
whereas a man would have kindly
cut their throats
and lovingly made them into
country sausage spare ribs and pigs knuckles
he would tenderly have roasted them
fried them and boiled them
cooked them feelingly with charity
towards all and malice towards none
and piously eaten them served with sauerkraut
and other trimmings
it is no wonder that the edible animals
are afraid of wolves and love men so
when a pig is eaten by a wolf
he realizes that something is wrong with the world
but when he is eaten by a man
he must thank god fervently
that he is being useful to a superior being
it must be the same way
with a colored man who is being lynched
he must be grateful that he is being lynched
in a land of freedom and liberty
and not in any of the old world countries
of darkness and oppression
where men are still the victims
of kings iniquity and constipation
we ought all to be grateful in this country
that our wall street robber barons
and crooked international bankers
are such highly respectable citizens
and do so much for the churches
and for charity
and support such noble institutions and foundations
for the welfare of mankind
and are such spiritually minded philanthropists
it would be horrid to be robbed
by the wrong kind of people
if i were a man i would not let
a cannibal eat me unless he showed me
a letter certifying to his character
from the pastor of his church
even our industrial murderers
in this country are usually affiliated
with political parties devoted
to the uplift
the enlightenment and the progress
of humankind
every time i get discouraged
and contemplate suicide
by impersonating a raisin and getting devoured
as part of a piece of pie
i think of our national blessings
and cheer up again
it is indeed
as i have been reading lately
a great period in which to be alive
and it is a cheering thought to think
that god is on the side of the best digestion
your moral little friend

archy the cockroach
I wish Don Marquis were alive today; I'd love to read his take on modern American freedom-building ventures. Actually, I think I can guess those myself: "When a Pakistani child is smashed into blood jelly by an American drone bomber, he must thank Allah that he died to promote freedom and democracy, rather than to serve the ends of a murderous dictator." "When a woman is told she may not travel across her own country without first allowing strangers to squeeze her private parts and see nude photos of her, she must thank God that she is being molested by agents of the Free-est Country on Earth; it would be horrifying to be forcibly fondled by a repressive government."


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