Don Marquis, an early twentieth-century humorist, had an almost Disney-like knack for creating benign characters who thrived in the popular imagination. The most famous of these was Archy, a poet-cockroach who practiced his craft after-hours on an old typewriter in the offices of the New York Evening Sun. Archy wrote in lowercase letters with no punctuation, because he was too small to reach the shift key. With his companion Mehitabel, a cat who professed to have been Cleopatra in a past life, Archy and his free verse appeared in some half a dozen books, all of which sold handsomely. He counted E. B. White among his fans. “Mr. Marquis’s cockroach,” White wrote in an introduction to The Life and Times of Archy and Mehitabel,
was more than the natural issue of a creative and humorous mind. Archy was the child of compulsion, the stern compulsion of journalism. The compulsion is as great today as it ever was, but it is met in a different spirit. Archy used to come back from the golden companionship of the tavern with a poet’s report of life as seen from the under side. Today’s columnist returns from the platinum companionship of the nightclub with a dozen pieces of watered gossip and a few bottomless anecdotes. Archy returned carrying a heavy load of wine and dreams. These later cockroaches come sober from their taverns, carrying a basket of fluff. I think newspaper publishers in this decade ought to ask themselves why.
But Marquis was also responsible for a character called Clem Hawley, better known as the Old Soak: an endearing alcoholic who had the misfortune of living in America during Prohibition.
The Old Soak liked to versify, too, and he did so at length—in two books, a Broadway play, a silent film, and a talkie, both of these last starring, in one of cinema’s richest ironies, an actor named Wallace Beery.
The Old Soak’s debut, The Old Soak and Hail and Farewell, is in the public domain now. Delving into it you’ll find a surprisingly callous approach to addiction, far from, say, the complex and often convivial descriptions of binge drinking in John O’Hara’s early novels. The Old Soak is a hauntingly one-note character, and one wonders exactly what about his alcoholism made him such a bankable franchise. Imagine the pitch meetings that followed: “He’s a lush, see? He wants to booze it up, but he can’t, because of that cursed eighteenth amendment!”
Yuks ensue, contracts are signed, and everyone has a glass of whiskey.
Here, for instance, is how the Old Soak—who sounds less like a drunk than a concussion victim—plans on spending his holiday season:
“CHRISTMAS,” said the Old Soak, “will soon be here. But me, I ain’t going to look at it. I ain’t got the heart to face it. I’m going to crawl off and make arrangements to go to sleep on the twenty-third of December and not wake up until the second of January.
“Them that is in favor of a denaturized Christmas won’t be interfered with by me. I got no grudge against them. But I won’t intrude any on them, either. They can pass through the holidays in an orgy of sobriety, and I’ll be all alone in my own little room, with my memories and a case of Bourbon to bear me up.”
What a riot! Toss in a laugh track and put him in prime time.
Even more questionable are such poems as “Chant Royal of the Dejected Dipsomaniac,” “After Several Highballs,” and “On Swearing Off Again,” all encomia to the blitzed life and the bygone bar-stools of simpler times. In “True, But What of It?”, the Old Soak acknowledges that boozehounds have caused a lot of suffering in the world, and that alcohol is a social scourge threatening the very well-being of the family unit—but, dash it all, who can say no to a nice glass of rum?
Old Demon Rum, they say you ruined homes,
Bashing the piteous Wife betwixt her eyes.
Stabbing Aunt Tildy with her own hair-combs,
And teaching your young offspring stealth and lies:
Angel! they say that one night, lost to grace,
You filched the infant’s coral from her crib,
Hocked it, and blew the loot at Leery’s Place—
Then strangled Baby Sister in her bib
Because it purchased only sixteen beers!
Demon! they say you used to cut up rough,
Sowing the earth with poverty and tears—
And I believe it readily enough!
I do admit your crimes as charged above,
But, Angel! crime can never kill my love!
Evidence suggests that future renditions of the Old Soak were no more nuanced. A Don Marquis fan site writes of the Broadway play, which ran for 421 performances before embarking on a national tour:
The play’s most famous phrase was “Al’s here,” alerting Clem that his favorite bootlegger was approaching with a fresh supply of whiskey. The parrot in the poster, a liquor-loving bird named Peter, nearly steals the show after gulping down a glass of homemade hooch.
Humor ages poorly, and a charitable reader could argue that many of the Old Soak’s charms have been lost to the ages. Alcoholism wasn’t recognized as a disease until 1973, and the village drunk had been a comic trope for centuries before our soused Clem came along. Even so, Marquis took the joke to strange, unsettling places, and his one-note drunkard was a protagonist, not a stock supporting character. As a window to another time, and to the mindset of Prohibition-era Americans, the Old Soak is invaluable.
Anyway, you can read all of The Old Soak and Hail and Farewell below. I know you won’t. That’s okay.