Before LOLCat and DoggoLingo, there was a talking cockroach
Almost a century before there were animal lingos on the internet, there was a cockroach in New York City who wrote poetry for the newspaper. The cockroach lived in the office of the columnist Don Marquis, who wrote for the New York Sun; according to Marquis, after he left the office for the day, the insect would creep out and write messages by jumping on the keys of the typewriter. Archy the cockroach, as he asked to be called, became something of a media celebrity; his free-verse musings appeared in the newspaper for decades and were later collected in multiple volumes. His career in some ways prefigured the successes of ‘talking animals’ online – and in other ways usefully contrasts the features of old media and new.
Because he needed to jump from key to key, Archy wrote almost entirely in lower case; he couldn’t depress the shift key and a letter key at the same time. But his spelling and grammar were meticulous, reflecting a writer proud of his craft; and if he rarely included punctuation, this may have been as much a stylistic choice as a matter of saving his energy. For as he explained in his first column, Archy was a child of the arts, and specifically of free verse:
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
i see things from the under side now
Archy had reconciled himself to his new existence remarkably well, perhaps because the world reminded him constantly that it considered cockroaches and poets to be equivalent beings. The special perspective that he brought to his columns – for the gimmick of a nonhuman speaker entails the promise of a nonhuman point of view, a point of view turned forty degrees from our usual way of looking at the world – was an intimate awareness of the distance between the scale of a creature’s self-image and the scale of its being. He regularly met fleas, spiders, fireflies, and other denizens of the city’s unswept floors – educated fleas, spiders who ‘served the god of beauty’, a firefly so flashy he nicknamed it ‘Broadway’ – who styled themselves with flourishes that their itty-bitty size made ludicrous. But he also called out humans for imagining themselves greater than insects:
i do not see why men
should be so proud
insects have the more
according to the scientists
when man was only
a burbling whatsit
This double consciousness pervaded his general tone. Archy’s highest ideals belonged to Parnassus, but his sensibility was pure New York City – as was his language, which was fluent in the large, floating abstractions of the period, like romanticism, spiritualism, the transmigration of souls, but tethered them to New York idioms, concrete and pragmatic as the clink of coins. He calls Marquis ‘boss’, which reflects Marquis’s position as owner of the typewriter and dispenser of sandwich crumbs, but which is also a New York word, originating in local Dutch and used in the city as a general term of address. (Recently, I heard a man in Lower Manhattan say to a food cart vendor, ‘Hey boss, you got a torque wrench? One of those things you tighten lug nuts with?’) Overall, his tone is democratic, gossipy, conceited (also a New York thing), and – if you’ll forgive the pun – arch, eternally ready to measure the length between idea and experience:
old doc einstein has
abolished time but they
haven t got the news at
sing sing yet
Famous animal writers online
Writing in 1983, Benedict Anderson described newspapers as ‘one-day best-sellers’. Today’s one-day bestsellers are to be found on the internet, where the attention economy is even more crowded, even faster in the overturn, than it was in print. Columns have given way to feeds, brands, and memes, where brevity provides an edge in a fast-paced marketplace. Yet even so, the new giants of miniature letters online evince the continuing appeal of talking animals as a media gimmick. Many popular accounts on Twitter purport to be written by nonhumans, such as Thoughts of Dog, ostensibly written by a dog; Dog Solution, by another dog; birdsrightsactivist, by a bird; and jomny sun, by an ‘aliebn confuesed abot humamn lamgauge’. Or again, platforms that circulate collectively authored content are crowded with comic animal languages, like LOLCat and DoggoLingo, that people use to ventriloquize pictures of dogs, cats, snakes, and the like.
sometimes. i wish. the human. needed a hug. because secretly. i do
— Thoughts of Dog (@dog_feelings) October 7, 2017
No evidence suggests that Archy directly influenced any of these accounts. We might make a comparison, instead, to the situation of Harry Whittier Frees, a photographer who, a century ago, staged novelty photographs of cats but did not initiate a direct line of descent to LOLCats. The points of similarity show what we have in common with our ancestors (we all like to think about cats acting like people), while the points of difference show what has changed between their world and ours. In Archy’s case, a media system that allowed writers to dig in, take up space, and switch up their content allowed for immense creative play, even with the editorial oversight that their institutions wielded over them. The language scholar Gretchen McCulloch, who is writing a book on internet languages, argues that eccentric uses of language often serve, in cases of ventriloquism, as a tool for ironic distancing, with the author ‘using creative grammar to undermine the message as well as explain the message’. Archy’s lower-case, unpunctuated style was probably at the limit of what a newspaper editor would allow. On the internet, the creators of single-author talking animal accounts have no editorial constraints, but the medium introduces new constraints that arguably make it harder to produce complex, memorable works of art: 140 characters, update constantly to stay relevant, study the analytics for audience feedback, know instantly what people like and turn it into a formula. (It’s also relevant that Don Marquis was a minor genius.)
Like many people today, Archy believed himself to be living in a degraded media age. In his column, he reported on the requests he received to send out autographed pictures, make public appearances, change (as the marketplace of publicity demands) from being a writer to being the story. He vociferously refused all such low commercialisms:
i am a serious artist
and will have nothing
to do with any
of the current forms
of cheap publicity
But Archy did make himself available for books: by 1940, you could buy four collected volumes of Archy’s columns. He also sold his story to Broadway; in 1953, 1954, and 1957, various musicalized versions of his adventures (and those of his best friend, an alley cat named Mehitabel) appeared on commercial albums and the New York stage.
This kind of remediation has also come to be the preferred path for Archy’s digital heirs. They don’t refuse the publicity of merchandise and public talks; that’s how you make money from a Twitter account. But a book in print is still a powerful sign of arrival for the flagbearers of new media. Jonny Sun has a book; the creator of We Rate Dogs has a book coming out; LOLCat has multiple collected volumes, two ‘guides to life’, and a Bible. The book survived the cheap culture of neon and advertisements that Archy seemed to believe he was living through; it survived the rise of cinema and television, which he chronicled as a devotee of the arts; and early signs suggest it may survive this latest print revolution, too. The format may be suited to survive periods of extinction, like (as Douglas Adams suggested) a shark; or perhaps like a cockroach.
So here’s to the next generation of Archys. So far, the talking animals online lack the subtle insights and the plays on consciousness that Archy achieved; but then their creators are working in shorter form, in a repetitive remix economy, on prosumer platforms whose aim is foremost to keep you online by asking you to circulate shifting repetitions of the same thing. But expression remains the need of the soul. Given time – and a few infusions of minor genius – we may encounter a one-day bestseller of our own time that rises to the status of a classic.