Mehitabel the cat writes into Science

August 5, 2022 • 1:15 pm

Reader Miriam brought my attention to an editorial in Science that, for once, is not offensively woke. In fact, it’s hilarious, using the trope of the famous books/cartoons of Archy and Mehitabel, created by writer and humorist Don Marquis. Appearing in newspapers and then in books from 1916 to 1937, when Marquis died, the lucubrations of the two animals was wildly popular. When I was very young, our neighbors had a cat named Mehitabel, and investigating that name brought me to the books, which I devoured. Read at least one!

Someone at Science has a great sense of humor, for I found from 2007 an “editorial” by the pair on cat domestication, addressing an article in the same issue. Mehitabel the cat ordered Archy to the typewriter to object to a scientific piece on cat domestication.  I hope Science doesn’t mind if I reproduce the editorial—written in perfect Archy-an prose—in its entirety. The introduction explains the absence of caps and punctuation.

Click to read:

Science’s intro, with a link to the 2007 paper under discussion (it shows from genetic analysis that cats were domesticated in the Near East, and all domestic cats originate from at least five “founder” cats in this region):

Readers old enough to remember Don Marquis’ syndicated New York Sun columns may recall that at night, a cockroach named Archy took over his typewriter to write short pieces about him and his friend, a cat named Mehitabel. Because he typed by diving on the keys, he had difficulty with upper case and punctuation, yielding a rather free-form text. In the following message forwarded to us, Mehitabel is apparently responding to recent findings on the genetic background and history of cat “domestication” (Science, 27 July 2007, p. 519).

The letter:

boss, i sent archy to the keyboard to say how upset I am about the terrible treatment of cats in the papers it’s because of a report in science telling all about how we cats got started pretty interesting but some of the papers are saying that’s how we got domesticated domesticated hell domesticated is for dogs not us boss action needs to be taken against this slander these scientist guys did a good thing they found that the first real house cat was not that pampered egyptian pussy instead they showed our relationship with people was much older thank god for that then they looked at genes of us cats and compared them with the five small wildcats and decided we all came from the one in the middle east maybe an arab cat their idea is that the first farmers ten thousand years ago started storing grain that brought in rats and mice so then this arab cat helped out some papers call that domestication that nonsense has gotta be stopped this was a gift not some ownership deal why do they think today we occasionally bring a bloody present into the house and lay it on the bed or the best rug it’s because we want to remind everyone that we are volunteers not repressed conscripts like the damn rovers and fidos just look at how they act wagging their tails and begging for food talk about deal they got one okay but they lost their independence not me and my kind no sir heres the thing about us cats we think it’s fine in the house but we’re just as happy in the alley or out hunting when we do that they call us feral ever hear anyone call a dog feral by the way hell the feral dog is a coyote not some lost rover get it our gig is about independence pet us a little thats okay even pimp us up for the cat show but make one of those ownership moves and sayonara we’re gone we think the scientists got it right about what went down back then in the fertile crescent after the mice got after the einkorn wheat or whatever pretty soon our ancestors were chomping em up well you might ask did they see any dog fossils in there what was old rover doing not much it appears maybe practicing pointing rats or rolling over for the farmers well when the going gets tough only the tough get going us cats are okay with the publicity but when the science story got out into the mainstream media what was said was downright disrespectful domestication indeed we don’t like to be dissed boss so get off your editorial ass and do something about this nonsense

your colleague mehitabel

14 thoughts on “Mehitabel the cat writes into Science

  1. This is brilliant and hilarious! Rudyard Kipling was right: the Cat made a deal with the Woman, but he never became a servant.

  2. And Mehitabel means “god blesses” or “god benefits” (some say “god rejoices”) in Old Hebrew. Quite fitting.

  3. Mum and dad had a copy of archy and mehitabel, which I later discovered and loved. I can’t help feeling that the opening sentence of the new Science editorial should be: “boss, mehitabel sent me to the keyboard to say how upset she is about the terrible treatment of cats in the papers…” . [Sorry for being pedantic!]

    My favourite piece of archy’s writing, which I have posted below the line here at WEIT before, is about his thoughts on the destructiveness of humans, which were ahead of their time. The final paragraph is particularly damning, but accurate!

    what the ants are saying

    no insect likes human beings
    and if you think you can see why
    the only reason i tolerate you is because
    you seem less human to me than most of them

    it wont be long now it wont be long
    man is making deserts of the earth
    it wont be long now
    before man will have used it up
    so that nothing but ants
    and centipedes and scorpions
    can find a living on it
    man has oppressed us for a million years
    but he goes on steadily
    cutting the ground from under
    his own feet making deserts deserts deserts

    what man calls civilization always results in deserts

    men talk of money and industry
    of hard times and recoveries
    of finance and economics
    but the ants wait and the scorpions wait
    for while men talk they are making deserts all the time getting the world ready for the conquering ant
    drought and erosion and desert
    because men cannot learn

    each generation wastes a little more
    of the future with greed and lust for riches

    it wont be long now It won’t be long
    till earth is barren as the moon
    and sapless as a mumbled bone

    dear boss i relay this information
    without any fear that humanity
    will take warning and reform

    Absolutely!

    1. Great piece.

      But of course, archy means that man makes ‘desertification’, not ‘deserts’. Real deserts are robust, complex, fascinating old-growth ecosystems that deserve respect and protection.

  4. This must be the late Donald Kennedy who served as president of Stanford University, editor-in-chief of Science and FDA commissioner. I tried to find an attribution on the editorial page but came up only with a long, rich, and several page length list of publications all pointing to him.

    I could be wrong!

  5. Ok, as long as another has done so, I’m going to post MY favorite poem, one that I put out for discussion in every one of the HS English classes I taught. Sounds just like David Byrne in “Stop Making Sense,” doesn’t it?

    the lesson of the moth

    i was talking to a moth
    the other evening
    he was trying to break into
    an electric light bulb
    and fry himself on the wires

    why do you fellows
    pull this stunt i asked him
    because it is the conventional
    thing for moths or why
    if that had been an uncovered
    candle instead of an electric
    light bulb you would
    now be a small unsightly cinder
    have you no sense

    plenty of it he answered
    but at times we get tired
    of using it
    we get bored with the routine
    and crave beauty
    and excitement
    fire is beautiful
    and we know that if we get
    too close it will kill us
    but what does that matter
    it is better to be happy
    for a moment
    and be burned up with beauty
    than to live a long time
    and be bored all the while
    so we wad all our life up
    into one little roll
    and then we shoot the roll
    that is what life is for
    it is better to be a part of beauty
    for one instant and then cease to
    exist than to exist forever
    and never be a part of beauty
    our attitude toward life
    is come easy go easy
    we are like human beings
    used to be before they became
    too civilized to enjoy themselves

    and before i could argue him
    out of his philosophy
    he went and immolated himself
    on a patent cigar lighter
    i do not agree with him
    myself i would rather have
    half the happiness and twice
    the longevity

    but at the same time i wish
    there was something i wanted
    as badly as he wanted to fry himself

  6. i read archy and mehitabel when i was small i am pretty sure i got the books out of the glen cove public library they were old enough to be found there thanks for parsing the hebrew name mehitabel i loved the kipling stories and remember the quotation i am the cat who walks by himself and all places are alike to me thanks to all for the memories

  7. archy counters an old cockroach who thinks he’s had a vision of hell:

    ancient one i says to him
    while all those other
    cockroaches gathered into a
    ring around us what you
    beheld was not hell all that
    was natural some one was fumigating
    a room and you blundered
    into it through a crack
    in the wall atheist he cries
    and all those young
    cockroaches cried atheist
    and made for me if it
    had not been for freddy
    the rat i would now be
    on my way once more i mean
    killed as a cockroach and transmigrating
    into something else well
    that old whitebearded devil is
    laying for me with his
    gang he is jealous
    because i took his glory away
    from him dont ever tell me
    insects are any more liberal
    than humans

    archy

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