Dell · 1951

I first saw the name Will Cuppy when I read somewhere (I no longer remember where) P. G. Wodehouse waxing rhapsodic about him. The funniest writer alive, I believe he called him, though as I say I can't look it up to verify the quote. Well, that was enough for me. If the funniest writer ever to live called a man funnier than him, I had to know this fellow.

Before we get into the question of funniness, though, I may point out that Wodehouse's aesthetic judgments could often leave something to be desired. I mentioned Edgar Wallace in this space not too long ago. I do not recommend than anyone ever read an Edgar Wallace book. They are terribly written and racist and personality-free and all the same anyway. Wodehouse devoured them by the boatload; couldn't get enough of them. So. Just saying.

This little paperback, which according to the pencil scrawl on the inside front page I paid three dollars for (unless there was a sale), was published two years after Cuppy's death by a fellow name of Fred Feldkamp, who also provides the minimal introduction. It seems that Will Cuppy had been working on this, a humorous almanac, and The Decline And Fall Of Practically Everybody, a comic history of civilization, off and on for ten years or so, but kept getting sidetracked by the need to do research. It was incomplete at his death, and Feldkamp, who gets an "edited by" credit, threw some additional material in to round it out.

So what does the uncut Cuppy look like? Here's the entry for January 28, the first to make me chuckle:
Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, became King of England and Ireland at the age of nine years upon the death of his father on January 28, 1547. He was a frail and rather useless youth, the only uninteresting Tudor in all history. He died in his sixteenth year and was buried in his grandfather's chapel in Westminster Abbey and that was the end of him. There's a gentleman in California who claimed that poor little Edward VI didn't die, but lived on in disguise, possibly under the name of Sir Francis Bacon, and as such wrote Shakespeare's plays. I try to keep an open mind on these things, but I can see two weaknesses in our friend's theory. In the first place, Edward IV did nothing of the sort. Secondly, Shakespeare wrote his own plays. If he didn't it was somebody else of the same name.
And here is September 22, which I am morally certain was the work of Feldkamp and/or his stooges:
"Dear Sir: My boy friend has many good qualities, but he seems to have an ugly temper. What shall I do?"

Take a little dry starch, moisten it with cold water, and apply to the injured part. Do this at once, to prevent the air from touching the area. No discoloration should result.
Some authorities recommend raw beefsteak.
Quite apart from the ha-ha-battered-women-am-I-right attitude (I have no information as to Cuppy's misogyny; his sexual politics throughout are about normal for a self-described hermit in the 40s), it's a crude joke, without the pompous-lecturer-punctured-by-flippancy tone of most of the rest of the book. It's the kind of joke you could find in any stag magazine of the period, masculine and brutish and hollow, and it stained for me what was an otherwise quite enjoyable read.

At his best, Cuppy reminds me of Robert Benchley in his pose as General Essayist, though Cuppy manages to impart a few facts along with the tonal play. (There is a whole continent of literary humor in the early twentieth century which is opaque to the average reader today, relying as it does on familiarity with the literary conventions of dead genres, like the overly cozy magazine essay -- or indeed the general-audience almanac.) Cuppy is gently funny, using the Wodehousian trick of deploying set phrases in unusual patterns to produce a comic imbalance, but he's never more than that. But when he gets on a tear about a pet peeve — like the Bacon-is-Shakespeare canard, or the derivation of the constellation Camelopardis — he's a familiar figure to modern, Internet-bred eyes: the know-it-all crank who never leaves his apartment or any error uncorrected. But, as I say, gently funny.

I've got another Cuppy book or two floating around here somewhere. I'm not in any hurry to get to them, but it's nice to know they're there.

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