Today’s Special is a guest post by Courtenay Bluebird
History did not always bore me. To put my stomach off history for an entire decade, the following three synchronous events had to coalesce: three required undergraduate history credits; an unusually hot summer; and a professor who specialized in reading for four hours straight from a textbook that was written in a soda-flat monotone.
Et voilà! I despised history as a solo subject for many years. That aversion could be quite problematic when you’re a journalist and an MFA candidate.
If plain history were mixed with a little bit of, say, literary theory, I was fine. I could stand the flat taste of historical fact if you mixed in the sociology of clothing.
Postmodern theory (Thanks a lot art school MFA!) leans heavily on the ideas of multiple histories (history is a story; a story is a flawed construct) and historicism (no history is absolute; history is a combination of different disciplines). Both of these items also sat well on my stomach, as they were light on the history and heavy on the theory.
History as a standalone subject, though, induced an intellectual queasiness in me that I tried to keep to myself. When an entire subject area makes you dyspeptic and you are trying to teach college students to be open minded— you have a real problem.
I didn’t know how to fix my history issue. I didn’t even know how to try to fix it. Worse, even, I didn’t care to repair my history problem.
Do you know who healed my rift with history?
Oh, you’ll never guess, so let me tell you.
My mail carrier, a bibliophile of intense and diverse tastes, introduced me to a catalogue filled with drool-worthy books— Bas Bleu. (Bas Bleu is the French term for a bluestocking, a 19th century word for an aristocratic, educated lady. The catalogue’s motto is “Champion for the small little book….” Don’t you love it already? )
My pip of a mail carrier introduced me to Bas Bleu and Bas Bleu gave me a formal posthumous introduction to Will Cuppy, a once popular and fascinating writer who specialized in humor and facts.
Facts. Historical facts. In fact, merely considering reading history made my stomach twitch. I thumbed-down the page and waited for the sensation to pass. It took three weeks.
After a little dithering, I ordered Cuppy’s back-in-print The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. I fell in love with history for history’s sake again. Not historicism. Not history as a by-product of other interests. Hardcore, unrepentant history.
Will Cuppy gave me back my own birthright— a curiosity about what happened where, to whom, and how the pattern of history repeats, indefinitely, like a crazy quilt made by your colorblind aunt.
Cuppy’s intense abilities come down to one incredibly difficult literary trick.
He could take any subject— world civilization, natural sciences, home economics — and with an astonishing sleight-of-hand— reduce it to its essential elements and make it pithy. His writing style leans into this brevity, but do not be deceived— the research behind his tight sentences could, and did, take years at a stretch.
Most of his books were out of print for a few decades with the exception of Decline. Like many writers I love, Cuppy went through a brief period after his death where people forgot how wonderful he was, where editors forgot how Cuppy gave their readers the gift of knowledge with ease, where literary reviewers forgot that writers could convey history without that self-congratulatory grandiosity that causes emotional vertigo in the average reader.
After reading Cuppy, no bland recitation of facts and figures could possibly evoke the great forces that make lives and countries collide and collude. Cuppy, Bas Bleu, and my mail carrier, gave history back to me so sweetly and simply that really I can hardly believe my luck. I never thought I’d love history again.
But here is my heart on the sleeve of my t-shirt— I adore history. And here I am, late at night, relishing that soon I will lie down on my bed in a small pool of light to read an exquisite history of Sri Lanka. I’ve read it six times before. I’ll read it six times again. It’s true— history repeats itself, cover to cover and back again.
Would you like to know more about Will Cuppy? A well-written overview can be found on Wikipedia here! In fact, Cuppy is so quotable, he has his on Wiki Quote page over here.
Want some more great news? His writing is so popular again, according to the lovely Yearstricken, that my favorite Cuppy book The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody is on backorder at Amazon. Bas Bleu is still my go-to for new reprints of beloved favorites. I highly recommend that you bebop to their website here.
And, finally, do you want to read my favorite history of modern Sri Lanka, in brief? It’s gorgeous. Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family is so fine I give it as gift to new writers all the time.
Courtenay Bluebird is a professional writer and photographer, and a sort-of artist. As she is currently writing about herself in the third person, she would like to tell you this is the first time she has shown her drawings to any sort of public.
28 thoughts on “History and the Will Cuppy cure”
VERY enjoyable post! I too suffered from history-aversion; even a really wonderful History of England course in college managed only to soften my attitude to I-hate-history-unless-it’s-taught-by-Tony-Belcher.
Since those days, though, I have read Cuppy’s Decline and Fall… with great pleasure. And then, the truly transformative event, I was present during the years when my truelove and his writing partner researched and then wrote an amazing history of the American Revolution and the real historical figure Israel Potter, who “wrote” his own story back then and then got a treatment from Herman Melville. They’ve done a two-volume fictional treatment of their material–Gone Over/ The Brimstone Papers–and a WONDERFUL WONDERFUL historical treatment called Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I don’t want to seem as if I’m hooking onto your blog to promote my truelove’s books–I really think you’d like them, especially Tinker Tailor. Far from the usual rehash of things you’ve read over and over, their work rests on a lot of primary research in historical societies and town hall basements, and some fine analytical thinking (they tell you when they’re doing that). Authors are David Chacko and Alexander Kulcsar (my t.l.). All three books are available on Amazon (print or Kindle).
If you do read a little Israel Potter, I hope you’ll let me know what you think!
P.S. Dear Yearstruck, thanks for sharing this bit of Bluebird.
I did get a moment to check out your truelove’s books (Alexander Kulcsar with his writing partner David Chacko). Oh… mai… gah. Just from reading the blurb on the most recent one, “Beggarman, Spy”— I caught a frisson of excitement.
(Typically, Amazon blurbs are dry, even when the books are not.)
I’ve added all three to my list of must-read books. I’m trying to prepare my head to read some things on neurology, art, and the mystical experience, so it may take a bit before I get to Kulcscar and Chacko’s works.
But in the dead heat of Texas summer? I think I’ll be ready for a nice, cool draught of well-researched history. Yay!
I knew you would like Bluebird’s writing, RAB. I really appreciate your recommendations for good reading. I will use the Amazon gift card my true love gave me to order one of the books your true love wrote. 🙂
You’ve sparked my interest, Bluebird. I’ll add it to my list of others you have me wanting to read. Will also be back to check out Yearstruck. Always great to find another great blog!
Hearing you say that you’re going to come back and read more of her work makes me want to do backflips!
I think Year-Struck is a special treat. I don’t know many writers on the internet that bring their best to everything they post. Yearstricken is rare.
Oh, MM, you made my DAY! I am so HAPPY now!
Hey, Courtenay! Good to see you! I’m so glad you have introduced me to Yearstruck by having her as a guest writer. I’m so glad you’re getting to write for a different audience through her! And I, too, love histories. It’s all about the stories we tell, and I think telling our stories, reading other people’s stories, and learning new histories will save the world (if anything will). Okay, okay, art will save the world too. I guess history is an art in my little mind.
Hi there, Karen! (*Waving excitedly*) Hi!
Yearstricken writes such gorgeous things, and she’s such a lovely person! The people I’ve met who read her blog are really wonderful. I’m so glad to be “settin’ a spell and visitin'” over here.
I completely agree with you that history is an art. (Nicely said!)
What you’ve written here is exquisite, so I’m merely going to follow up by saying that one of the things I appreciate right now are the moments where thorough historical research and great writing intersect.
When the art of writing and the art of research come together, I am transported. Cuppy is great at these moments!
I’ve been studying history for a long time now. Among other things. I especially liked the subject, among others that I studied, because history spells out the story of human existence. It tells us what we’ve been through, what we might fear, and what we might hope for… as human beings. Before I discovered America, I suspected that they would be the greatest historians in the world… because their own history was so short… that they would study the histories of all the people of the world. But when I got there, it seemed like they study a bit of their two hundred year history over and over again… but it’s always so beautiful in your country, that Americans get distracted, and forget about it… and then they have to study the same history all over again. Since discovering yearstricken, I’ve tried never to miss a post of hers. And if she says to read Bluebird, that’s what I will do. And if Bluebird says to read Will Cuppy , well, I’ll go looking for Cuppy, even though I never heard of him before. Thank you.
Oh, I’m a little bit nervous now. As you’re a serious student of history, I feel the need to say that Cuppy really does reduce history to pithy pieces.
It’s deceptive, though, as Cuppy was considered to be one of the most thorough researchers of his time.
(This information comes by way of the executor of Cuppy’s estate, Fred Feldcamp. Feldcamp was his editor of many years.)
Feldcamp’s introduction to this posthumous history goes into great detail about Cuppy’s research methods. I think, with that framing in mind, you’ll really enjoy what you find. (I hope you enjoy it!)
One of the reasons I wanted to write about Cuppy for Yearstricken’s blog is that her writing on historical and etymological subjects reminds me quite a bit of Cuppy’s style.
In a way, this essay on Cuppy is a slice of homage to Yearstricken’s writing.
I wanted to find a way to slip my appreciation of her writing into my piece without these thoughts getting edited out by Yearstricken herself, but I couldn’t. Her eyes would be too quick.
Thanks for giving me an opening to mention it here, though. (Yay!)
Don’t be nervous. I won’t come with complaints… And I do enjoy humor, so I will probably like his writing. I have already sent an email to my local bookstore. We’ll see how long it takes him to come up with something.
Thank you for replying so quickly! I do have these nervous moments— especially when I meet an expert/lover of a particular subject.
It sounds as though you have an especial flair for world civilization studies— (I love world civilization studies!)
Yearstricken said that Amazon was backordered on Cuppy’s posthumous book. I bet your bookstore liaison is able to find a copy quickly though. I can’t wait to hear what you think of this book!
With extra-ordinary luck, I have already received a copy of one of his books, and a critique with accompanying chapters of another of his works. I’ve just begun to read, but I already understand your previous note to me a bit better. It seems to me that his appeal would be more to those who haven’t studied history seriously, than to those who have. But I will have to read more before I’m able to really have an opinion. In any case, thanks for the recommendation.
Sorry so late in my reply! Just discovered the “notifications” section of WordPress—
How do you find Cuppy now months after the fact? I think his writing is beautifully dense. He really was known for his research.
And, if you don’t feel the way I do, and you very well might, especially since you are a serious scholar of history, that’s okay too! : )
I’ve always loved history, and I never heard of Will Cuppy before. Another treasure tome to add to the list!
Phillip— I think you are going to love Cuppy. He’s so different from other humorists with an historian bent. His delivery is so deadpan.
He also takes a crack at the natural sciences in several collections, including “How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes,” but I haven’t cracked that one yet— that’s a Cuppy book that goes in and out of print.
YAY! Happy now!
I am going to order Will Cuppy’s book today! I didn’t really like history until I began teaching literature. Once I started connecting the novels to the time periods, I became a history person. It was magical! I am looking forward to reading this book, too. 🙂
If you teach literature, you will find an affinity with Cuppy. He’s so much fun! So crisp! Before I read Cuppy’s work, I did teach American Lit I and II at the college level as well as World Lit II— I leaned heavily on my multidisciplinary background, so it worked out all right.
Now that I’ve read more “straight” history, though, I would design those classes differently should I teach again.
History is magical! I love it so much.
A good, thorough follow-up to Will Cuppy is “The Cartoon History of the Universe” series of books by Larry Gonick.
Gonick does a wonderful job of tying all civilizations together. Illuminating, funny, visual, a little irreverent. (Jacqueline Onassis was his editor. She really championed Gonick’s work a great deal.)
The Fall and Decline of Practically Everybody – what a wonderful title for a book! I wish you good luck with your writing, photography and art.
Ah, it makes me so happy that you like Cuppy’s title: “The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody” fits his general tongue-pressed-inside-wry-cheek style.
Other Cuppy titles include—
“How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes”
“How to Attract the Wombat”
“How to Become Extinct”
There are a few others— some in print, some out-of-print. It’s my goal to read the whole Cuppy canon eventually. He’s juicy, smart and plain ol’ fun!
Thank you so much for your good wishes, Just Add Attitude! I really appreciate your sentiments a great deal!
Wonderful the man was clearly a genius.
I love finding writers like Cuppy! And I love talking about good writing!
I’ve got a few more writers who had an “out-of-print” moment, and I’m looking forward to writing about those folks also.
(I’m especially glad that I got to share this essay here, on Yearstricken’s blog, though!)
Bluebird hooked me. I’ve just ordered Decline. Thanks
Oh, I am so excited! I hope you come back and talk about what you thought of Cuppy’s book! (I live for moments like this, MM! So grateful!)
Only yesterday, you sent me wandering through Retronaut, and now you have me hitting “surprise me” options of Cuppy’s writings online. This exploration, in turn, sent me to the dictionary to learn several important new words, such as dustard and graminivorous, which I had hoped referred to a magical creature one could summon to devour small grammatical errors overlooked by spellcheck but does not. Cuppy’s footnotes, such as one pointing out that Henry VIII only beheaded 33 1/3 percent of his wives, appear even more amusing than the copy itself. Ordered a used hardback of Decline for $3.99. Can’t wait. Thanks.
I read this comment a little bit late today. (I went to “Billy Elliot” last night— it was amazing, but it was longer than I realized it would be.)
My apologies to you (and to Myrah McIlvain) for the later-than-usual comment replies!
Now, to silliness. I was SO EXCITED when I read your comment that I let out the loudest, silliest YEEEEE! sound you can imagine!
As I was saying to MM, I LIVE for moments like this. I’m so glad you ordered a copy of Cuppy. Nothing in the world makes me happier than sharing beautiful, fun, amazing things with wonderful, lovely people. (This alone is the reason why I love posting Yearstricken’s work on Facebook regularly!)
As for your yummy dictionary discoveries, I keep lists of weirdly beautiful words in a special book at home.
I’ve never heard the graminivorous, but after I write this to you, I’m going to scurry and look it up! (I, too, want a grammar-error eating beast. In my head, a Gramivore has turkey feathers and is naturally a little cross-eyed.)
And what in tarnation is a dustard? Is it a dull mustard? A dullard that eats mustard? I must know the answer to this one, too!
Oh, happy now! Thank you so, so much!
What a joy to know that we can be rescued from the doom of perpetual dislike of a dry academic-desert topic by one good slurp from a better writer! Oh, yes, I already knew that, but do we ever honestly *remember* it when we should? Not I. So, Thank You!