History and the Will Cuppy cure


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.

As a writer, she has penned features and columns for major newspapers and magazines.   Her poetry, essays, and fiction have been published in a variety of respected journals.  As a photographer, she has hung four two-person shows.
Bluebird Blvd. is her first real grown-up blog.  And she’s awfully happy to be a guest writer on Year-Struck today.



For a short stretch of time, we lived in South Carolina where we rented a house with a fig tree in the back yard. It stood close to the house, near the kitchen window, so when I washed the dishes I could see the birds eat my dessert for me. My neighbor taught me to how to preserve figs and watermelon rind, but I preferred figs fresh. Just like the birds.


Seeing those pretty little thieves sitting in the fig tree got me interested in birding. I got my husband a nice pair of binoculars, so we could spy on the birds when we took the children to the park.


I was never a serious birder. No matter how many times I looked at those bird identification books, I couldn’t match the pictures with the feathered creatures in the trees. Plus, the birds tended to be too fluttery for me to identify the small crescent-shaped marking on the belly of the males that appears on cloudless days between 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. during the nesting period. The woods are full them, the guidebooks promised, and they’re hard to miss. But miss them, I did.


Mostly I just pointed the binoculars in the direction of the trees, waited for something with wings to fly by. After it landed, I watched it. I recognized a few birds by sight – the cardinal, the blue jay, the tanager, and the redheaded woodpecker. Otherwise, I identified the birds by their colors. I see a gray bird with a white necklace! Oh, look, there’s a brownish bird with spots wearing yellow eye shadow! Occasionally, I let my husband use the binoculars, since I bought them for him. But I didn’t like to let him use them too long; someone needed to watch the children.


I would like to take up birding. My husband, however, shows no enthusiasm for the idea, even though he likes birds and maintains the bird feeder in the back yard. Perhaps if I bought another pair of binoculars, he would like the idea better.


So I’ve taken up a bit of bird watching on the Internet. A few months ago, I was walking through the blog forest, looking for something with wings, when I found myself on Bluebird Blvd. I discovered that a bluebird of sorts lived there; one gifted with a beautiful voice. Sometimes she sings a song so happy the trees bud; sometimes she trills a poem or tweets until you laugh; but she always makes you glad you stopped to listen.


Tomorrow, Courtenay from Bluebird Blvd. will fly over to my blog and sing a song of words for you. I’m so pleased. Come back tomorrow and I guarantee you’ll be pleased, too.



Blogging away from home


I’m blogging away from home today and have packed up my words and taken them over to Bluebird Blvd. Courtenay invited me to spend the day there to do a guest post. You are welcome to join us. Just click here.


Courtenay keeps all her words at Bluebird Blvd and shares them with whoever stops by. You’ll like her words; some are serious, some are hilarious, some are poetic, and some stay with you all day. And she has photos that make your eyes happy. It’s hard not to stare, but she doesn’t mind. She’s kind that way. She provides music and videos, too. If you want to make like a vinyl record and get your groove on, you’ll have to check out some of her 5-Minute Dance Party videos. Some people get up and dance around the room when they listen to these videos, at least that’s what I heard, but I can’t tell you who told me.


I hope you enjoy your visit to Bluebird Blvd. today. Once you visit, you’ll want to go back everyday. That’s what I do.