At the school where I teach, I do occasional lunch duty with a history teacher named Zachary Taylor. (I’m not making this up; this is his actual name.) This week I presented him with my spare copy of The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, William Cuppy’s posthumous masterpiece. (CBS Broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and his colleague Don Hollenbeck once took turns reading from it on the air "until the announcer cracked up.") For the rest of the lunch period, I saw Zachary sneaking peaks in the pages and giggling. At the end of the lunch he said he was considering making it required reading for his AP Class. It is the most delightful experience to give a gift that thoroughly pleases the recipient.
I was very young when I first read Cuppy, too young to appreciate his erudite humor, but even then I could spot the topspin of his prose. I had never heard of Catherine the Great, and didn’t get the punch line, when he writes, “her early years were very unhappy, and she decided she would have a good time if she ever got a chance. Later on, she overdid it a little,” but even at a tender age there was much to laugh at.
David Foster Wallace makes quite a show using footnotes, but Cuppy was the pioneer of the footnote, which he uses to exquisite effect. He says Alexander the Great was called “the Great because he killed more people of more different kinds than any other man of his time,” and then adds in a footnote, “He did this in order to impress Greek culture upon them.”
I never got to meet Cuppy, and I never will. He died by his own hand in 1949. There are hints of his life-long battles with depression in How to Become Extinct, but his satiric work was somehow never acerbic; there was a gentleness, even a sweetness, in his most barbed remarks. In 2003, the International Astronomical Union approved the name "15017 Cuppy" for an asteroid, but the real tribute is the glee Zachary Taylor has in discovering Decline and Fall for the first time. Of course, Cuppy would have been tickled by the asteroid too.1
1. He'd have written a footnote about it.