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CELEBRATING WILL CUPPY—SATIRIST EXTRAORDINAIRE

WILL CUPPY is my favorite satirist; this, at a time when I find satire an immense comfort. I wonder how widespread Cuppy’s fame is?

Will Cuppy, 1884–1949, American satirist, writer, literary critic. Image from Gale Academic OneFile of a Cuppy broadcast on CBS Radio, c. 1942.

Cuppy, Indiana-born and raised, inherited the name Will from an uncle who was a Union officer in the Civil War. Will grew up on a grandmother’s farm on the banks of the Eel River near South Whitley, about 110 miles north of Indianapolis.

“Even as a child back in Indiana,” Cuppy wrote later, “whenever I took a Butterbelly off the hook I used to ask myself, ‘Does this fish think?’ I would even ask others, ‘Do you suppose this Butterbelly can think?’ And all I would get in reply was a look. At the age of eighteen, I left the state.”

Will received a B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1907, hung out for seven more years as a grad student in English Lit, got his masters, and left for New York City. There, he wrote advertising copy, briefly served stateside in World War I, and composed what evolved into “Mystery and Adventure,” a weekly column in the New York Herald Tribune. Cuppy continued this contribution until his death in 1949.

Will’s writing style was composed of heavily researched fact blended with wonderfully logical, if slightly skewed humor: “Most people, it seems, think that Robinson Crusoe when he landed on his island had nothing to keep him from starvation or anything else. As a matter of fact he had twelve raft loads of supplies that he took off the wrecked ship. He had as much food and furniture as if he had had a delicatessen store and Fifth Avenue outside his hut.”

Cuppy’s Hermitage. End paper art from How to be a Hermit or A Bachelor Keeps House.

Indeed, Will had such a hut on Jones Island, just off Long Island’s South Shore, now Jones Beach State Park.

How to Be a Hermit or a Bachelor Keeps House, by Will Cuppy, Horace Liveright, 1929.

Will’s How to be a Hermit or a Bachelor Keeps House describes what he called his Jones Island “hermiting” before moving back full-time to Greenwich Village. Cuppy found another literary home at The New Yorker, which published many of his pieces before later being collected into books.

How to Attract the Wombat, by Will Cuppy, Curtis Publishing, 1935.
How to Become Extinct, by Will Cuppy, Farrar & Rinehart, 1941.

Cuppy had a great love and knowledge of nature. It’s said that he would work from notes amassed on scads of 3 x 5-in. index cards, typically after reading dozens of sources. Only then would he compose something that would be uniquely Cuppy.

“The Zebra is striped all over so that the Lion can see him and eat him. Some people say he is striped so that the Lion can not see him. These people believe that the stripes of the Zebra simulate the bars of sunlight falling through the tall jungle grasses and that therefore the Zebra is invisible and that the earth is flat.”

Aristotle, Greek philosopher, so-so natural historian, and frequent Cuppy source. Illustration by William Steig from How to Become Extinct.

Cuppy’s knowledge of the Greek philosopher Aristotle was profound, as displayed in a footnote (a literary device Cuppy dearly loved to use): “Aristotle maintains that the neck of a Lion is composed of a single bone. Aristotle knew nothing at all about Lions, a circumstance which did not prevent him from writing a good deal on the subject.”

Human nature was another favorite topic: “Aristotle taught that the brain exists merely to cool the blood and is not involved in the process of thinking. This is true only of certain persons.”

Cuppy’s most well known work is likely The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. His research starts in ancient Egypt: “Khufu’s six wives were probably not much fun. In accordance with custom, he had to marry some of his sisters and half sisters, not to mention one of his stepmothers and perhaps other close female connections with exactly the same line of family jokes and reminiscences. When he had stood enough, he could always go out to Gizeh and rush construction work on their tombs.”

Khufu, aka Cheops aka Snefru, c. 2550 B.C., Egyptian pharaoh, polygamist. Illustration by William Steig from The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody.

A footnote adds that “Queen Merytyetes or Mertitiones, the stepmother-wife, survived Khufu and was passed along to his son Khafre. Odd, I must say.”

On another note entirely, Cuppy concluded, “The female of any species is generally regarded as a relatively anabolic organism, more passive than the male, who is relatively katabolic and active. The fact remains that one frequently runs across a rather katabolic female.”

Cuppy occasionally engaged in political satire, though only in the long view: “They [the Pilgrims] believed in freedom of thought for themselves and for all other people who believed exactly as they did.”

“Are the classics doomed? Our ancestors believed that four years of this sort of information would inevitably produce a President, or at least a Cabinet Member. It didn’t seem to work out that way.”

Thanks for the warning, Will. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays, 2017

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