Why you should read “The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody”

“Peter [The Great] emancipated the Russian women, except those in his own family. He put them into convents.”

“He had the haunted look of the true humorist. All his friends loved him.”

cleopatra by William Steig
Cleopatra, by William Steig

I was 19 or so the first time I read ‘The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody,’ by Will Cuppy (1884-1949,) and I was so in love with it I decided to write something similar. I began collecting notes and writing little encyclopedic articles about, well, everything I could, in a style that combined (or tried) Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary‘s sarcasm and Cuppy’s own brand of comparatively more light-hearted humor. Then I read that it took Cuppy 16 years and 15.000 notes to write that book (and he didn’t even finish it,) so I decided to do something else with my time.

It’s a tragedy that Cuppy, crippled with increasing depression and the prospect of eviction from his apartment, committed suicide because his book became an instant best-seller when it got published (1950) just one year after his death. Not to mention that it’s one of the best books ever written.

The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody‘ is still one of the bests history books ever written. Yes, history, it’s a history book, even though a very odd one. If it had footnotes for every historical fact it mentions, it would probably be one of the most footnoted books ever written (what do you think those 15.000 notes were for?) But it’s also a humor book, and not because the author makes up humorous events or cracks a joke here or there, but because, well, history and human nature IS funny. Especially if you watch it from a distance.

“Anything that happened after the eighteenth century left him cold. In fact, the farther back in history we went, the more his enthusiasm grew.”

Fred Feldkamp, in the Introduction

Brilliantly illustrated by William Steig, the book has 25 chapters dedicated to explaining the -of course- rise and decline of the VIPs of pre-modern history, from Pharaoh Cheops to George III. All the big names are there, with all their follies and vir… well, mostly their follies.

“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.”

                                                                                                         Cheops, or Khufu, page 13

Information-wise, this is probably the densest book I have ever read. And one of the most conspicuous elements of Will Cuppy’s style is his peculiar use of footnotes. There are quite a lot of them, and they are not academic references but the second half of the joke:

The women of Athen were not very happy. They stayed at home and were not allowed to talk back. 18

18 This has been called the Golden Age.

                                                                                                                       Pericles, page 34

Although his humor is sometimes not easy (it requires some thinking,) and it may be a hit or miss thing for some, I doubt this book will leave anyone completely cold.

The funniest thing is that you realize there is always an obscure historical reference in every sentence, and then on top of that he adds his laughter-inducing musings about the subject:

The Huns were Asiatic nomads who dashed into Europe on mangy little ponies in the fourth century A.D. and started a crime wave. […] The Romans said the Huns were not human, which was only partly true. As in any other group of people, some of them were human and some were not.

                                                                                                             Attila the Hun, page 72

His erudition and attention to detail, even about the most minute or absurd things, is another of his trademarks, which is especially amusing because he shamelessly mixes historical trivia with the graver issues, jumping from one to the other without ever stopping to explain why. Who, when talking about Cesare Borgia and Machiavelli, would write just this:

5 Niccolò Machiavelli was the natural son of Bernardo Machiavelli. He died in 1527 after taking too powerful a purgative.

That’s certainly not the most dignified way to describe someone’s life and departure but, and that’s the funny part, it’s probably true. He did indeed take many “drugs”, and it’s suspected that they hastened his death. And that’s the amazing thing about Cuppy, you know the guy had to read a LOT of obscure books to know this kind of stuff, and then resume them in a single sentence (usually picking a hilarious fact or some charmingly human inconsistency) for us to enjoy.

I could spend days quoting the book, but I don’t want to spoil you the fun. Personally, I don’t think there is any better way to end this post than quoting this about Cuppy:

“He was probably the most diligent fact excavator since Gibbon; what he didn’t know about a subject, once he had decided to spoof it, wasn’t worth knowing.”

                                                                                                                                      Lionel Olay


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