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Book Review - The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody

SEATTLE, Washington - We all try to read books of great gravitas. And I do... but sometimes, you need a book to take with you when you're making a quick run for phở or cupcakes, and you don't want to drag along your copy of Les Misérables or The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. In times like this the right book is something like The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, by Will Cuppy.

Decline and Fall was published in 1950 (the year after Cuppy's death) and consists of about 25 satire-soaked essays on historical persons, from ancient Egyptians, through Greeks and Romans, to European royalty, and others. The book's verbal and humor sensibilities sound like those of a 1930s radio host, which makes sense given that Cuppy did work in radio and public speaking in addition to his various writing jobs. This is a representative example of Cuppy's writing, from the chapter on Nero:

Agrippina [Nero's mother - JMR] had long been a problem to Nero, always interfering as she did and quarreling about who should be murdered and who shouldn't. Since he owed her everything for murdering Claudius, he had hoped to kill her as gently as possible. He did not want her to suffer, and he went to some lengths to prevent it. He gave her quick poison three times without result, then he fixed the ceiling of her bedroom so it would fall and crush her as she slept. Of course that didn't work. It never does. Either the ceiling doesn't fall or the victim sleeps on the sofa that night.

Next, he attempted to drown her by means of a boat with a collapsible bottom, but the vessel sank too slowly and she swam away like a mink. Nero then lost his head completely, as who wouldn't, and told his freedman, Anicetus, to try anything. Anicetus, a rude but sensible fellow, went and got a club and beat her to death. Maybe the Cave Man knew best.

Cuppy placed many of the jokes (and some actual facts) in footnotes; many pages have 3 or more footnotes and it does make the reading a bit choppy. An example of this is the following from the chapter on Philip II ("Philip the Sap") of Spain:

Philip was the budget type. He would set down pages of figures showing expected revenues for the coming year and how much of it he had already spent. Naturally, this did no good.

Then he would stay up all night making more memoranda. He said he wanted to get to the bottom of things.5 He would also remark that things had come to a pretty pass. He was right about that.6

Philip was inclined to be arrogant. He made anyone who wanted to talk to him fall to his knees. In reply Philip spoke in unfinished sentences, making his subjects guess the rest.7

5 It can't be done.
6 Voltaire called Philip a royal busybody.
7 And he wondered why nobody carried out his orders right.

You can get a bit of one-liner fatigue while reading the book, much like you do with Bill Bryson or P. J. O'Rourke.

Cuppy himself was an interesting figure. In some ways I see a bit of myself in him, if I had a bit more courage. It took him seven years to get his Master's degree from the University of Chicago. He holed up in a beach shack for eight years in the 1920s and became enough of an expert at this that he wrote a book about it, How to be a Hermit. He had a "fascination with abstruse topics" and would intensively research topics before writing about them, when he wasn't cranking out 14 reviews of mystery novels a week to make a living.

Of course, things did not end well for Cuppy (they never do, he would probably
write); he did not cope well with post-WWII circumstances and committed suicide via an overdose of sleeping pills in 1949.