On Essays and Letters

We used to have an ethics teacher in Spokane who, when he wanted to give an example of some intricate moral point, would pull out his dog-eared copy of Will Cuppy’s book, How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes. No doubt today he would be forbidden to consult Cuppy, as apes are our friends. We are not supposed to discriminate. But I confess to have learned much from Cuppy’s homey examples. I also became much more careful about who my friends were.

Will Cuppy (1884–1949) was born in Indiana. He spent the summer on a farm, went to local schools, then to the University of Chicago. He was going to study for a doctorate, but changed his mind to move to New York, with a cabin on Jones Island. He is said to have learned most of his insights about human nature from sitting in the Bronx Zoo. One is hard-pressed to know what to make of such a sentence. Did Cuppy learn of our complicated nature by watching the monkeys, or by watching the people watching the monkeys? Depending on your scientific theories, it could work either way, I suppose.

Cuppy wrote for the New Yorker and the Herald Tribune. We call him a humorist, that is, a philosopher who sees relations and thus makes us laugh. His “distinguished” friend Fred Feldkamp tells us that Cuppy collected thousands and thousands of items of information and placed them in cardboard boxes. He lived in primitive times before the invention of the computer. Cuppy seems to have been something of a perfectionist, unable to finish his books.

P. G. Wodehouse, no mean wit in his own right, wrote the Introduction to How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes, but I have never seen it, a deep loss. However, I do have Cuppy’s How to Get from January to December, which Feldkamp completed after Cuppy’s death, as he did the famous The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, a book that stands in stark testimony to the influence of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In this latter work, Gibbon tried to prove Augustine was wrong when he said that the Christians were not responsible for this unfortunate decline and fall. Augustine maintained that the Romans themselves were the real culprits, with their loose living. It is a thorny question.

Cuppy was evidently a great reader, which is how he gets into this series on letters and essays. It seems he would read anything and everything that he could on a topic. Finally, he would write an essay of two or three lucid pages distilling what he learned. Here is a man after my own heart. Some of the greatest things ever said have been said in two or three pages. Aquinas did it all the time.

Why, just this morning I read the following lines from a sermon of this same Augustine on St. Martha, the lady who criticized her sister for not helping out in the scullery. Augustine wrote, not without a reference to the passing of all earthly kingdoms: “For we are but travelers on a journey without as yet a fixed abode; we are on our way, not yet in our native land; we are in a state of longing, but not yet of enjoyment.” Now anyone who thinks otherwise is, in my view, not paying attention. I have always thought that humorists like Cuppy betrayed a poignant streak about them that understood what Augustine was talking about. Much laughter is provided by those folks who think we are already where we want to be.

Cuppy, in How to Get from January to December, a book with a comment on all 365 days of the year, would often begin with a question someone (usually with the name “Frantic” or “Admirer”) had addressed to him. On October 14, it was a gentleman, or gentle lady, by the name of “Worried.” What “Worried” wanted to know was the following: “Dear Sir: Is it true that fish are good for the brain or is it only a rumor?”

Right off, Cuppy acknowledges that this is a “complicated” question. A diet of fish may or may not improve the IQ. It depends on two things, namely, the fish and the brain. “Some people could eat fish from now to Doomsday and be little the wiser.” This latter is definitely a sobering thought. As a proof of this position, Cuppy, no doubt finding this piece of otherwise useless information in one of his cardboard boxes, mentions the example of the natives of that favorite anthropological haunt, the Trobriand Islands.

Cuppy notes that these said Islanders have a diet almost exclusively of fish, yet “they can’t even speak English,” a definite sign of advanced primitiveness. It could be, of course, that the Trobriand Islanders are eating the wrong sorts of fish, like bullhead or fluke. A diet of Dover sole might have different results, but Cuppy does not consider this possibility.

The fact is that if you are eating fish for your brains, it might be well to do a few other things to supplement the diet—“the fish can’t do everything.” What else might go along with fish diet to help the brain on its way? Cuppy recommends “some good reading.” Not a bad idea. You cannot blame the fish for everything. Cuppy does not, as he usually does, tell us why this question of fish and brains is a pertinent topic for October 14. It might have something to do with the annual blessing of the San Francisco fishing fleet, but that is October 4, I think.

On November 25, continuing our wonder about fish and brains, Cuppy comes up with the following remarkable information: “Some people find it hard to believe, but a ling (cod) once produced 28,361,000 eggs. A 17-pound turbot contained 9,161,000 eggs, and more than 28,000 eggs have been found in a half-pound perch. . . . Even a goldfish can be counted on for 2,000 to 70,000 eggs a year. A sunfish sometimes lays 300 million eggs.” Cuppy does not tell us why November 25 is a good day to consider these facts. Indeed, he is not really interested in the facts. What he wants to know is this: “what are they (the fish) trying to prove?” A fair question, no doubt.

Cuppy is actually wondering if there is a purpose in nature, a question forbidden since the Enlightenment replaced Aristotle with doubt. Momma and pappa turbot do not presumably sing lullabies to 9,161,000 little turbot each spring. The fact is that these eggs get eaten by other fish, even once hatched. We humans eat roe. So, without all these millions of eggs there would not be enough to survive the next generation. This is what the fish are trying “to prove.”

These reflections all take me back to Augustine and the fact that we have here no lasting city. Even the fish have to out-do themselves just to survive, let alone supplying enough bounty for the local fish markets and sea-food restaurants. The total number of fish eggs in the world is indeed cause for wonder, which, in Aristotle’s view, is one of the things that most stimulates our brains.

In conclusion, an oft-cited Cuppy sentence reads as follows: “It’s easy to see the faults in people, I know; it’s harder to see the good. Especially when the good isn’t there.” No doubt, it would take a huge diet of fish from now till Doomsday fully to sort out this profound comment. Suffice it to say that the essays of Will Cuppy will get you and your varied friends from January to December. The decline and fall of practically everybody is indeed a final reminder that “we are in a state of longing, but not yet of enjoyment.” And yet, we do enjoy things and wonder why the Trobriand Islanders do not speak English, even with a completely fish diet.

James V. Schall, S.J., is professor of government at Georgetown University and theauthor of numerous books, including A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning (ISI Books, 2000).