On Essays and Letters

Will Cuppy (1884–1948) was born in Auburn, Indiana, and he is buried there. He attended the University of Chicago and dithered with a higher degree. He wrote a number of books, the first of which I have. It is called How to Get from January to December. His two most famous books are entitled The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody and How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes. I still laugh every time I think of that latter title. The “Decline and Fall” title is rather a reminder of the Fall and of the finiteness of all things not God. The “How to Tell Your Friends” book is a spoof on evolution.

Collections of humorous essays are rare finds. They can be profound in their own way. We are inclined to think that such books do not reveal intelligence, only frivolity. But Chesterton was right. The opposite of funny is not “serious,” but simply “not funny.” No reason exists why essays cannot be both witty and profound. The very fact that we can laugh at allreveals, as Aristotle implied, a mind capable of seeing the relationship in things. The man who catches the point of no jokes is the man who sees no relationships in things. The very essence of intelligence is to see the relation of all things, including the highest things, to one another. This may be why there is joy in the divinity.

Each day of the year in How to Get from January to December is dedicated to something. Somehow our day is better when we find out what Cuppy has to say about it. Take January 2. This is my sister’s birthday, though Cuppy did not note it. He does tell us that the British General James Wolfe is born on this day in 1727. Wolfe seems to be the reason Canada is more English than French, the Battle of Quebec, the Plains of Abraham, and all that.

Cuppy notes, however, that Wolfe was no big war-monger. He was a gentleman soldier who loved literature even more than battle. As he sailed up the St. Lawrence River the night before the battle, he is reported to have “recited to his officers” the lines from Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” When he finished, he said: “Gentlemen, I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec tomorrow.” Does every Canadian schoolboy know these lines? Cuppy tells us that Wolfe liked even more the poem’s sadder and more famous line: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

But this is sober reading of an early winter morning. Cuppy tells us that he (Cuppy) preferred the earlier lines in Gray, though he could not exactly remember them. They began, he recalled: “‘The lowing herds tra-la-la o’er the lea,’ or something of that sort.” “Anyhow,” Cuppy confesses with Wolfe, “it’s one of my favorite poems.” One is hard pressed to find a better way to begin January 2 of any year.

I find it difficult to resist anything about Doctor Samuel Johnson. His birthday, Cuppy tells us, was on September 18 in 1709, in Litchfield, Staffordshire, England. Johnson “wrote a dictionary,” the first English one, in fact. Johnson in a famous remark said that a dictionary was a very interesting work, but “it didn’t seem to have much of a plot.” I have found this to be true myself.

But a more serious problem arises about a dictionary, as Cuppy tells us. He had a friend who said that “the trouble with the dictionary is that you have to know how a word is spelled before you can look it up to see how it is spelled.”

Cuppy recognized the perceptiveness of this issue. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think there is a weak link in his argument, if one could only find it.” I have had this problem many times myself. But, Cuppy, metaphysician that he is, concluded: “At other times I think he may have hit on a self-evident truth.” This insight is rivaled only by the Declaration of Independence and the works of Thomas Aquinas. I know that “self-evident truths” are not very popular these days, as they cramp our styles, but it is hard to escape the logic of this one.

Not only do “Paths of glory lead but to the grave” and “self-evident” truths may exist, but certain facts cause us to wonder. On November 25, Cuppy tells us that someone had taken the trouble to count how many eggs a female ling cod carries. The answer is 28,361,000, in round numbers. A seventeen pound turbot made this lady ling look insignificant. Lady turbot had 9,161,000 eggs. A lesser fish, the lowly pound and a half perch, contained 191,000.

The figures are astounding. A cod fish can have over nine million eggs and even a goldfish from two to seventy thousand. Cuppy recognized that we must take the measure of these figures. I will pass over the temptation to comment on the Wall Street Journal’s recent article telling us that some female college students sell their own ova for around $10,000. The human female carries at birth one to two million ova, but by puberty only four hundred thousand. In her lifetime four hundred mature, one at a time. Cuppy himself would not have had to worry about these latter issues, but he still wondered about the abundance of eggs that lady fish produce.

Cuppy’s final line is this: “A sunfish sometimes has 300 million eggs. What are they trying to prove?” One cannot but be amused at Cuppy’s last question in the light of his statistics. We have the impression that something “self-evident” is going on here, something to do with the beginnings and ends of the paths of glory. The purpose of begetting is to keep a species of living things in existence. But as Plato said, ultimately, in the case of human beings, in the case of minds capable of seeing relationships, the end of the love manifested in begetting is the immortality of the soul—not of the species but of each individual begotten, the further issue of eternal life. Yes, this “what are they trying to prove?” intimates that the humorist is often the metaphysician and the theologian.  

James V. Schall, S.J. retired in December 2012 as professor of government at Georgetown University.

Father Schall looks at Will Cuppy, the question of relations between things and self-evident facts.