On Paul Fussell

Paul Fussell, who died on May 23, would have been among the first to point out that mourning the death of an 88 year old is not a great use of your time, especially if that 88 year old led a full life that included children and professorships, a National Book Award and a bronze star. Fussell himself spent most of his life engaged in a more pointed act of mourning, for the living as well as the dead of the great wars. He was a clever and prolific critic, but it was the emotional intensity of his writing—his fierce insistence that literature cannot be divorced from life—that has caused many of us who never met him to mourn the loss of a teacher.

Fussell’s first twenty years of innocence were partitioned from the rest by a shell that burst on March 15, 1945 on the edge of a wood in Eastern France, riddling him with shrapnel and killing the two men beside him (one of them Sgt. Edward Hudson, who had guided and protected Fussell). Afterward, Fussell was quick to put combat behind him, like many GIs of his generation, and get on with civilian life, which for him involved a return to college, then graduate school, and then an academic career in 18th century English literature. Following his graduation from Pomona and Harvard, Fussell taught at Rutgers and then the University of Pennsylvania. He produced several good scholarly books, including a freewheeling study of Samuel Johnson and a prosody handbook notable for being readable as well as useful.

Then, in 1975, came The Great War and Modern Memory, Fussell’s angry, learned masterpiece. A hybrid of cultural history and literary criticism, about the British experience on the Western Front and the many wonderful books that came out of it, the book has an almost uncanny ability to engage the reader. The material—the euphoria of 1914 and the shattering absurdity of what followed, and the poetry and memoirs produced by the survivors and victims—is powerful, but it’s Fussell who pulls those narratives together to create a persuasive, tragic world, with not one but several sympathetic young writer protagonists. But The Great War and Modern Memory doesn’t indulge its (mostly college-aged) readers’ shallow fascination with combat: it is the lifeline by which gore- and glory-besotted youths (and grownups) can haul themselves out of the slough of sentimentalism and obfuscation they often wallow in when it comes to imagining war.

To write The Great War, Fussell read every British war memoir of note and then churned through the archives of the Imperial War Museum, adding the voices of scores of Tommies to those of the famous war writers, among whom Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden loom the largest. The book traffics in higher literary criticism but is also crammed full of the demotic myths and rituals of the “Troglodyte World” of the trenches, so you catch the chill of the dawn, and stand-to and hear the tales of the corpse-eating rats from both poets and postcard writers. You learn a lot about how soldiers lived and also about how shockingly unexpected their experience was, not only in its unheroic misery but also in the amount of dissimulation, stupidity, and sheer incompetence they encountered. Fussell’s story of the Great War is of industrialized horror and bureaucratic mendaciousness rendering vocabularies and imaginations inadequate, and permanently scathed.

Fussell never returned to his earlier work. Instead he entered a second phase of his career, during which he produced a very good memoir (Doing Battle) and two excellent, if repetitive, cultural histories of American soldiers’ experience of World War II (Wartime and The Boys’ Crusade). His Norton anthologies of war and travel writing are the best of their kinds, and a couple of nasty, amusing books of half-tongue-in-cheek cultural criticism (Bad and Class) earned him a wide new readership. Class mocks both déclassé American awfulness in matters of dress and decoration as well as the sort of cultural criticism it was itself aping, while Bad amounts to a very learned and very sustained après moi le déluge comic rant. Fussell enjoyed batting away the offended responses to Class’s mocking delineation of American signifiers, not least because the author’s note made it clear that he considered the book to be unserious, and therefore the offense-takers were guilty of being lousy readers.

Throughout these metamorphoses, Fussell’s trenchant aphoristic force remained. “Irony is the attendant of hope, and the fuel of hope is innocence.” “Americans have never understood, God bless them, that the cowardly are wounded as readily as the brave.” He loved what he loved (irony and honesty, the more corrosive the better), hated what he hated (cant, piety, navel-gazing, the middle class), and had a knack for snappy chapter titles (“Ernest Hemingway, Semi-Weirdo,” “Chickenshit, An Anatomy”). Unnecessarily fond of rankings himself, Fussell probably would have admitted that he was only an upper-middle-class humorist, which is still pretty damn funny for an academic. Although Fussell was somewhat old-fashioned in rigorously separating the light from the serious, he defended both his legacy and his by-blows with similarly rebarbative wit. When an ex-Marine responded with shocked denial to Fussell’s matter-of-fact description of American atrocities in the Pacific War (in an essay reprinted in the collection Thank God for the Atom Bomb), Fussell not only piled on the evidence that it had been widely seen as acceptable to hack up the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers but also provided the address of a Buddhist priest for anyone who might care to return their “souvenirs” for burial. He liked to win arguments in a way that might cause his readers to have trouble sleeping that night.


The Great War’s central insight is that “every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.” Its central image is the Virgin of Albert, a steeple-top statue damaged by shellfire so that she appeared to be hurling the infant Christ into the desolation below. To some degree, each of Fussell’s shell-shocked subjects tells his own version of a story of boyhood, combat, and literary coping, usually through the transmutation of situational into literary irony. For Graves, the idiot snobbery of the regular battalion he joined as a slovenly teenage poet triggered a theater of the absurd, with every knave rewarded, all optimism crushed. Sassoon wrote a lightly fictionalized autobiography that dealt only in stark polarities, providing a whole volume of pre-war idyll—largely depicting “George Sherston” galloping through the English countryside in pursuit of trophies or foxes—to contrast with the wretchedness of the dismounted Sherston’s progress through the shattered landscape of the Somme. These antitheses—between the sanity of peace and the insanity of the war, the love of comrades-in-arms and the callousness of generals—are slowly and deliberately drawn, but hardly less extreme than Sassoon’s poetic fantasy that tanks might overrun the laughing music hall crowds back home. Best of all is Blunden, the unforgettable “harmless young shepherd in a soldier’s coat,” who, as this self-description suggests, fought off two years of service in the trenches with nothing more than the largely floral image arsenal of English pastoral poetry. Blunden insisted upon writing beautifully about ugliness, handling the wrecked land and unnatural death and disaster with gentle irony.

Through all of this, Fussell, who loved tragedy and black comedy alike, is an engaging guide and companion. Despite his emotional investment, he remains a good critic, and is particularly persuasive in his praise, in pointing out that Graves’s memoir relies on “playlets” with “all the black-and-white immediacy of cartoons with captions” or calling Blunden’s retreat in his last sentence from the “I” of the memoirist “that objective distancing, that tender withdrawing vision of a terribly vulnerable third-person.” There are few books that cover so much ground so well, giving context and criticism for a fine and harrowing shelf-full of literature— and a jeremiad on war and human stupidity, too.

Fussell’s inability to completely separate his own war experience from his writing is why The Great War and Modern Memory isn’t just an “important book in the field.” For the college students who most often read it, the realization that the authorial voice is both that of a middle-aged professor and a formerly angry young soldier makes it suddenly OK to acknowledge what’s really (almost always) going on: that the lure of the subject has a lot to do with that alternate, unlived life. Fussell lets you live in that shameful but true ambiguity of very much wanting to have known these experiences and knowing very well that you don’t ever want to be shelled, and shot at, and lie in a dugout miserable with lice and filth and fear. Many readers, surely, have found themselves dragooned into the world of the book, wanting to take part in the soldiers’ pervasive mythologizing or their intense and semi-eroticized friendships; then, taking a brief breather, they have flipped back to the beginning and notice for the first time that the book is dedicated to Sgt. Hudson, “killed beside me in France.”

This dedication, along with the profanity and the sexual and scatological frankness, punctures the adolescent bubble, the unexamined conviction that older people are in some way fastidious, remote, and safe. An old professor can tell a 20-year-old how he should read the angry oppositions of Sassoon or Wilfred Owen’s reconfigured passions, but only an angry 20-year-old, his rage severely legitimated by his own war, can serve as such an efficient conductor of the enthusiasms and disillusionments of youth over the span of a century. Just as Fussell read his precursors, so college kids that read Fussell can imagine themselves stalking around a combat zone with the awkward aggression of Graves, or quietly observing manifold horrors through the sweet and sensible eyes of Blunden. This is a strange and distasteful habit of youth, perhaps, but in this case it comes with the significant side benefit of having your eyes opened to both the English canon and the centrality to modern experience of split or ironic subjectivity. War does not make us the men—and now women—we thought we’d be. If we’re lucky enough to survive, though, it might make us more aware of the gulfs between intention and action, action and meaning.

As cultural history, The Great War is limited and unrepresentative, of course, dominated as it is by those well-groomed young literary British officers. And Fussell shares their biases, which makes him a bit unreliable as a military historian. He rages against the dull old men who sent beautiful young poets to die in unnecessary and unimaginative assaults, ignoring both the slow yet significant proving of tactical innovation and the more positive view of general officers held by many non-poetical subalterns. But who, other than the maps and arrows crowd, cares more about the operational breakthroughs that helped make the Allies’ final advance possible than about the fact that it killed Owen only a week before the Armistice? And while as literary criticism the book is dated (Fussell himself later offered the opinion that it could have done with less Northrop Frye), The Great War is directed at the type of readers who might prefer it that way, innocent of the carefully triangulated critical style that later came into vogue, with its evocations of authors’ various “negotiations” and “positionings.”

The well-informed may have their complaints, but the great virtue of The Great War is as a point of entry. It’s about many things: “Boy Fussell” “having his ass shot off” (as he delicately put it), reading-then-living-then-using-your-reading-to-write-about-living, as well as Vietnam, which raged on as Fussell wrote. Most scholarly books keep one “meaning” in the foreground and take you on a disciplined guided tour, trekking straight back through their bibliographic past until the subject matter itself is sighted. This one is a long shot and a starburst: a primer in war and anger and the poetry that comes after; although Owen, Blunden, Graves, and Sassoon are the heart of the book, the body sprawls in every direction. In the course of nine thematic chapters you live and relive the events of 1916 and 1917 in a few cramped miles of trenches; you also stumble upon the chivalrous adventures and flowery poetry the soldier-writers read in their youth, as well as the early war poetry of Rupert Brooke, which had at least one-and-a-half feet in that tradition. Thomas Hardy, of all people, appears at the very beginning and returns from time to time, a sort of Gandalf for the fellowship of much younger writers. Fussell suggests that Hardy could have written the war, starting with something like Brooke’s mildly ridiculous “swimmers into cleanness leaping,” and then sledgehammering the irony home with the same soldier lads drowning in the liquid mud of Passchendaele in 1917. By the final chapter you come to realize that you have been seeing World War I through the eyes of World War II—not only Fussell’s, but his critical engagement with the writing of Vonnegut, Heller, and others. Phillip Larkin’s “never such innocence again” helps sets the stage early on while Pynchon, last but not least, closes out the book with a new twist on memory. So instead of stumbling on Pynchon through the hippie hijinks of Lot 49, or simply as one member of the long-winded PoMo posse, you’re plunged into an appreciation of his more fundamental powers, tasting his uncanny evocation of the dark morass of the Second War along with Brigadier Pudding, a remnant and revenant of the First.

Even for the very well-read, Fussell’s books are to be recommended for the density and diversity of the information found within. You learn that combat soldiers always hate the soldiers on their own side who have found safe jobs much more than they hate the enemy, that you should never put a Popeye statuette on top of the TV, that an officer who succumbs to overwhelming diarrhea while on the march may discover that he has stumbled upon a good way to forge a bond with his men, that Life once printed a picture of a girl staring prettily at the Japanese skull her Marine boyfriend had sent her, that the Great War ruined sunsets for literature, that travel is to be distinguished from tourism, that “fuckin’” was a crucial intensifier during the First World War but “motherfuckin’” arrived only with the Second, that even “naturists” demurely avoid displaying their “least prepossessing external bodily opening,” that the epitaph over the mass grave of the Devonshires near Mansel Copse obliquely references Simonides, and that the only medal esteemed by real soldiers was the Combat Infantryman’s Badge (because all the rest, like Fussell’s bronze star and the silver star awarded to the dead Sgt. Hudson, are more or less the result of fictionalized, even fantastic, narratives generated by military bureaucracy).

It’s possible that Fussell was especially attuned to the havoc war wreaks with meaning, much as it does with everything else, because of the irony attending his own enlistment. As he relates in his memoir, Doing Battle (1996), he was a fat kid, and since high school ROTC got you out of gym class and the humiliation of locker room nudity, he signed up. But being in the ROTC meant that, instead of being drafted and then sorted and schooled according to education and ability, you automatically entered the same arm of service as your ROTC unit, and his high school’s unit happened to be infantry. So the bright and privileged fat boy neither avoided the war, nor found the safer and more suitable desk job that awaited so many of his peers. Instead, commanding a platoon and looking like “a week-old chick,” he got to experience the bitter fighting of the war’s last winter. He killed and nearly was killed, himself. Spared the conclusive irony of dying young, he stumbled upon the words to tell the story of his own20th-century war in the writings of the first one: the story of any boy among many boys going off to something they hope will be noble but turns out to be so much worse. 

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