Paul Fussell, 1924-2012

2nd Lieut. Paul Fussell.

I was saddened to hear of the death last week of Paul Fussell. He is a critic whom I have often argued against, in these blog posts and elesewhere, but he was an important writer and an invigorating one. I would argue that he got many things wrong in The Great War and Modern Memory, but he got more important things very definitely right.

Back in 1977, the literature of the Great War was an undeveloped subject. Interest in the subject had been growing since the fiftieth anniversary in 1964, when Oh What a Lovely War and the BBC’s The Great War series made an impact, especially on a younger generation anxious about the prospect of devastating nuclear warfare. The Second World War was officially the Good War, justified by its ridding the world of the Nazis, but the First World War provided an example of a war that killed millions while seemingly achieving nothing.

Between 1964 and 1977, Owen and Sassoon became fixtures on school syllabuses,  Graves’s Goodbye to All That became one of those books that everyone should have read, and John Gardner’s anthology Up the Line to Death republished for the first time since the twenties many striking poems of the War.

Paul Fusell was not a specialist in twentieth-century literature. His main research area was the eighteenth century, and he had published books on Johnson and the Augustans. Before becoming an academic, though, he had been a soldier, wounded in France after D-Day. During the seventies, like very many Americans, he was disturbed by the useless savagery of the Vietnam War, which the Americans were losing. He responded to the political events of his time, not directly, but by using his own medium – literary criticism.

The Great War and Modern Memory presents the War as meaningless and devastatingly cruel. Fussell selects texts that stress the viciousness of combat, the incompetence of leaders and the gap between the soldiers and the population back in England – themes resonant in an America mired in a hopeless struggle in Vietnam. His reading of War literature is deeply partisan – he wants it to preach a sermon relevant to his own times.

My objections to Fussell’s account are several. His choice of texts is extremely selective; the genres of lyric poem and memoir are privileged above others. His impassioned attack on the indifference of the Home Front is exaggerated; he endorses Sassoon’s violent revenge-fantasy ‘Blighters’ without qualification. His presentation of the War as simply pointless (‛In the Great War eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort, had been shot.’) ignores the fact that Britain’s commitment to the War had nothing to do with Sarajevo and everything to do with the German invasion of neutral Belgium and the atrocities performed against the civilian population there. He overestimates the effects of propaganda and censorship, and underestimates the intelligent interest taken by most Britons in the progress of the War.

But the great virtue of the book is that it is readable and exhilarating. Re-reading it a while ago, and registering many disagreements, I found myself thinking: ‘I wish I could write like that.’ The sheer energy of the book’s polemical drive is tremendous, especially in the earlier chapters. The sympathy with the predicament of the fighting man is always evident. The book is daring, too, in its techniques. The irruption into First World War Britain of Second World War American material (by Pynchon, for example), in an attempt to show horrors that the British were repressing , is a high risk strategy. Philip Larkin was very rude about this in an otherwise appreciative review, and I don’t think it really works, but it shows Fussell pushing at the boundaries of what might be considered acceptable in a work of literary history.

Above all, Fusell made the literature of the Great War interesting. Historians have rightly bashed him for his exaggerations and errors, but he was a pioneer, opening up the literature of the Great War, going beyond piety to look critically at the subject. The man is dead, but his book, though we may disagree with it, remains required reading.


  1. Sally Dugan
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    I absolutely agree. For me, the best bit of Fussell is his ‘Lexicon of Valour’: A horse is a steed or charger; an enemy is a foe;danger is peril etc. I wonder whether he was the first to put this so clearly? If so, those people who ‘translate’ modern military jargon such as ‘collateral damage’ (i.e. hundreds/thousands of innocent people killed) owe more to Fussell than they know.

    • Roger
      Posted May 28, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      George Orwell made a similar point in one of his ‘As I Please’ columns:

      war, when it gets into the leading articles, is apt to be waged with remarkably old-fashioned weapons. Planes and tanks do make occasional appearances, but as soon as an heroic attitude has to be struck, the only armaments mentioned are the sword (‘We shall not sheathe the sword until’, etc., etc.), the spear, the shield, the buckler, the trident, the chariot and the clarion. All of these are hopelessly out of date (the chariot, for instance, has not been in effective use since about A.D. 50), and even the purpose of some of them has been forgotten. What is a buckler, for instance? One school of thought holds that it is a small round shield, but another school believes it to be a kind of belt. A clarion, I believe, is a trumpet, but most people imagine that a ‘clarion call’ merely means a loud noise.
      One of the early Mass Observation reports, dealing with the coronation of George VI, pointed out that what are called ‘national occasions’, always seem to cause a lapse into archaic language. The ‘ship of state’, for instance, when it makes one of its official appearances, has a prow and a helm instead of having a bow and a wheel, like modern ships. So far as it is applied to war, the motive for using this kind of language is probably a desire for euphemism. ‘We will not sheathe the sword’ sounds a lot more gentlemanly than ‘We will keep on dropping block-busters’, though in effect it means the same.

      Though even ‘block-buster’ is a euphemism

  2. Posted May 28, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    There are some writers whose work is worth reading not because they’re always (or even ever) right, but because they encourage you to think about the subject in a different way. I think Fussell was one of those. His book Wartime, for those who haven’t read it, engages the literature of the Second World War in the same way that Modern Memory did the first. It’s just as flawed, and just as worthwhile.

    BTW, I hope the move went well.

    • Tom Deveson
      Posted May 28, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      Hello, Alan! I think The Boys’ Crusade is a fine book – Fussell’s semi-autobiographical account of ‘Fear and Chaos in World War Two’. From the dedication onwards – To those on both sides who suffered’ – he makes a painfully honest attempt to avoid what he calls ‘the history of sentimental show business’ and give ‘the history of real human action and emotion, especially as triggered by intimate horror, death and sorrow’. How well do you think he succeeds?

      • Posted May 28, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

        Hello Tom (and happy birthday!)

        I think Fussell was strongest when he dealt with the ‘truth of the war’ as it seemed from the perspective of an intelligent civilian-minded soldier at the time, a point of view which he was of course particularly well qualified to articulate. His acerbic take on the war was (and continues to be) a welcome change from some of the more sentimental gush written about it.

        His problem however was that he was locked into that perspective, and took it to be the only honest way that one could examine the war’s meaning. It’s one thing to say that war tends to encourage the worst in human nature, that it spawns lies and hypocrisy and waste. It’s quite another thing to conclude from that that war is always futile, or that both sides are morally indistinguishable because of it. There are some sentences in Wartime that seem to imply that the chickenshit discipline undergone by GIs was morally equivalent to the Holocaust. That was really a disgraceful thing to say, and I think he only got away with it as often as he did because of the indisputable power and beauty of his prose.

  3. Rebecka
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the needed note on Fussell’s you say even if one doesn’t agree on all his views,his writing is page-turning and spawned so many good responses by others.

  4. Posted May 28, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this, George. I hadn’t seen his passing noted anywhere.

    It has been a long time since I read “Modern Memory,” but I remember not being very enthused about it — except, as you say, that he had such a strong point of view, whether or not I shared it.

  5. kiwiwriter1962
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    I am very saddened to hear of his death. I enjoyed his book on World War II, “Wartime,” very much, particularly the chapter on “From Light to Heavy Duty,” as well as his chapter on rumors.

  6. Posted June 8, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    George, I watched an awesome documentary last night entitled, “Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience.” It’s a 2007 DVD that is an hour and a third long. The Oscar-nominated documentary collects the writing of several soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and includes comments by other war vet writers. Paul Fussell is one of those vets. Highly recommend this video. The experience of war in recent times echoes many of the comments we have read in World War I fiction. Cheers, Larry Kryske, Commander, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

  7. Posted November 26, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was wondering what all is required to get setup? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny?
    I’m not very internet smart so I’m not 100% positive. Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks

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