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.