Paul Fussell, Literary Scholar and Critic, Is Dead at 88
By Bruce Weber Published by the New York Times, May 23, 2012. Photo Courtney Grant Winston
Paul Fussell, the wide-ranging, stingingly opinionated literary scholar and cultural critic whose admiration for Samuel Johnson, Kingsley Amis and the Boy Scout Handbook and his withering scorn for the romanticization of war, the predominance of television and much of American society were dispensed in more than 20 books, died on Wednesday in Medford, Ore. He was 88.
From the 1950s into 1970s, Mr. Fussell followed a conventional academic path, teaching and writing on literary topics, specializing in 18th-century British poetry and prose. But his career changed in 1975, when he published “The Great War and Modern Memory,” a monumental study of World War I and how its horrors fostered a disillusioned modernist sensibility.
“The Great War,” a work that drew on Mr. Fussell’s own bloody experience as an infantryman during World War II, won both the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and the National Book Award for Arts and Letters.
Fussell’s influence was huge, Vincent B. Sherry wrote in “The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War.” “The book’s ambition and popularity move interpretation of the war from a relatively minor literary and historical specialization to a much more widespread cultural concern. His claims for the meaning of the war are profound and far-reaching; indeed, some have found them hyperbolic. Yet, whether in spite of or because of the enormity of his assertions, Fussell has set the agenda for most of the criticism that has followed him.”
The lavish praise and commercial success of “The Great War” transformed Mr. Fussell into a public intellectual, or perhaps more accurately a public curmudgeon; he crabbed, for instance, about Graham Greene’s “inability to master English syntax.” Mr. Fussell brought an erudition, a gift for readable prose, a willingness to offend and, as many critics noted, a whiff of snobbery to subjects like class, clothing, the dumbing down of American culture and the literature of travel.
“Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars” (1980) examined a tradition in writing rarely examined by scholars, and it was hailed for its critical acumen, though it also includes a rant against tourists and tourism, which he decries as the antithesis of ennobling travel and the bane of real travelers. “ ‘Abroad’ is an exemplary piece of criticism,” Jonathan Raban wrote on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. “It is immensely readable. It bristles with ideas. It disinters a real lost masterpiece from the library stacks. It admits a whole area of writing — at last! — to its proper place in literary history. Its general thesis is, I think, wrongheaded, even mean, but Mr. Fussell argues it with such force and clarity that he makes it a pleasure to quarrel with him.” In “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System” (1983), he divided American society into nine strata — from the idle rich (“the top out-of-sight”) to the institutionalized and imprisoned (“the bottom out-of-sight”) — and offered a comprehensive and often witty tour through the observable habits of each. “Not smoking at all is very upper-class,” he wrote, “but in any way calling attention to one’s abstinence drops one to middle-class immediately.” In “BAD: Or, the Dumbing of America” (1991), he offered an alphabetically organized jeremiad against everything “phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant or boring” in this country “that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright or fascinating.”
“Dismal food is bad,” he wrote. “Dismal food pretentiously served in a restaurant associated with the word ‘gourmet’ is BAD. Being alert to this distinction is a large part of the fun of being alive today, in a moment teeming with raucously overvalued emptiness and trash.”
Paul Fussell Jr., was born into an affluent family in Pasadena, Calif., on March 22, 1924. His father was a prominent lawyer. Paul attended Pomona College, from which he was drafted by the Army in 1943. Too late for the Allied invasion at Normandy, he nevertheless saw brutal action in Europe, where, in southeastern France, at age 20, he lay wounded while men under his command were being killed in an artillery barrage.
“Before that day was over I was sprayed with the contents of a soldier’s torso when I was lying behind him and he knelt to fire at a machine-gun holding us up; he was struck in the heart and out of the holes in the back of his field jacket flew little clouds of blood, tissue and powdered cloth,” Mr. Fussell wrote in a 1982 essay in Harper’s Magazine called “My War.” “Near him another man raised himself to fire, but the machine gun caught him in the mouth, and as he fell he looked back at me with surprise, blood and teeth dribbling out onto the leaves.”
During his tour of duty he won the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts — he was wounded in the back and legs — and he emerged with a disdain for those who would justify wars, especially those who never fought. He hammered the point in “The Great War” and other books, including “Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War” (1989), a relentless chronicle of everything that was dreadful or repugnant about the soldiering experience in World War II, and a memoir, “Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic” (1996).
Returning to Pomona in 1945, he earned his bachelor of arts degree in 1947 and went on to Harvard to earn a master’s and a doctorate in English. At Harvard he developed a disdain for academia akin to what he felt for the military. “From the 1950s on,” he wrote in “Doing Battle,” “my presiding emotion was annoyance, often intensifying to virtually disabling anger.” Nonetheless, he pursued an academic career, teaching English first at Connecticut College for Women, then at Rutgers University and finally at the University of Pennsylvania. Among his many academic books were “The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism: Ethics and Imagery from Swift to Burke” (1965), “Poetic Meter and Poetic Form” (1965; revised, 1979), and “Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing” (1971). These were books, he would later recall, that he was “supposed to write.” Then it struck him that he might reach a wider audience by comparing the art and literature created in response to earlier wars with that inspired by World War I. What he discovered was a deep fissure between the romantic views of the past, which saw warfare as a stage for gallantry and heroism, and the disillusionment bred by the shocking slaughter and grim hopelessness of trench warfare, the hallmark of “the great war.” World War I’s chief cultural product was irony, Mr. Fussell found, as illustrated by the muttering, cynical language of the men on the battle lines and their governments’ fatuous appeals to patriotism. Popular and serious culture afterward was infused with “the sense of absurdity, disjuncture and polarization, the loathing of duly constituted authorities,” as the critic Robert Hughes wrote in a Time magazine review.
“Every war is ironic, because every war is worse than expected,” Mr. Fussell wrote. “Every war constitutes an irony of situation, because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends. Eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, had been shot.”
Mr. Fussell’s marriage to the former Betty Ellen Harper, who later became known for writing about food under the name Betty Fussell, ended in divorce. (Ms. Fussell, in a 1999 memoir, “My Kitchen Wars,” wrote scathingly about their marriage.) He is survived by their two children, Sam and Rosalind Fussell; his wife, Harriette Behringer; four stepchildren, Cole, Roclin, Marcy and Liese Behringer; a sister, Florence Fussell-Lind; 10 step-grandchildren and 6 step-great-grandchildren.
As caustic as Mr. Fussell could be about war (and many other things), he believed that the psychic wounds he sustained in battle were not only indelible but also beneficial.
“As I say in this new book of mine, not merely did I learn to kill,” he told Sheldon Hackney, who was then chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, in a 1996 interview about “Doing Battle.” “But I learned to enjoy the prospect of killing,” he added.
“You learn that you have much wider dimensions than you had imagined before you had to fight a war. That’s salutary. It’s well to know exactly who you are, so you can conduct the rest of your life properly.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 23, 2012
An earlier version of this obituary misspelled Sheldon Hackney’s surname as Hackley.