How War Changed Paul Fussell, and How Fussell Changed American Letters

Reading and lounging and watching.
May 25 2012 2:05 PM

Man of War

How combat changed Paul Fussell, and how Fussell changed American letters.

Paul Fussell in Paris, France, May 1945.
Paul Fussell in Paris, France, May 1945.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Army.

Last semester, once a week, I carried a heavy black bag with me down to Philadelphia to teach an English class at the University of Pennsylvania. The bag in question is a bike messenger sack, the kind you carry across your back, with a strap that latches smartly, with a little sealtbelt-like buckle, at your sternum. It’s big to begin with, but like Snoopy’s doghouse, or maybe Dr. Who’s Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside than on the outside; or at least, always somehow heavier than itself and the sum of its contents. To boot, it distributes its weight awkwardly across my upper body, so that when I returned home from Philadelphia, two train rides later, to what city down-staters mistakenly call “upstate New York,” my spine felt gently but persistently misaligned, like I’d followed up an invigorating yoga class by field-testing a torture device—though only just up until the moment I smiled, the absolute minimum quantity of mettle proven, and cried “Uncle.”

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

If you’d asked me at the time why I was loading up my Tardis and suffering the unique pleasures (delay, flame-retardant décor, microwave odors, bad cell-phone etiquette) of domestic rail travel, I would have said: “”Paul Fussell.” Fussell, who died this week at the age of 88, was an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Fussell had written a guide to poetic form and an equally fine critical life of Samuel Johnson when, in 1975, he broke out as an intellectual celebrity with The Great War and Modern Memory, which won the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. The Great War tells the story of the destruction of the 19th century —of its class system and its faith in progress; really, of any way of living predicated on a stable system of value —by World War I. Out of the mass experience of pointless death, a new way of speaking and writing, devoid of euphemism, arose, a plain style we associate with Hemingway (“Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the number of regiments and dates”) but in England may just as easily evoke Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden —writers who saw action in the Great Fuck-Up, as infantrymen soon called it, writers who, as a result of firsthand acquaintance with the trenches, sought a way of making literature without any recourse to elevated literary diction.

The Great War chronicles the loss of the old rhetoric, of high pieties, of sacrifice and roseate dawns, in favor of “blood, terror, agony, madness, shit, cruelty, murder, sell-out, pain and hoax,” as Fussell lists it at one point; the sound of “ominous gunfire heard across water.” Fussell himself fought in World War II, and himself wrote in a candid style. “I am saying,” he concludes one chapter in The Great War, as if replying to a margin note from a junior editor, “that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.”

Fussell iterates the thesis at length, and the result is a unique kind of masterpiece —a plausible argument by an ex-warrior in favor of literature as the most appropriate measure of the immense shock of not only war, but all social change. (The Modern Library has rightly named The Great War to its list of 100 Best Nonfiction Books.) Fussell wrote other, wonderful books —his tour of forgotten British travel writing Abroad, and a sustained acid bath called Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (“Jewelry is another instant class-lowerer, like the enameled little Old Glory lapel pins worn by the insane and by cynical politicians working backward districts …”) And yet he was at his best, was most himself, when writing about organized killing.

This produced a funny kind of irony —small “i” irony, nothing on the scale of the grand historical irony unleashed by Passchendaele and the Somme —in Fussell’s work. It’s powerfully on display in the essay, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” for example, where he asks of John Kenneth Galbraith, who had argued that the single ordnance incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, was immoral: “What did [Galbraith] do in the war? He worked in the Office of Price Administration in Washington. I don't demand that he experience having his ass shot off. I merely note that he didn't.” To this, Fussell later adds:

I was a twenty- one-year-old second lieutenant of infantry leading a rifle platoon. Although still officially fit for combat, in the German war I had already been wounded in the back and the leg badly enough to be adjudged, after the war, 40 percent disabled. But even if my leg buckled and I fell to the ground whenever I jumped out of the back of a truck, and even if the very idea of more combat made me breathe in gasps and shake all over, my condition was held to be adequate for the next act. When the atom bombs were dropped and … we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault—firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all.

One merely notes: He did get his ass shot off. His is a tone of voice that, for being so candid, makes one slightly embarrassed for living in ordinary times. If only the man who has known war up close knows his true self, are the rest of us condemned to a lifetime of the ersatz? Fussell seemed to think so. He once told an interviewer: “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.” The small “i” irony isn’t hard to spot: The writer who so detested the Georgian puffery that drew nations blithely into war was a master of its anti-style, with its abiding implication that only those like me have touched the true face of experience. It’s the voice of Orwell in Homage to Catalonia; a voice so authoritative that it, no less than propagandist hoo-hah and rosy sunrises, can make a fool want to go to war.

In my imagination (I never met him), Fussell had always been what an English professor should be: erudite, frank, worldly, unworldly, acerbic: library and cosmopolis unto himself. When, out of the blue, I was asked to adjunct a nonfiction writing class at Penn, I said yes, even though, as the crow flies, the gig made absolutely no sense. Every week I headed down to Philly on Amtrak, and every week I faced down the same revelation: that instead of the runnels of blood-strewn ditches, my prose is filled with pita chips, iced coffee, Facebook, and procrastination. Nonetheless, we front our losses as they come. I taught my class as honestly as I knew how; I loved my students; and every week, autumn falling over West Philly, I threw the black bag back over my shoulder, still blessedly heavier than itself, and the sum of its contents.

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