Paul Fussell, 88, Author of 'Great War'

By Weber, Bruce | International Herald Tribune, May 25, 2012 | Go to article overview

Paul Fussell, 88, Author of 'Great War'


Weber, Bruce, International Herald Tribune


Mr. Fussell, a wide-ranging author, may be best remembered for "The Great War and Modern Memory," his study of World War I and the influence of its horrors on art and literature. He died on Wednesday in Oregon.

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 whose 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, Oregon. He was 88.

He died of natural causes in the care facility where he had spent the past two years, his stepson Cole Behringer said.

From the 1950s into 1970s, Mr. Fussell taught and wrote 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 book, which drew on Mr. Fussell's experience as an infantryman during World War II -- he received the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts -- won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and the National Book Award for Arts and Letters.

"It is difficult to underestimate Fussell's influence," 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."

The book's lavish praise and commercial success transformed Mr. Fussell into a public intellectual, or perhaps more accurately a public curmudgeon; he crabbed, for instance, about Graham Greene's "English syntax." Mr. Fussell brought an erudition, a gift for readable prose, a willingness to offend and 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 the 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. …

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