Paul Fussell (1924-2012): Scholar, Writer and Soldier

I was sorry to hear of the death of Paul Fusseli, author of  the classic ‘The Great War and Modern Memory‘ which had a huge impact on thinking about the long term effects of the slaughter on the Western Front. Unfortunately in took another world war for that hatred of war to become part of German national feeling. Paul’s book Wartime gives amazing insight into the experience of war and in the author’s words convinced he never wanted to work for a boss again: so he became an academic.

I will miss Paul’s insights.

This is the New York Times obituary: By 

Paul Fussell, the wide-ranging, stingingly opinionated literary scholar and cultural critic whose admiration for Samuel Johnson, Kingsley Amis and the Boy Scout Handbook was balanced against his withering scorn for the romanticization of war, the predominance of television and much of American society, died on Wednesday in Medford, Ore. He was 88.

Courtney Grant Winston

Paul Fussell

His stepson Cole Behringer said he died of natural causes in the long-term care facility where he had spent the last two years.

Mr. Fussell’s widely acclaimed books encompassed seminal works on World War II, social commentary (“Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear”), literary criticism (“The Anti-Egotist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters”) and memoir (“Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic”). But he may be best remembered for “The Great War and Modern Memory,” his monumental study of World War I and how its horrors fostered a disillusioned modernist sensibility.

“It was the perfect moment in a writer’s life — the right subject, the right time,” Mr. Fussell said of the book in an interview in 1980. “It was an accidental masterpiece.”

For 20 years, he said, he had been writing what he was “supposed to write”: critical works on poetic theory and 18th-century English literature, none of which sold more than 8,000 copies. 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 World War I.

“At the same time as the war was relying on inherited myth, it was generating new myth,” Mr. Fussell wrote “The Great War,” published in 1975.

World War I’s chief cultural product was irony, he 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 Robert Hughes wrote in reviewing the book in Time magazine.

“The Great War and Modern Memory” won the 1976 National Book Award for Arts and Letters and the 1975 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

Vincent B. Sherry, writing in “The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War,” called Mr. Fussell’s book “the fork in the road for Great War criticism.”

“It is difficult to underestimate Fussell’s influence,” he wrote. “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.”

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About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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