The Chronicle Review

Paul Fussell: Memories of a Friend and Scholar

Camera Press, Eamonn McCabe

Paul Fussell brought visceral knowledge of the horrors of war into his pioneering scholarship.
May 29, 2012

I first met Paul Fussell in Germany in the late 1970s. We were heading by car to a conference on "War Enthusiasm in 1914," a reaction to war we both detested, and I noticed that whenever we reached a crossroads or passed a hill, Paul would scan the horizon in a quick and methodical manner. After an hour or so, I asked him what he was looking for. He said it was a reflex from his Army duty he still could not change. Whenever he passed a point of interest, he scanned the landscape for the best place to put an antitank gun. That was, he added, one of the ways in which he was still stuck in the Battle of the Bulge, which had left him with a piece of shrapnel in his thigh and a cosmic skepticism about the arbitrariness of survival in war. His wartime service helped make him one of the finest scholars of his generation.

Fussell, who died on May 23, was a great historian, one who found a way to turn his visceral knowledge of the horrors of war into a vision of how to write about writing about war. I use the term "historian" deliberately, though he professed literature throughout his academic career. What he accomplished, not single-handedly, although centrally, was to break down the barrier between the literary study of war and the cultural history of war. When he published The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford University Press), in 1975, he set in motion what is now an avalanche of studies of all kinds on the First World War. He created the field in which I have worked for the last four decades.

How did he do it? By using his emotion to frame his understanding of memory, and his insight into the way language frames memory, especially memories of war. War, he knew, is simply too frightful, too chaotic, too arbitrary, too bizarre, too uncanny a set of events and images to grasp without filters. Without them, we are blinded by its searing light. Language is such a filter. So are painting, photography, film. But the indelible imprint Paul Fussell left on our understanding of war was on how language frames what he termed "modern memory."

The term is seductively simple but essentially subtle and nuanced. Fussell meant that through writing about war, First World War veterans left us a framework we frequently overlook. Instead of viewing war as epic, the way Homer did, where the freedom of action of the hero, Achilles, was greater than our own, and instead of viewing war as realistic, as Stendhal did in The Charterhouse of Parma or Tolstoy did in War and Peace, with Fabrizio or Pierre exercising the same confusion and freedom of action we, the readers, have, Great War writers did something else.

They told us of the ironic nature of war, how it is always worse than we think it will be, and how it traps the soldier—no longer the hero—in a field of force overwhelmed by violence, where his freedom of action is less than ours, where death is arbitrary and everywhere. Great War writers were thus the sentinels, standing in a long line of men in uniform who were victims of war just as surely as the men they killed and the men who died by their side.

Paul had his ironic moment during the Battle of the Bulge, which no one had anticipated in its ferocity and daring. When the shells hit, he was with a sergeant who had taught him how to be an officer, and how to take seriously his responsibility for the young soldiers under his command. He owed everything to that sergeant. "Until the day I die," he told me in Germany, "I will say to anyone who wants to hear how much I owed him." The two men hit the ground during the bombardment, and in a moment or two, only one of them stood up.

He remained a survivor, with a sense of the fragility of life. It also made him intolerant of civilians gung-ho about war, and in particular about the Vietnam War. He told me once that he wrote The Great War and Modern Memory because he was disgusted with the conversations of neighbors at cocktail parties in Prince­ton, N.J., where he lived at the time, about body counts during the Vietnam conflict. They had no idea how obscene their smugness was.

Paul was both an angry and a witty man. He was drawn to the poets and novelists of the Great War in Britain in part because they were, like him, truth-tellers about war. But his earlier work, on Augustan poets of the 18th century, predisposed him to the delights of irony, and of the savagery of words usefully applied to the cruel masters of the world.

Fussell's great book on the Great War appeared a year before another path-breaking study, The Face of Battle (J. Cape), by the Sandhurst historian John Keegan. Both departed from official, nostalgic history, which dominated publications before them, and helped us enter the mental world of the men who fought. They thereby moved the whole field in a tragic direction, one in which all soldiers were the victims of war. Keegan asked a simple question: How is battle possible when it is so terrifying? His answer is that it is not always possible, and by July 1916, at the onset of the Battle of the Somme, it was evident that hundreds of thousands of men had been pushed beyond the limits of human endurance. Modern Memory is the literary record of that moment, a moment that set the signature on much of the rest of the 20th century.

There are, to be sure, limits to that argument. It is Anglo-centric, and in Fussell's canon, the war poets and novelists were almost all officers, who came from London, the home counties, the public schools, and Oxbridge colleges serving the social class effortlessly poised to take over positions of power in the dominant imperial nation of the day. They never got there, and neither did one million other men who died in British and Dominion forces during the war. That catastrophe was the beginning of the end for a century of British hegemony, a time when, as the poet Ted Hughes put it, Britain suffered a staggering defeat, and then someone put a victory medal around her neck.

It is the elegiac nature of Fussell's masterpiece, his recreation of the mental world of the trench soldiers, that gives it its enduring power. And after all, what are pioneers if not those who establish places from which we move on? There are other kinds of memory of war alongside Fussell's modern memory. Women's memories include more than the memories of nurses or mothers of the bodies of men in uniform. The color of memory, as the literature scholar Santanu Das has put it, is not only white. And in a world in mourning, older languages, religious, romantic, and classical, flourished to offer those whose lives and families and hopes had been crushed or truncated some way of understanding the violent world in which they lived. I wrote about those other languages in my book Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge University Press, 1995), and had a drink with Paul when it was published to celebrate the compatibility of our two ways of looking at war, and the need to continue going over the ground of memory and of the Western front—again, the ground of the Western front, where so much of our understanding of our catastrophic century was born.

Paul Fussell was a great scholar who breathed life into his writing and showed millions of readers how important it was to think for themselves about war, a subject much too important to be left to the politicians and the generals. I shall miss him.

Jay Winter is a professor of history at Yale University.