It’s appropriate that scholar-author-professional curmudgeon Paul Fussell would die just before Memorial Day weekend. He credited his World War II service with hammering his character into shape, even as he rained scorn on patriotic cant and the romanticization of war. His celebrated 1975 study The Great War and Modern Memory examined the way the carnage of World War I shaped a more skeptical and disillusioned generation, and he returned to the subject of warfare repeatedly in later studies and anthologies. Even his memoir was called Doing Battle, and his last book was The Boys’ Crusade, rooted in his experience of fighting in northwestern Europe.
Once out of uniform, Fussell carried his infantryman’s hatred of arbitrary authority into academe, and throughout his career as a public intellectual he made an art form out of getting up people’s noses. In the era of Jonathan Schell and the nuclear freeze movement, Fussell published an essay called “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” in which he described how he and fellow infantrymen wept with gratitude and relief at the news that Japan had surrendered. Fussell was among the troops being readied for the Pacific war — this after enduring countless horrors in Europe — and he had no doubt he would have died but for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though one of his early books was a fine study of Samuel Johnson, Fussell was sometimes so bitterly misanthropic that his true role model could have been Ambrose Bierce. “If I didn’t have my writing, I’d probably be running down the street throwing grenades in people’s faces,” he once remarked.
One of those grenades detonated in New Brunswick in 1982, via the unlikely agency of People magazine, which profiled Fussell after the publication of his essay collection The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations. Fussell had won the National Book Award for The Great War and Modern Memory; that and the acclaim for Abroad, his 1980 book about British literary travelers in the early 20th century, had turned him into something of a celebrity. After years of coaxing signs of life from flatlined college students, Fussell was suddenly faced with people actually willing to listen to him, and the shock seemed to have knocked him off his rails. At that time he was living in Princeton and teaching at Rutgers, and in his People interview he let it drop that he considered his students “items out of a cookie cutter.” As you can imagine, this caused a bit of an uproar at Magoo U. I was doing a weekly column about Rutgers for the local daily The Home News, and when I mentioned the People brouhaha, my editor asked for an interview with Fussell. I put on my one brown suit, batted the straw out of my hair, and descended through the academic dungeons of Murray Hall to confront the not-quite-aged lion in his den.
The lion was on his best behavior that morning, though his frame of mind seemed less contrite than rueful, as befitted a man who had just learned that letting a journo into your house was only slightly less risky than carrying a scorpion in your pants pocket. The initial talk was actually rather bland. He complained a bit about the “cookie cutter” quote, saying it had been part of an unrelated conversation during the interview. I needled him a bit: “You mean you were quoted out of context?” He bridled a bit — Fussell was a man who would sooner committed seppuku than commit a cliche — and responded: “It was an error in emphasis.” At one point he glanced at my shoes and said, “Real history involves the study of shoelaces as well as statesmen.” I positively glowed with gratitude — at last, I had my good quote! — and for the next hour he loosened up considerably. He let drop the fact that his next book would be an examination of class in America, and he was positively gleeful at the thought of how many hackles it would raise.
Class: A Guide Through the American Status System came out the next year, and I read it with a bit of unease: he’d been scanning my duds during the interview, and I was sure my jacket went into his memory bank as evidence of the dreaded “prole collar gape.” It was a fun, bitchy book that covered “top out-of-sight” (the super-rich), “bottom out-of-sight” (prison inmates) and everything in between. Unfortunately, Fussell gave readers (and himself) an escape hatch by designating “Class X” for those free spirits who ignored class distinctions and did truly hip things, such as read books by Paul Fussell. The followup, BAD, or The Dumbing of America, read like the idiot stepchild of Class, and at the time Fussell seemed on track to become a wind-up contrarian — a P.J. O’Rourke who didn’t have to pretend he’d read Evelyn Waugh.
But he righted himself before too long, and resumed publishing work of real value. My first encounter with Fussell’s writing was the title essay of The Boy Scout Handbook, in which he acknowledged the dubious fixations of scouting’s founder, Anthony Baden-Powell, while praising the old handbook’s insistence on the need to build character by making demands on oneself in everything from sports to reading. That insistence on high standards, and his inclination toward snobbery, expressed as pissy contempt for much of modern life, marked Fussell as a conservative with some readers, but I don’t think the label was accurate. I would have loved to hear his thoughts about the religious cranks, ideological grifters, and pseudo-scholars infesting the ranks of conservatism, and the Medicare mobility-scooter crusaders of the Tea Party would have given him material for a whole second volume of Class. Asked for his opinion of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Fussell snarled: “If you don’t get angry about this war, you don’t deserve to be alive.”
So let’s just say Paul Fussell was his own man, one who could infuriate and illuminate at the same time. There aren’t many writers who can do that, and Fussell’s passing leaves a big gap in their ranks.