Paul Fussell, historian and cultural critic, died last week at 88. With his death, America lost a steady voice for cantankerous protest against all so many pedestrian national institutions and assumptions—the gourmet restaurant, the uniform, the armed forces. Unusually for an English professor, Fussell’s writings on American society also exemplified the characteristics of superior journalism: irreverence, accuracy, fairness, and lucidity; a deep suspicion of official narratives and an obsession with often-uncomfortable truths.
Born and raised in Pasadena, California, Fussell attended Pomona College until he enlisted in the Army in 1943. After earning the Bronze Star and Purple Heart fighting in France, he became an English professor, first at Connecticut College, and later at Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania. He published several books early in his career, including Theory of Prosody in Eighteenth-Century England, a popular textbook for understanding poetry, and Samuel Johnson and The Life of Writing.
But that’s not why his obituary was on the homepage of The New York Times the day after he died. He became famous for several books he wrote about war in America. The first, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), looked at how World War I shaped 20th century literature, particularly the role that trench warfare played in a whole generation’s perception of the futility of modern life. The book, which examined literature, essays, poetry, correspondence, theater, and culture on the front and in England during WWI, demonstrated how the futility of trench warfare helped turn a generation of otherwise enlightened, optimistic young men toward suspicion and cynicism.
His later books, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989), Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (1996), The Boys’ Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-45 (2003), and Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays (1988), examined the role that World War II had in determining the mindset and rhetoric of his own generation. Particularly in Thank God for the Atom Bomb, he looked critically at how military combat—and governmental lies about the specifics of and reasons for that combat—affects the way veterans and their loved ones live their lives and perceive their world. “My Adolescent illusions, largely intact to that moment,” he wrote in his memoir, “fell away all at once, and I suddenly knew I was not and never would be in a world that was reasonable or just.” This epiphany came right after his second day of combat, when he saw “dead German boys” lying around him. He was 19.
In many ways, his war-related work serves as a valuable corrective to the “Greatest Generation” heroism narrative; “glorious sacrifice of a generation,” after all, is just another way of saying “killing a bunch of kids for political reasons.” And Fussell couldn’t stand the way the government and military leaders attempted to glorify mundane and awful things like battlefield carnage. “How did I pick up this dark, ironical, flip view of the war? Why do I enjoy exhibiting it? The answer is that I contracted it in the infantry,” he wrote in a piece for Harpers in 1982. This was when, as a 19-year-old from Pasadena, he was sent to battle, got pneumonia, saw his virtually his whole platoon shot away from him, and sometimes cried for hours.
People who actually fight in wars seem to understand this dark, ironical view of battle (notice how few Iraq veterans we see weighing in on the recent Chris Hayes fiasco). Ahistorical and hagiographic war writing—the sort that deals with truth only insofar as it fits some larger theme—perhaps has an appropriate place somewhere in the American experience. But Fussell showed the dirty, cold, wet, and deadly realities of his war, which is most of what the infantry actually experienced, and let the reader make his own judgments.
He had his lighter side, too. In 1983 he published Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, a very funny and more-or-less accurate look at the American caste system, in which he determined the unspoken rules that governed US society, and effectively skewered the nation’s pretensions and spending patterns.
Middle class people bought “collections” of things, Fussell wrote, often under the mistaken belief that such mass-produced things purchased using catalogues will increase in value. (They will not.) The higher classes, in contrast, often inherited extensive qualities of things like thimbles or teaspoons, but didn’t display them in special stained cases purchased from Sears. They either used them or kept them in drawers, where they belonged. The middle class refers to a dwelling as “a home,” he explained. The upper and lower classes, two groups Fussell essentially respected for their basic honestly of presentation, called a house a house, and an apartment an apartment, and let it go at that. If perhaps he’s a little too easy on the American professoriate (who somehow occupy a separate, non-hereditary X class) he basically nailed it.
He later wrote BAD: Or, the Dumbing of America (1991), looking at other forms of pretention, particularly Americans’ enthusiasm for low-quality products. “Dismal food is bad,” he wrote. “Dismal food pretentiously served in a restaurant associated with the word ‘gourmet’ is BAD.”
He was always finely aware of precise distinctions like this. In Class, for instance, “The Living Room Scale” invited readers to determine social class based on the contents of one’s living room. One earned many points (indicating higher social class) for publications like Town and Country, The New York Review of Books, Paris Match, and the Hudson Review. One earned only one point for The New Yorker (because it’s widely read and mainstream, presumably, though the point system isn’t actually explained), and lost points for publications like National Geographic, Smithsonian, Scientific American, and Psychology Today.
He was critical, but no snob. The upper class, he explained, was just as silly as the middles; they were just silly in different ways.
No mere Andy Rooney-style whiner, Fussell’s critiques were usually on target. From class to World War II, though, his general take seemed to be merely anti-bullshit. There is no reason to say things that are untrue, Fussell seemed to believe, if the truth is perfectly evident. He seemed to have first come to this realization as a soldier. “Every war is ironic, because every war is worse than expected,’’ he wrote. “Every war constitutes an irony of situation, because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends.” But this disgust over soaring national rhetoric seemed eventually to extend to virtually all forms of artifice. Looking at his whole career, it’s clear what he was really trying to do was just point out the lies that we were telling ourselves as a powerful civilization, whether that meant calling a trailer a “mobile home” or fighting a war in Vietnam for a decade and a half that our government knew we couldn’t win.
Apparently, before the war, Fussell originally thought of a career in journalism. That focus showed, because despite his career in academia, his first interest was always exposing the crap—whether exploitation, incompetence, or just bad taste—we as a society were trying to get away with. And that, ultimately, is the essence of good journalism.