Remembering Paul Fussell's work

Paul Fussell... combat veteran, literary scholar, satirist... his writing on the Great War, on travel, and a bunch of other topics shaped my worldview... I'm grateful to have had a chance to meet him once.

Back in 2009, I wrote this review of an illustrated edition of Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory for the now-defunct BookStudio blog of WETA.

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Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory is a rare sort of book -- a product of intellectual rigor imbued with deep emotion.  First published in 1975, this work of history and literature has helped readers come to terms with the legacy of the First World War.  After garnering a National Book Award and other honors, the book has been a fixture on college reading lists and "best of" lists.  Now, there is a vividly illustrated edition that should spark fresh interest in Paul Fussell's nonfiction masterpiece.  

The political and military catastrophes of the "war to end all wars" have been documented exhaustively, but Paul Fussell's work outlines the war's personal and cultural traumas.  Ostensibly an archives-based study of British literature, the book is also a testament to the horrors and absurdities endured by those who fought.  

That memorializing impulse stems from Paul Fussell's own combat experience.  His service in Europe during the Second World War haunts every page of The Great War and Modern Memory.  A literate young infantry lieutenant, Fussell was badly wounded and witnessed the violent deaths of friends (the book is dedicated to one).  His generalizations about literature, the military, and life and death in combat carry greater authority than his months spent in British archives.

In his scholarship, Fussell is interested in the combatants and how they used literature in their attempts to interpret, order, and remember their experiences.  He highlights the extraordinary "literariness" of the Great War's common soldiers, from their eloquent observations to their letters' Shakespearean allusions.  Inevitably,  "professional" poets and memoirists like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden get most of the attention, but their work encapsulated and influenced a much wider national culture.  Fussell argues convincingly that the Great War marked the evisceration of an old cultural order and the rise of ironic modernism, the keynote of twentieth century culture:

Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.  Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends.... But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since.  It was a hideous embarassment to the prevailing Meliorist myth which had dominated the public consciousness for a century.  It reversed the Idea of Progress.

As that passage makes clear, The Great War and Modern Memory is about much more than just the literary aspects of "the British experience on the Western Front form 1914 to 1918."  It is a book about all wars and all combatants.  It is a vivid explanation of how individuals and cultures internalize traumatic events.  It is necessary, searing reading for anyone living in a nation at war.

The new edition of The Great War and Modern Memory is part of a series of illustrated classics from Sterling Publishing.  The original Oxford University Press edition carries fifteen photographs and maps, and, frankly, they are not that well-reproduced.  Paul Fussell's concise and witty descriptions carry much of the weight in describing things like appallingly cheerful home front propaganda or the terrifying, enveloping terrain of the trenches.  The Sterling edition offers more than 160 images: posters in vivid color, informative maps, as well as highly detailed photographs, drawings, and paintings of conditions along the Western Front.

The carefully reproduced ephemera, documents, posters, and newspapers in this edition allow the reader to feel more deeply immersed in the world of the past evoked by Fussell's writing.  The imagery helps emphasize a constant theme of the book: the profound division between the trenches in Belgium and France and the otherworldly civilian existence a short distance away across the English Channel.  Shocking photos of post-shelling carnage appear in stark black and white.  Lush greenery and golden sunshine appear in English pastoral images like those remembered by the soldier-poet Edmund Blunden.

The new edition does not include a number of Paul Fussell's captions and photographic choices, but the astonishing images selected by the editors of the new edition more than make up for these few absences.  The only major disappointment is the absence of a striking photograph which has been on the cover of The Great War and Modern Memory since its first edition. In an afterward to a twenty-fifth anniversary Oxford University Press edition, Fussell wrote:

Not the smallest part of what success this book has had must be due to the inexpressibly touching photograph on the cover, the picture of the discouraged young soldier wearing the wading boots required for daily work in the flooded trenches.  I came across this picture by sheer accident in the War Museum, and sensed that the boy's expression was unmistakably "twentieth century."  If anyone ever looked aware of being doomed to meaningless death, it is this boy.

Even without this eloquent image, the illustrated edition of The Great War and Modern Memory is a boon--to those who are encountering Fussell's work for the first time and to those who may be returning to the book.  It is the sort of book that people read and reread.  

Nearly a century later, the echoes of the Great War still ring in our shared cultural memory.  Paul Fussell's book, particularly in this illustrated form, helps us understand the last century and its lingering influence.  A testament from the past can also inspire new insights on the ironies and cruelties of our own age of warfare.