Goodbye to all That
May 23, 2012 6:24 PM   Subscribe

Paul Fussell, author of The Great War and Modern Memory and winner of the first National Critics Award for Criticism, but who is probably best known for writing Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, is dead.

A boy of privileged upbringing, a veteran of the second world war and finally a professor of literature, Fussell made a career out of scholarship on literature and the world wars but most frequently appeared in popular conversation for his writing about social class in America.

If you've never read or heard Fussell, you might want to take spend a few minutes on the Atlantic's 2009 consideration of his social criticism in light of the new recession, or jump straight to the man himself with the light-hearted bonus features at the end of Class: Learning to Draw Class Inferences and his pithy Class Q&A.

Or, if you're already familiar, you can listen to his recent talk The Culture of War and remember that his own time in combat (and his subsequent life in America) left him resolutely anti-war and deeply cynical about the mythologizing thereof. Indeed, his autobiographical account of the European Theater, Doing Battle, is in its full title "Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic."

He was 88.

Paull Fussell previously and previously.
posted by postcommunism (48 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by TwelveTwo at 6:27 PM on May 23, 2012


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posted by Trurl at 6:28 PM on May 23, 2012


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posted by bzbb at 6:29 PM on May 23, 2012


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posted by dr_dank at 6:29 PM on May 23, 2012


Let me toss back a 7&7 in his memory.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:30 PM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Class was a pretty influential book when I read it for the first time years ago. Definitely helps you see things about living in America that you might not have noticed before.
posted by codacorolla at 6:33 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would have thought The Great War and Modern Memory was by far his most influential, and probably best-selling over the years, book. It's a staple of college syllabi.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:42 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


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posted by oneswellfoop at 6:44 PM on May 23, 2012


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posted by localroger at 6:50 PM on May 23, 2012


x / x / x x / x x /

Poetic Meter and Poetic Form is still a great guide to scansion.
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:51 PM on May 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


I survived Charlottesville, VA thanks to multiple readings of Class.

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posted by mph at 6:52 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ouch, a pang of loss. I really appreciated his writing about class in America, where it is generally a taboo topic.

Looking up his details on Wikipedia, it is interesting to note that his daughter, his son and his ex-wife all wrote memoirs. A lot of writing going on in that family. And now I know more about the books/essays he wrote I want to read more. Here is one essay available online that looks interesting: The Fate of Chivalry and the Assault Upon Mother from Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays.

Here's a substantial interview with him about two of his books, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic and The Boys Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945.

He had a long and fruitful run and I think he improved the planet with his clear, concise thinking. Condolences to his children, his family and friends.
posted by nickyskye at 6:52 PM on May 23, 2012


Seriously, The Great War and Modern Memory. There are not a lot of books of academic literary criticism about which I'd say, seriously, read this on the plane, read it at the beach, read it wherever you read books you won't want to stop reading. He was one of the people who made me realize you could write about literature with the same gusto and style that literature itself brought to the page.
posted by escabeche at 6:56 PM on May 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


“Poetic Meter and Poetic Form” is an amazing book. If, like me, you know nothing of poetry but occasionally read one that somehow hits you just right, then go read it. You'll find out why you were struck the way you were, and appreciate other poems more. I only got half way through it (read it is good hard work), but even that much has been worthwhile.

So, no dot for this man's passing, but a spondee, double stress to break the flow and make us think on his life.


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posted by benito.strauss at 7:01 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


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posted by drezdn at 7:04 PM on May 23, 2012


EVERYONE STOP DYING

Sheesh.
posted by The Whelk at 7:06 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


One of the best classes I ever took as an undergrad was an honors seminar I took first semester, freshman year, on the literature of World War I--and of that class, Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory was the real keystone. Odd that a class on the borderline between two humanities--literature and history--would have a profound effect on my ability to start thinking like a social scientist, looking for the common threads and larger-scale patterns that emerge from the individual experience.

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posted by drlith at 7:07 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really enjoyed the class book and the one he wrote on the dumbing of America, but I felt the class book was let down by the final chapter which allowed an out for certain people.

Anyway, a great thinker and I now have a prompt to read his other works.
posted by maxwelton at 7:16 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Note press-release link addicts, this is how you do a decent obituary. Thank you for giving this man the respect he deserves, and collating some wonderful highlights of his life.
posted by smoke at 7:18 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Great War and Modern Memory is seriously amazing, but my favorite book by Fussell was not a book he wrote, but one he edited - The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale: The Memoirs of a Soldier Servant.

The best thing I can do to recommend this book is to quote the last paragraph of the introduction Fussell wrote, an introduction which makes us sympathize and understand the importance of a narrative which Fussell draws into a larger parallel to his themes from TGW&MM. I think, too, the introduction and explanation of why he edited a forgotten manuscript which had been lying in the Imperial War Museum shows the underlying values and the empathy with which Fussell approached his work, and why reading his writing was always such a great pleasure for me.

I want to close with a testimonial. When I first read Hale's manuscript I thought it merely funny, and I conceived that its literary appeal lay mainly in the opportunities it offered for condescending to its author. Reading it more times, I perceived something I'd been blind to at first - the deep vein of pathos (and I do not mean self-pity) lying adjacent to the witting and unwitting comedy. And now, considering what it is that has attracted me for many months to Alfred M. Hale and his story, I begin to realize what has been there all the time. An odd but authentic literary talent, to be sure. But even more attractive, exemplary bravery, decency, honor, generosity. 'I sincerely pitied him,' Hale says of the troubled lost soul on the quay, 'and have often wondered since what became of him.' I have come to love the man who wrote that , and I can say that there are few of the heroes of serious literary history for whom as men I feel greater respect.

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posted by winna at 7:19 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


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posted by Smart Dalek at 7:33 PM on May 23, 2012


I read The Great War and Modern Memory at 18, in a senior English class on war poetry. To this day I cannot forget the lives and the deaths he described, and I still love the cutting poetry that came from the British trenches. From Seigfried Sassoon:

O starshine on the fields of long-ago,
Bring me the darkness and the nightingale;
Dim wealds of vanished summer, peace of home,
and silence; and the faces of my friends.


Rest, finally, in peace.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:39 PM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


A genius.

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posted by Ironmouth at 7:42 PM on May 23, 2012


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posted by Catchfire at 7:42 PM on May 23, 2012


Seriously, he wrote Class and Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. Amazing,
posted by Ironmouth at 7:43 PM on May 23, 2012


Such a great writer and thinker. I love his stuff.

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posted by box at 7:47 PM on May 23, 2012


I didn't realize he was that old.

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posted by droplet at 7:47 PM on May 23, 2012


His 1991 book "BAD" managed to lament the dumbing down of America with good humor. Notice that the title is in all caps. As he wrote in the introduction: "Bathroom faucet handles that cut your fingers are bad. If gold plated, they are BAD. Dismal food is bad. Dismal food pretentiously served in a restaurant associated with the word gourmet is BAD."
posted by Longtime Listener at 7:49 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


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posted by infini at 7:51 PM on May 23, 2012


I had Class memorized at one point. In certain situations recalling the best lines can be a psychological first aid kit. I must find my copy and re-read it. Thank God for the Atom Bomb was also brilliant.

I wonder what he and MCA think of each other now that they're drinking at the same table in Valhalla.

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posted by fleetmouse at 8:17 PM on May 23, 2012


I agree with everything upthread. The Great War provided some of my basic mental infrastructure. I'll add that he was a brilliant essayist. "Thank God for the Atomic Bomb" was his most famous, but if you write books for a living, it would be a good idea, a very, very good idea, to read "Being Reviewed: the A.B.M. and its theory," in his collection The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations, well worth your money. Do not make the the Author's Big Mistake. As the lady said, you cannot lose if you do not play.
posted by mojohand at 8:38 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


For an antidote to fawning, read his wife's boo, My Kitchen Wars. She's a far livelier writer and much less pretentious.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:31 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I really respected his work. Yet another good one gone. .
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:41 PM on May 23, 2012


Nooooo!

I had to read "Thank God for the Atom Bomb" for social studies when I was 14, and it was the first piece that really challenged me to think, "Wait -- one of my preconceived notions may be resting on unexamined and possibly wrong premises!" You never forget your first.

As I recall we read it in the run-up to a very old dude who'd been on Truman's staff in some low-level capacity coming to talk to the honors classes about being on the periphery of that decision. I don't remember who he was but I remember some of what he had to say ... It made an impression even though I was too young to appreciate it.

Anyway, I hope something else would have blown my mind if not Fussell, but I feel great appreciation for him because he blew my mind and started me on the path to being way less-dumb. That teacher, who saw how affected and intellectually challenged I was by that essay, told me the essayist had a book called "Class" and I'd probably like that too even though it was a totally different style and topic. OH TEACHER DUDE, you made me go fall in love and quote annoying class-relates anecdotes at my classmates (who didn't care) for a whole semester.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:42 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Poetic Meter and Poetic Form is still a great guide to scansion

And that's a rare thing. The only other one I can think of is Vladimir Nabokov's Notes on Prosody.

Fussell's BAD echoes Nabokov's concept of poshlost or poshlust as well.

The Great War and Modern Memory is my candidate for best work of general literary criticism of the 20th century. Class is great too, and absolutely dead on, even today (though some of the signifiers have changed.

Thank God For The Atom Bomb is rather more controversial, but I found it quite persuasive, from the perspective of one of the several hundred thousand boys who were moments away from being thrown into the meat grinder of the Pacific Front when those bombs were dropped. Even if you wind up disagreeing with him, he made you seriously look at the truth of arguments and not just the preconceived bits.

On the other hand, according to his wife Betty, whose memoir is also quite brilliant, he was a dick to be around. People are complex creatures. Since I never had to live with him, I will appreciate him for what he was: a great man of letters.
posted by Fnarf at 10:25 PM on May 23, 2012


The signifiers have changed but the attitude is the same, you just need to do some translation and it's all the same crap.

Damnit.

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posted by The Whelk at 10:40 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


on this, The Whelk, i agree with you
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:11 PM on May 23, 2012


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posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 11:23 PM on May 23, 2012


I had Class memorized at one point.

Its that half inch gap between your collar and the back of your neck that does it...
posted by infini at 11:34 PM on May 23, 2012


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posted by OHenryPacey at 12:11 AM on May 24, 2012


Here's Fussell's piece on the ABM.
posted by escabeche at 5:34 AM on May 24, 2012



On the other hand, according to his wife Betty, whose memoir is also quite brilliant, he was a dick to be around. People are complex creatures. Since I never had to live with him, I will appreciate him for what he was: a great man of letters.


I bet he was a dick to be around. His prose style is, quite frankly, kind of dickish - in all his work, not just in Class.

But I've got to say, his books introduced me to a bunch of ideas and writers, and I reread both The Great War And Modern Memory (without which I would never have read Goodbye to All That or Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man and would know a lot less about the First World War) and Wartime with a lot of pleasure. Truly one of the very few conservative writers whose work I admire.

I know it has to happen, but it's so hard to see the writers who were so influential on me when I was younger (Russ, Said, Fussell, Sedgewick) die off. It's like the fixed stars are winking out, and the intellectual universe looks bare and cold - no matter how exciting it is to see my generation rise into intellectual prominence and to see ideas change, there's still a scary feeling of being orphaned. And there's only more to come. One day there will never be another Samuel Delany book, and I won't know what to do.
posted by Frowner at 6:10 AM on May 24, 2012


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posted by oneironaut at 7:08 AM on May 24, 2012


On the other hand, according to his wife Betty, whose memoir is also quite brilliant, he was a dick to be around. People are complex creatures. Since I never had to live with him, I will appreciate him for what he was: a great man of letters.

I was just coming to post that my first exposure to Paul came from Betty's memoir. It's really well written, and is an interesting look into that whole intelligentsia crowd that they ran with -- Kingsley Amis and Phillip Roth make appearances. They pretty much all seem a little bit dickish (including Betty, really).

But they were all good writers -- Paul's Atlantic essays are a good read.

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posted by bluefly at 7:16 AM on May 24, 2012


Abroad, Class, The Great War and Modern Memory, and Poetic Meter and Poetic Form all made such an enormous impression on me when I read them, that I immediately read everything else I could find by him. Of the four, I still think of Abroad as my favorite, though I haven't picked it up in years. I was introduced to Isherwood and Robert Byron by that book, and, I think, Hart Crane and Harry Crosby as well. And to this day I can't see a long driveway, or a bottle of Soave, or a Baby Bjorn without thinking of Fussell. (In a more pessimistic mood, maybe, in an earlier piece on the America class system, Fussell fails to provide an "X way out.")

Years ago I was involved in a conference at which Fussell was a guest. A grad student, my friend Pat, was sent to meet the Fussells at the airport, which he did, but after meeting them and getting Paul and his wife Harriette and all of their luggage into his tiny car, the car wouldn't start. By the time a cab arrived everyone was sweaty and annoyed and on the silent ride to the hotel Pat tried to break the ice, "So, Mrs. Fussell, I understand you write cook books?"

"No, Pat," she said, "that was Paul's first wife."

(sad trombone)

(Later, at that same event, a scholar with a reputation for being very brash and demanding invited Fussell to write for one of said scholar's own publications. "I'd love to," I recall Fussell saying, "write me a check for [some absurd amount] and I'll get right on it.")
posted by octobersurprise at 11:26 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


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I need to re-read "Abroad", as soon as I finish "Death of Artemio Cruz". Too many good writers dying.
posted by incandissonance at 9:30 PM on May 24, 2012


”What someone doesn’t want you to publish is journalism; all else is publicity.” (from Thank God for the Atom Bomb, essays 1988)

RIP, Mr. Fussell.
posted by LeLiLo at 10:53 PM on May 25, 2012


Football in the middle of a world war. This I learned because of you. Thank you.

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posted by Fizz at 8:11 AM on May 27, 2012


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