More than 20 years ago, Paul Fussell dedicated the book that made him an important literary figure in America to Sgt. Edward Keith Hudson, "Killed beside me in France." It happened March 15, 1945.
The dedication was a poetic gesture to the man whose life was snuffed out by the same artillery blast that put Lieutenant Fussell into the hospital in World War II. The book, which won the National Book Award and carries the dedication to Hudson, was about the First World War, 1914-1918. Titled "The Great War and Modern Memory," it explored the poetry, memoirs and other outpourings of some of Britain's great writers who had first-hand experience in the trenches.
Now Fussell has published his autobiography, "Doing Battle." And in it, he wants to set the record straight about Hudson, who was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for bravery under fire. Hudson, he now says, wasn't a hero at all. The citation for the Silver Star was a lie agreed upon by the other officers of Company F, 103d Infantry Division, while Fussell was in the hospital. When he returned to duty he was not asked to join in. In fact, he didn't learn about the medal until a few years ago.
Why did the other officers do it? "They were trying to do something good for this poor old widow whose son had been killed in the war," says Fussell.
Why didn't they invite Fussell to be a part of it? He was, after all, Hudson's immediate commander.
"They knew I was the kind of person who would put on moral airs. In their view I was always finding fault with someone's deficient sense of honor, decency and obligation."
So, 50 years later, Lieutenant Fussell -- author of a dozen books, retired English professor, social critic and icon smasher -- is blowing the whistle on his comrades, doing precisely what they expected him to do.
In "Doing Battle" he reminds those who may still be alive among the conspirators (not to mention the readers of his book, or any remaining relatives of the late Sergeant Hudson) that making false official statements in such matters "is not only a high crime, but is contrary to the ethics of the military profession."
Does an aroma of self-righteousness rise from this, of gratuitousness? Possibly, since it is motivated entirely by Fussell's annoyance at being excluded. Asked if he would have joined the plot, he says he probably would have.
Fussell has been going from town to town publicizing his new book. He likes that. He likes to be interviewed and lionized. He likes deference. He enjoys staying in sumptuous hotels, with someone else paying the bills. He says all this openly, as he did during a recent interview at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, where he was put up by his publisher for his stop in Baltimore. It's a disarming admission, for as he sits there draped in his professorial dignity one would expect him to be dismissive of petty pleasures, or for form's sake to pretend to be.
Paul Fussell is 72 now. He's a big-jawed man, with straight graying hair and broad, pinkish slabs of flesh for cheeks. He stands erect at 6 feet and still moves with a youthful fluidity. He laughs a lot, chuckles through his conversations. One of his colleagues, John Richetti, head of the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania, describes him as "a charming man with F. Scott Fitzgerald good looks."
To Richetti, Fussell's life has an admirable consistency to it. Virtually everything grows from the incident on March 15, 1945, when "in a small woods in southeastern France, Boy Fussell, aged twenty, was ill treated by members of the German Wehrmacht."
The trauma of his thigh wound unearthed the point of view that had been in Fussell almost from birth. It crystallized the sense of tragic irony he would carry through life, and through which he would interpret the world in his writings on literature.
"I think I've been an ironist since infancy," he says. "It's very hard to be at all thoughtful in the 20th century without being an ironist. Because everything we try, everything we think is going to be wonderful proves to have unsuspected disadvantages. Things recoil on us constantly."
Boy Fussell departed Pasadena, where he grew up in California bliss, and went off to war with a reasonable amount of patriotic high-mindedness. The war in Europe was almost over when he got wounded. He emerged from the ordeal profoundly disillusioned. He hated the Army, hated war, the idiocy and lunacy of it, the fraudulent attitudes it engendered.
Once out of the Army, it was only natural Fussell would turn away. He became an academic. He specialized in 18th century literature, a century not captured by the military ethos as this one has been. But it was just as natural that he would eventually find a way to bring the attitude solidified in the war to bear on his work.
With a mind-set like this, what better area to work in than World War I? What better subject than the disillusionment conveyed through the art of that generation of British intellectuals and writers -- Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and others -- who had their hopes and expectations shot to rags in France? As his were almost three decades later.
"The Great War and Modern Memory" was the result.
But that did not finish it for Fussell. A subsequent book, "Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War," sought to expose the falsity that war generates: the stupidity of military organization, the mind-warping conditioning imposed upon soldier and civilian alike, the propagandizing of the self, the deplorable resort to euphemism to conceal what really happens on a battlefield.
With regard to euphemism Fussell is uncompromising. He says he believes that anybody who describes war through the use of euphemism, or in anything less than realistic language, doesn't have any real experience with it.
How people describe war "depends on what they did in the war," he says. "A very tiny group of people fought the war, very minuscule, as I say in the book ["Wartime"]. Most of them are working class. They're not terribly articulate. They don't write books."
Thus, Fussell assumed the role of tribune for all the un-literary dogface soldiers, all the Willies and Joes and Sergeant Hudsons. He rejects the Disneyizers, the Norman Rockwellizers, even the Ernie Pyles. They gloss over the unredeemably evil nature of war; they glorify or sentimentalize it. In this way they encourage it.
Now, nobody elected Fussell to this post. Not everybody agrees with his premise that the only appropriate images of this oldest of human activities are those favored by Paul Fussell: bloodied stumps, eviscerated corpses, or the scene he encountered in a French forest -- a line of dead children in German uniforms, "with greenish white faces and hands like marble." This was the experience that finally divorced Fussell from his childhood: "My boyish illusions, largely intact to that moment of awakening, fell away all at once, and suddenly I knew that I was not and would never be in a world that was reasonable or just."
Like that, Fussell had found his point of view. The rest of his life would be spent honing it.
Many people are uncomfortable with his kind of relentless skepticism, even many who have witnessed the white faces of dead children. For them, Paul Fussell (and George Orwell) notwithstanding, euphemism isn't always a conspiracy against the truth. Sometimes it's a defense against the excruciating pain of it. Fighting euphemism may be fighting a natural human instinct, like crying, another ameliorative.
One of Fussell's academic colleagues doesn't quite understand how Fussell can persist in believing most people are unaware of war's true horror. How could they be? It has been the dominant repetitive fact of our century. The last big one we were involved in, Vietnam, was virtually fought out on television for the folks back home.
Even today, the unpleasanter memories of the war are evoked. Bob Dole's wartime injuries -- brought up again and again in the presidential campaign -- are a vivid reminder of the toll the war took on those who fought it.
But Fussell persists. "I think words have the power to change people's attitudes toward their experience of war," he says. "If you have to fight a war there is a difference between accepting it and doing it with a critical attitude."
People would still be killed, of course. Is it important that this be done regretfully, rather than bloody-mindedly? It seems odd he would believe this. No one can prove that the greatest anti-war book ever written, "All Quiet on the Western Front," ever saved a single life.
Fussell, John Richetti says, is one of the few university professors who can write his autobiography and expect people to buy the book and even read it. This is true, even though Fussell's life is not so extraordinary, except for his brief war experience.
Childhood and after
His childhood was suburban and well-padded. His father was a rich Anglophile who built a Tudor mansion among the Spanish-style houses of Southern California. Then came the war, his disillusionment.
What unfolded after that was a conventional successful academic career -- sabbaticals in Europe, a junket to China and the Soviet Union. The final section of his autobiography is all about the uninteresting travails in an English professor's life, a divorce, remarriage and an odd, and extremely vitriolic, assessment of Rutgers University, during which he dismisses many of his academic colleagues as "dolts."
This screed goes on for about four pages, unredeemed by humor or irony. When asked about it, he said: "I thought what I wrote about Rutgers would be funny and interesting."
Admitting that, possibly, it wasn't, he says: "I don't expect people at Rutgers to like it very much."
They don't. Says Barry Qualls, head of the Rutgers English Department: "I think it's appalling for a man who contributed so much to students inside and outside the classroom to lump them together as somehow deficient because they have attended a state university."
Asked why, under the onerous circumstances, he remained at Rutgers 28 years before moving on to the University of Pennsylvania, Fussell says:
"It's very cynical, actually. I stayed there because I was a big fish in a small pond. When I was there I got an agreement from them, once I won the National Book Award, that I would teach three years and get a paid leave every fourth year."
He also stayed for another reason. He actually liked the teaching. Today, retired from both Penn and Rutgers, he says he misses the students. He remembers them, if somewhat condescendingly.
"I loved teaching state university students because you could make silk purses out of sows' ears. Now, at the University of Pennsylvania there are no sows' ears. The kids are already sophisticated and very well educated before they get there. But Rutgers was a challenge; it was like working in a settlement. They were the most wonderful kids who were fairly smart. They were illiterate when they came in, and it was a chance to do some rehabilitation. Saving of Souls I used to call it."
Fussell has been criticized by colleagues for his turn into journalism. Two books, "Class: A Guide through the American Status System" and "BAD: or, The Dumbing of America," were witty, nicely written and unencumbered by thorough research.
He dismisses them himself as "pot-boilers" and laughs about them. He hopes to do better with his next book. That, he explains, will probably be an exploration of how and why so many 20th century artists, and artistic people, have destroyed themselves, "either by drink, suicide, folly of various kinds."
"I think it's largely an American thing, but some of the British have done it as well. People like Hart Crane, Malcolm Lowry, Hemingway are good examples."
He says he has written his last word on war. This is hard to believe. In a way, war has been good to Paul Fussell. It gave him the anger and insights that allowed him to exploit his natural talents. It made him what he is.
Pub Date: 10/17/96