A Curmudgeon of a Critic

Arts and Letters Daily is linking to an article in The Guardian on Paul Fussell, who, along with Northrop Frye, is probably the best literary critic of the past half-century. An interesting guy — a former frontline WW II infantry soldier who was severely wounded in France in 1944, Fussell later went on to be a professor of English literature and cultural commentator, a curmudgeon of a critic whose malcontented views are no doubt heavily informed by his frontline experiences. I’ve read (and reread) everything by Fussell, and even met him twice. I remember that on the first ocassion he told me to “stay out of wars.” This was just after I had left the Air Force and, as an inactive reservist still obligated for service if called, had come awfully close to participating in the first Gulf War. Commenting on T.S. Eliot’s influence on his intellectual development, the critic William Empson once said that it “was difficult for [him] to understand how much of [his] own mind Eliot invented.” I feel the same way about Paul Fussell. Most of my assumptions about the function and role of literature and literary genres I’ve practically borrowed wholesale from him and his writings. And it was Fussell’s book on Samuel Johnson, Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing, that first introduced me to the compelling, unforgettable life and literature of Johnson, as well as the rich though mysteriously ignored territory of late 18th century British literary nonfiction — perhaps the greatest age of literary nonfiction we’ve ever seen, and will ever see.

It’s always seemed to me that, of any literary critic operating today, Fussell’s audience has to be the most diverse, made up of three types: the first, an academic audience interested primarily in his excavations of 18th Century literature or the literature of the Great War or British travel writing between the wars; second, the group that arrives at Fussell via his very popular Class or BAD: The Dumbing of America, who see him as one of the few sociologists who can actually pen a comprehensible English sentence; and finally — and perhaps most importantly — that group of crusty but for the most part silent veterans of the front lines of World War II (and ensuing wars) who see him as a literate, informed spokesman for their own horrific experiences — something he’s done quite well in such books as Wartime, The Great War and Modern Memory (winner of the National Book Award in 1975) and Doing Battle, a memoir. One of the most provocative essays ever written has to have been Fussell’s “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” in which Fussell argued that the dropping of the Atomic bomb, while too violent and horrific to comprehend, was simultaneously necessary and probably saved millions of lives, his own included. I used to work for Jim Glassman, at the time an editor at Harper’s where Fussell’s essay was published, who told me that Fussell’s complicated understanding of the dropping of the bomb prompted more mail than any article the magazine had ever previously published.

In the Guardian article, Fussell indicates that the novel is his least favorite form, and he claims that he’s lost interest in literary criticism, which he apparently views as “wholly temporary.” I agree with Mr. Fussell where the novel is concerned, but hope that he’s at least encouraged by the recent example of James Wood, whose books The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self are clear demonstrations that he’s the best critic operating today.

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