RIP Paul Fussell, The Dumbing Of America author and critic
Paul Fussell—author, scholar, World War II veteran, and famously cranky bastard—died on Wednesday, May 23 of natural causes at age 88, according to The New York Times. Fussell’s worldview, priorities, and much of the shape of his career were set by his experience of the war, which he described as “ugliness incarnate,” leaving him in search of “any outlet that was artistic.” He partly summed himself up in the title of his 1996 memoir, Doing Battle: The Making Of A Skeptic.
After completing his studies at Harvard University, Fussell began teaching at Connecticut College before settling in at Rutgers in 1955. There, he established himself as a poetry critic and wrote books about verse and his hero Samuel Johnson, before breaking out in 1975 with The Great War And Modern Memory, a prize-winning critical landmark that made it to position No. 75 on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books Of The 20th Century. It was the first of a string of books in which Fussell linked his interest in literature with his first-hand knowledge of war, showing the impact one had on the other. In his later Wartime (1989), he punctured the lingering influence of the cheery propaganda surrounding World War II, while paying tribute to literary figures such as Cyril Connolly, whom he saw as heroically giving people something to live for by keeping high artistic standards alive during a barbaric time.
Fussell’s other books include Abroad, a critical study of British travel writing; the essay collections The Boy Scout’s Handbook and Thank God For The Atom Bomb; and the sneering, scattershot elitist sprees Class: A Guide Through The American Status System and BAD—Or The Dumbing Of America. His last book, The Boys’ Crusade, was published in 2003, though he did pop up as an interview subject in the 2007 Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary series The War. But while age ended his productivity, it did nothing to mellow his snarling attitude toward what he referred to in Wartime as official “chickenshit.” Weighing in on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he said, “If you don’t get angry about this war, you don’t deserve to be alive.”