Waging a War of Words

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From Boy to (Angry) Man and Beyond

By Ben Yagoda


DOING BATTLE: The Making of a Skeptic
By Paul Fussell, Emeritus Faculty
Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.


Paul Fussell gives curmudgeons a good name. That is to say, he is not grumpy, crusty, or in any way loveable or cute. Animating most of his thirteen books is a critique of cant, hypocrisy, and euphemism in human language, laziness and haziness in human thought, and ignobility in human behavior, a critique based on strong conviction and long reflection, expressed with wit, grace and clarity. Fussell, who recently retired as the Donald T. Regan Professor of English, is one of those rare scholars who can write for fellow academics (for example, Theory of Prosody in Eighteenth-Century England), the general public (Class: A Guide Through the American Status System), and, rarest of all, both (The Great War and Modern Memory). His latest book, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, is ostensibly an autobiography, giving a record of his birth and upbringing (upper-upper-middle class, Pasadena), education (Pomona, Harvard), marriages (two), and teaching career (posts at Connecticut College and Rutgers before coming to Penn). But its real strength and, one imagines, principal purpose is explaining how Fussell’s oeuvre is really all of a piece. His sensibility, we discover, was forged by coming of age in two radically different milieus. Southern California, as Boy Fussell (his self-designation) experienced it, was as privileged and protected an environment as it is possible to imagine — financially, socially, ideologically and even meteorogically. The sunny idyll came to a screeching halt on May 6, 1943, when Fussell, then but 18, became a member of the United States Army. A passage from one of his first letters home begins to suggest the rudeness of his awakening: “This KP is really a drudge. An illiterate mess sergeant … was quite profane…. When I reached the kitchen, I was immediately assigned to the vegetable (potato) room. I peeled potatoes all morning, after which I washed, mopped, and scrubbed the floors and porches…. This morning I passed out sausages (two for privates, three for corporals and sergeants). That’s the way everything works around here. In the mess hall, the non-coms sit and eat steaks all afternoon while we work.” If that scene brings to mind a movie comedy on the order of Trading Places, what Fussell experienced when he finally saw combat as the leader of a rifle platoon in France was eye-opening in a far grimmer way. It is not just that he found war hellish. He found it far too often needlessly, senselessly, or stupidly hellish. After being sent four consecutive times on futile, near-fatal night operations, he writes, “I was learning from these mortal-farcical events about the eternal presence in human affairs of accident and contingency, as well as the fatuity of optimism at any time or place. All planning was not just likely to recoil ironically; it was almost certain to do so. Human beings were clearly not like machines. They were mysterious congeries of twisted will and error, misapprehension and misrepresentation, and the expected could not be expected of them.” During an attack on a German position in Alsace in the spring of 1945 — “a trivial little battle in a war already won” — Fussell’s unit was shelled. Unlike the two soldiers next to him, he was not killed. However, he survived with both deep shrapnel wounds in his back and leg and a conviction to conduct his life according to “a theory of antitheses and compensation” — that is, to resist at every turn the peacetime equivalents of the forced conformity, verbal obfuscation, censorship, hierarchical power structure, and pervasive busy work he experienced in the Army. The main site of his resistance was the typewriter: “Most of what I wrote, even if disguised as critical essays or pleasant nonfiction books, was really Protest Literature.” This is easy to see in a Fussell work like Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, which argues vigorously and at times angrily against the idea of WW II as a “good war.” But he also describes his continuing scholarly interest in the idea of “form” in art and expression as deriving in part from “the intensity of my new opposition to meaninglessness and vagueness, and ultimately dissolution.” As intellectual autobiography, Doing Battle is airtight. But the emotional jigaw puzzle it presents has a lot of missing pieces. Hardly the effusive type, Fussell often requires us to proceed by inference. We note that he does not cite a single close friend, even in his Pasadena halcyon days, and we note that his courtship of, marriage to, and divorce from his first wife are each allotted but a few sentences. We note his statement that, “From the 1950s on, my presiding emotion was annoyance, often intensifying to virtually disabling anger,” and we surmise that despite (and maybe sometimes because of) his high principles, he was for many years a difficult person to be close to. But, conditioned by Fussell to be sensitive to the speech of language, we also note the past-tense was in the last quoted sentence. And Doing Battle can be read to reveal that Fussell has positively mellowed in recent years. In 1982, a Virginia widow wrote him a fan letter, which led to a whirlwind romance, including a decision to take a vacation together. They chose Morocco as a destination, Fussell touchingly writes, because “I was afraid of my tendency to dominate and lecture if we went anywhere I already knew.” They married in 1987, and, we can infer from the four beaming photographs of them together in Doing Battle, are happy indeed. Fussell tells us that in recent years he breaks into tears on more and more occasions — at church services, weddings, commencements, and performances of “Amazing Grace,” and while reading aloud from a growing list of literary works. He had to stop teaching T.S. Eliot’s “New Hampshire,” because two lines suggesting children’s outdoor play, To-day grieves, to-morrow grieves Cover me over, light in leaves… “came too close to commenting on the innocence about their forthcoming deaths and burials of the happy young people before me.” But Fussell is still prickly enough to direct a parting shot at Penn. True, he writes that for him it “was a splendid place. The faculty was serious, learned, and productive, and the students were bright and willing.” But he was offended by “the shameless capitalist vocationalism being vended at the Wharton School…. I’d never taught before at an institution where the studies aiming to stretch the intellect and make real the whole course of human history seemed to take second place to those designed to help students make lots of money.” Goodbye, Mr. Chips it ain’t. But what else would you expect of America’s curmudgeon laureate?


BEN YAGODA, G’91, is book critic for Philadelphia magazine, associate professor of English at the Universitry of Delaware, and author of Will Rogers: A Biography.

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