March 22, 2015
American historian, cultural critic, and scholar PAUL FUSSELL (1924–2012) could write to irritate. At the height of anti-nuclear activism, August 1981, he published a New Republic essay called “Thank God for the Atom Bomb” which defended the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks for saving thousands of Allied lives in the Pacific Theatre, an argument that opponents had long since considered bankrupt. But Fussell had been on the ground in that conflict (Bronze Star, Purple Heart), and his reverse ad hominem position was impossible to ignore. He could also write to amuse: the ostensibly slight pop-sociological tract Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (1983) is in fact an inspired piece of Veblenesque gamboling, and his biased appraisal of longtime colleague and drinking buddy Kingsley Amis, The Anti-Egotist (1994) is a lesson in gleeful irony from its title on down. Fussell’s early books are mostly scholarly tracts on Augustan poetry and Johnsonian rhetoric, while the post-fame late books are all about war. The pivotal work is his masterpiece, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), which should be read alongside Modris Eksteins’s equally brilliant Rites of Spring (1989) as essential literary prisms on the war that began the benighted twentieth century. Fussell’s son Sam, meanwhile, would write an awesome book about becoming a professional bodybuilder instead of the academic he was supposed to be. Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder (1991) proves that writerly talent, if not focus, runs in the family.
READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the New God (1914-23) and Postmodernist (1924-33) Generations.