Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Great War and Modern Memory — Reviewed by David Beer

The Great War and Modern Memory
by Paul Fussell, with a new introduction by Jay Winter
Oxford University Press, 2013

Reading The Great War and Modern Memory again recently was like running into a dear and respected old friend after a hiatus of several years. That Oxford University Press would issue a new printing of this 1975 classic in 2013, now with an introduction by Jay Winter, was a further reminder to me that the book is a seminal landmark in Great War studies for many scholars and readers. (An illustrated edition was published by Sterling in 2009.) It's no surprise that the original book won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of the 20th century's 100 Best Non-Fiction Books by the Modern Library.

The new introduction by Jay Winter, himself a noted writer and scholar in the field, adds to our appreciation of what Paul Fussell achieved in this publication almost 40 years ago and the influence it has had on so many since then. Winter not only refers to the work as a great book twice in his short introduction, but also states that through his work Fussell did much to create the field in which Winter himself has become a noted scholar. It would be hard nowadays to find any book on the literature and memory of the Great War and its cultural history that doesn't cite Fussell's work in one way or another.

Professor Fussell's Service in World War II Had a Great Influence on All of His Military Writings

Paul Fussell died in May 2012 after writing over 20 books as a curmudgeonly college professor of cultural history and literature. As a young man he had seen his share of combat and bloodshed in the Second World War and bore the wounds to prove it. In The Great War and Modern Memory he looked at our view of WWI as received from those participants who wrote about the war and who were so often steeped in the annals of English literature. Many of these writers were not only part of a literary tradition but also established one that future authors, especially war authors, would draw heavily on.

Thus we meet in the book most of the best-known poets and memoirists of the war, such as Owen, Sassoon, Sorley, David Jones, Blunden, Graves, and others. Fussell places them in the tradition of poets such as Thomas Hardy, Wordsworth, Yeats, Thoreau, and Arnold. He also shows how the attitudes and rhetoric of the war authors are echoed in the more recent writing of authors such as Thomas Pynchon, Anthony Powell, Norman Mailer, and Joseph Heller. Catch-22 and Gravity's Rainbow are frequently cited. The latter's more graphic scenes are tellingly shown by Fussell at the end of his book as symbolising the overall filth, insanity, and obscenity of war.

For Fussell, war is searingly ironic, and none is more ironic than the Great War. Situational irony occurs when our actions have an effect totally opposite from what we had hoped for or intended. It's easy to recognize irony in the image of cheerful, healthy young soldiers marching proudly from their towns and villages to images of torn bodies bleeding and drowning in mud. The Great War and Modern Memory is centered on this kind of irony and how it played out in both the actions of the war and the literature that came from the war.

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There's no doubt that this book is a literary one and of primary significance to those interested in both literature—especially British literature—and the matter of the Great War. It was a war in which "an astonishing number took literature seriously," as Fussell points out, and thus his book is "about the British experience on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918 and some of the literary means by which it has been remembered, conventionalized, and mythologized". (p. xv) It has certainly stood the test of time well and has had considerable impact throughout the years. Randall Stevenson, for example, in his recent Literature and the Great War (Oxford, 2013) refers to Fussell frequently, as do many others writers on the Great War.

The book has its critics, too. Many have faulted Fussell with being too British-centric, or of making connections between works of literature which are far-fetched or overstated. A good example of such criticism can be found in David Reynolds's excellent The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century (Norton, 2014). While admitting that Fussell's book has had great influence and has sold over 100,000 copies, Reynolds takes Fussell to task on a number of issues throughout The Long Shadow and is by no means alone in his fault-finding.

Few books are without their critics, of course, as well it should be. In defense of a cherished old friend, however, it seems to me that much of the criticism of the book emanates from blaming Fussell for doing what he clearly stated he was going to do in The Great War and Modern Memory. And though I'm not a noted scholar, I can enthusiastically agree with Jay Winter that this is a great book.

David Beer

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