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People Top 5
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- February 07, 1983
- Vol. 19
- No. 5
From His Bunker in Princeton, N.J., a Wounded Literary Guerrilla Shoots Back at the 20th Century
Fussell—social critic, college professor, ex-GI and Renaissance grouch—is being controversial yet again at what he calls his "modest, pseudo-British bachelor quarters" in very middle-class Princeton, N.J. Fussell was separated last year; his furniture and bric-a-brac seem also to be from Splitsville. "The pictures are sort of inappropriate," he observes. "They've all been moved out of my former grand house—over on the grand side of town. That's the T.S. Eliot memorial dining room set. In those chairs, which I bought from Allen Tate's daughter, sat Eliot, Albert Einstein, Jacques Maritain, Thomas Mann. My wife has the table." Spread across one wall is Fussell's Don't Tread on Me flag. It doesn't take long to understand why he got custody of that.
Otherwise, books furnish the room. They stack up chair-high, bureau-high, following a system that Fussell alone comprehends. Most refer to World War II. Fussell has a contentious book about class in America coming out next year. Another, "on Second World War culture," will appear sometime before 1988. At 58, Fussell (rhymes with hustle) is marching double-time after media fame.
"I'm secretly bitter that I didn't have this success before," he says, yet competitiveness and ambition seem, in him, somehow incongruous. His handsome, chamois-soft face, with the old-boy network of wrinkles, would appear to be above vulgar commercialism.
Even naked, you feel, Fussell might have a leather patch on each elbow. But no: "I wasted all those hours explaining the use of the semicolon to kids in New Jersey. Now I realize that I'm clever enough to have been a wit from the age of 25."
Other people realize it too. The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations (Oxford University Press, $15.95), Fussell's recent collection of ornery book reviews and sulfurous social criticism, has received clamorous attention. In 1975 Fussell published The Great War and Modern Memory, his brilliant, resonant examination of World War I language use and memoir writing. It won him, among other honors, a National Book Award. His 1980 follow-up, Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars, was almost as successful, and his book on class, he promises, "will offend everyone." Writing, for Fussell, has become an emotional laxative. "If I didn't have writing, I'd be running down the street hurling grenades in people's faces," he says.
Since 1955 or so, Fussell has commuted from Princeton to nearby New Brunswick and Rutgers, where he is at present John DeWitt Professor of English Literature. He is by no one's account Mr. Chips. "I find it very hard to learn my students' names," he says. "They're items out of a cookie cutter, you know. I have to labor at it. I have no interest." Recently students at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn rioted to protest being searched for weapons. Fussell was appalled. "Raise their bodies up in gibbets," he declared. "Hang them on the streets. That's what I've always wanted to be done with air hijackers—at every airport have a hijacker's body pulled up and pecked at by daws."
If Fussell is somewhat severe with the young and the criminal, he has been equally hard on himself. He was born, to his great and continuing embarrassment, in Pasadena, Calif., where, he says, "I was brought up with the assumption that about the worst thing that could happen to you, aside from dipping into capital, was being ordinary." Fussell's millionaire father practiced corporate law. His mother he describes as a "clubwoman." ("She spent her time dressing up to go to luncheons.") Fussell could write early on: At 14 or 15, he sold his first article to Boys' Life. "I had an instinct for journalism," he says. But two of his professors at Pomona College convinced him to try scholarship instead.
Eventually he left for Harvard grad school—a journey from which he has never returned. "As Fred Allen once said of Hollywood, California is a great place if you're an orange," says Fussell. "I'm not an orange. I prefer libraries. I prefer wit. I prefer irony, skepticism, disbelief, contempt. Everything that California has not got." All his life, in fact, Fussell admits he has been "in flight from my family or from something awful in the United States—like Lyndon Johnson. I'm always fleeing some deep dishonor that I'm implicated in by being an American."
But don't let all this offend you. Fussell also admits he has a tendency to be "fluent and irresponsible." Contradictions teem. His wit is startling but eccentric. It would be easier to find table knives in a Chinese restaurant than consistency in Paul Fussell. Right after a passionate antipatriotic tirade, he will say, "Thank God for the U.S.A. I wake every morning and send up a prayer of thanks for the First Amendment. That I can say anything, more or less, and I don't have to be afraid of Big Brother. I've escaped Daddy. I mean, if not for that, we might as well be in the Soviet Union or in Turkey or Iran. Some wet, earnest place like that."
Fussell describes his pose as the attitude of a "pissed-off infantryman." In high school, then later at Pomona College, he chose ROTC—most of all to avoid undressing for gym class. ("I was fat and flabby, with feminine tits and a big behind.") By 1945, at age 20, he had become Lieutenant Fussell, and was leading his own platoon through France. "I am the mouthpiece for a whole lot of inarticulate dogfaces," he says, "because I'm one of the very few men of letters who was actually in the f——— infantry." When you read Fussell, you can hear a disgruntled grunt talking underneath his elegant and explosive prose style. "I'm proud of that. I've created a character out of myself." Part Sad Sack, part Gl Joe and, yes, some Colonel Blimp.
On March 15, 1945 Fussell, just back from sick leave, led his platoon in a massive attack along the Saarbrücken-Haguenau front. Until then Lieutenant Fussell, while no Audie Murphy, had been competent enough. But this day, with hospital comfort fresh in mind, he skulked. An alert lieutenant colonel caught Fussell and his platoon too gingerly bringing up the rear. Fussell was rebuked—almost court-martialed. One can surmise that Fussell has never discharged himself honorably from that terrible reproach. Even now he agonizes over the manhood and courage of a young lieutenant. Should he have resigned his commission that day? "Was I a good officer?" Pause. "I think I wasn't a good officer."
Beware the Ides of March. Later that same day Fussell was nastily wounded by an 88 shell. His sergeant, lying beside him, didn't survive the monstrous impact. Fussell, though, wished—still now and then wishes—that he had been taken instead. He cannot understand the mortal distinction made by that artillery shell. Why him? And this bewilderment feeds the tension beneath his prose. "I try to get that into my writing," he says. "This combination of exaltation and shame and guilt and not knowing what the point is."
In a sense, Fussell was never completely mustered out. He knows that Army life was often pure boondoggle and strut. (Fussell, for example, claims he got a Bronze Star because a superior insisted that all men under him have some decoration, no matter what or why.) Yet there is also a nerve-deep respect. Where his tongue will cut like the lash on a weed trimmer when talking about academia or government, of his service time he says, "I owe everything to it. I would've been a yachtsman or a much-married, much-divorced playboy with my father's money [a 1 million-dollar inheritance] if I hadn't been beat up in the Army. That was what persuaded me I wasn't frivolous."
Nonetheless, like most other foot soldiers, Fussell has a distaste for authority. "All of these phonies telling us that the modern world works," he snorts. "We know it doesn't. It's killed more people than ever before in history. I think every act of nay-saying is meritorious." Even when that nay-saying contradicts itself. Last November, for instance, he voted in favor of a nuclear freeze. Yet recently atheist Fussell said: "Thank God the Bomb was dropped while I was on my way [to invade mainland Japan], with the result that I can write this." When faced with that discrepancy, Fussell just shrugs. "I think maybe I'm inconsistent."
His career, on the other hand, has been a model of consistency lately: up, up and more up. In July Fussell will retire from Rutgers to occupy the new Donald T. Regan Chair in English Literature at Penn—a position funded by the Treasury Secretary's bullish ex-colleagues at Merrill Lynch. That arrangement is ideal. Fussell won't have to teach until 1984 and can write his World War II book, on salary, through the rest of 1983. "It's wonderful," he says. "Excellent. As long as I don't have to meet Regan." There should be ample progress this year. Fussell has learned to write with the efficiency of a chain saw. But is he happy? "No, I'm not. Because my marriage has just collapsed. I'm not accustomed to living by myself and I'm lonely and I've got nothing but my prose to keep me warm."
The Fussells wed in 1949. Paul had gone to Harvard for his Ph.D. in 18th-century English literature. He had met Betty Ellen Harper at Pomona. In time, Mrs. Fussell would develop her own literary reputation, both as a food writer and as a teacher of Shakespeare at New Jersey's Douglass College. Last year she brought out a book, Mabel (Ticknor & Fields, $15.95), on silent screen actress Mabel Normand. There are two Fussell children. Rosalind, 27, is a graphic designer and copywriter in New York. Sam (né Martin), 23, is studying English literature at Oxford. Fussell had wanted to name his son after Samuel Johnson, about whom he had written. His wife, however, thought that idea both self-serving and professionally cute. She named the child Martin. But neither father nor child was content, and at 18, Martin legally changed his name to Sam.
His father, meanwhile, has led a "disappointing" social life in Princeton. It is hard, frankly, to imagine what sort of houseguest or friend he might be. On the one hand, he has said, "I'm very social. I love meeting people. I love being nice to people. I'm interested in their remarks." On the other: "I don't care about people. I'm not really interested in people except as clowns or as comic figures or caricatures or something." His ambivalence is off-putting. Women, you might imagine, don't care to be dated for their clownish qualities.
"I want to find somebody I can go to bed with and sleep with," he announces. "I'd prefer a chick 30 years old, but I can't have one, so I'm going after chicks 50 years old. I can't have a merely physical relationship with somebody; I've got to create a certain mind connection as well. I'm persuaded I'll never be married again. I can't stand the gaff." Fussell then sighs. "I know that is a terrible curse to lay on somebody more or less my age. But we could live together as sexual pals and friends and intellect pals—I'd like that very much." With characteristic frankness, Fussell responds to academic scuttlebutt about a recent homosexual interlude. "I'm over it," he declares, "and it wasn't a period, it was one incident. After that I persuaded myself that I probably was a homosexual. I tried it for about six weeks with a total lack of success. I went to London, determined to become a homosexual, and the whole thing was a joke. I came out of the closet and found out it wasn't the right closet. So now I'm heterosexual again and your standard divorced man."
Once a week Fussell visits a New York psychiatrist, as he has for a year. It is a pilgrimage he makes with ambivalence. "This is just for consultation," he maintains. "He locates inconsistencies in my discourse, which is a great help. I hate seeing him, because officially I disapprove of it. It's American and 20th-century and therefore stupid. Self-interested. Ridiculous. Still, I need it. No, I don't need it. Well, I don't know."
Even on the couch, one suspects, Fussell must overlap the naive with the arrogant, the cynical with the passionate. To his brashness add a charming, somewhat histrionic vulnerability. Fussell can at one moment challenge our complacent nature as though he feared no human reprisal. At another, he will fret that some minor author, whom he has taken apart in print, "is capable of coming through my window with a hatchet and cutting me up." Few American writers have dramatized themselves more, or boasted a sensibility so untrammeled by reticence. Whatever risks he may have avoided on that March 15 so long ago, Paul Fussell should now be entitled to a battlefield promotion in American letters.
September 24, 2016
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