The celebrity obit page in the Globe and Mail for June 4, 2012 has two entries. At the bottom, a four inch obit for Paul Fussell, who died May 23 at age 88. Fussell was a man who wrote two and maybe three great books during his life. One, The Great War and Modern Memory, is easily one of the five most important books written about the First World War, an analysis of the war’s effect on literature and on the writers who experienced it. Both its intellectual elan and its ability to draw in the realities—and the details—of combat are unique and forceful, and Fussell’s prose is a joy. His memoir of combat during the Second World War, Doing Battle, revealed him as a stunningly insightful chronicler of war at ground level, and short of Ernst Junger’s The Storm of Steel, might be the best book ever written on the subject. I’d argue that it was the best American book to come out of World War II, and not just because Fussell personally saw more raw combat than virtually any other American writer (as a 20 year lieutenant he was wounded while fighting in Alsace, and was awarded both the Bronze Star and Purple Heart). His third masterpiece was his late (2003) memoir, The Boys’ Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945, which is an elegy for the young men he fought with in France and Germany, a book at once tender-hearted and articulately angry about the waste of young lives he was witness to.
Fussell wasn’t just a war writer. He was a middle class Californian who wrote a biography of Samuel Johnson, several manuals on prosody, a number of hilariously witty volumes on the class system in America, and a dozen other books that display the astounding range of his interests. He was also, in the best sense, a “character”: irascible, chatty, indiscrete (both intellectually and personally) and a man who learned to wear his heart on his sleeve. Best of all he was a man whose intellectual wildness grew as he got older: he was lovable, socially terrifying, and permanently angry that the world wasn’t better than it was. I wish I’d known him personally, because he was one of those rare intellectuals who was interesting on any subject that gained his attention.
He’d have been angry to see the Globe’s obituary page, because the rest of it chronicled the life of a British-born Hollywood dickhead by the name of Richard Dawson, who died at 78 a few days after Fussell. Dawson’s main claim to fame was the daytime Emmy he was awarded in 1978 as a game show host. He hosted a pedestrian game show called Family Feud for nine years between 1976 and 1985, where he specialized in kissing his female contestants—about 20,000 of them in all, some of whom he groped on camera, and one of whom he married. His other accomplishments were a role in Hogan’s Heroes, and a decade of marriage to British breast celebrity, Diana Dors. He got 4/5ths of the Globe’s obituary page because he was on television, where he did nothing to make the world better or easier to understand. If television descends to the level some of us think it could, and begins to televise human executions and dismemberments, some executive will likely mourn the fact that Richard Dawson won’t be around to host it.
That’s a cruel epitaph, but it’s the sort of thing Paul Fussell would have thought, and found some better way to say.
574 w. June 4, 2012