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Paul Fussell, curmudgeonly essayist and scholar, dies at 88

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Paul Fussell, a literary scholar and essayist who bridged the gap between academia and popular culture with his trenchant studies of the cultural effects of war, travel and social class, died May 23 at a long-term care facility in Medford, Ore., where he had lived for the past two years. He was 88.

A stepson, Cole Behringer, confirmed the death but did not know the cause.

Mr. Fussell had been a formidable scholar of 18th-century British literature, having written several books on the subject before he struck a popular chord in 1975 with “The Great War and Modern Memory,” which won the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award.

In the book, Mr. Fussell (rhymes with “muscle”) wrote of how World War I caused a prevailing disillusionment in society, expressed through poetry, journalism and art. He described an “essentially ironic” sensibility that emerged from the war and colored people’s thinking for the rest of the 20th century.

It was a daringly original interpretation of cultural history, and it brought Mr. Fussell a large following among readers who would never have touched his books on 18th-century poetry or the literary development of Samuel Johnson.

In a Washington Post review, author George Woodcock praised “The Great War and Modern Memory” as a “remarkable exercise in cultural history.” Critic Robert Hughes of Time magazine called the book “a scrupulously argued and profoundly affecting account of what the Great War changed.”

In 1980, Mr. Fussell published another influential study, “Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars,” which was one of the first scholarly works to treat travel writing as a distinct literary form. He rediscovered neglected books and authors and argued that the best travel writing — and non-fiction in general — was literature of the highest merit.

In a review of “Abroad” for The Post, scholar and biographer Peter Stansky wrote: “It is hard to imagine the case for travel writing, as a genre worthy of a place alongside poetry and the novel, being made more impressively.”

For decades, Mr. Fussell — who had a PhD but disliked the title of “Dr.” — taught seminars on 18th-century literature at Rutgers University and later at the University of Pennsylvania. In some ways, he aspired to be a man of letters like his literary models from the Augustan age.

He wrote acerbic essays for magazines and became known for his unpredictable views. A 1982 Post profile dubbed him “the nation’s newest world-class curmudgeon.”

Mr. Fussell alternately skewered the American class system and, in a famous essay called “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” said the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan during World War II saved countless American lives.

As a writer, he focused more and more on his experiences as a World War II infantry officer. Mr. Fussell, who received the Bronze Star Medal, was severely wounded by an artillery shell that killed a sergeant standing next to him.

“I was sprayed with the contents of a soldier’s torso when I was lying behind him . . . out of the holes in the back of his field jacket flew little clouds of tissue, blood and powdered cloth,” he later wrote in an essay. “Near him, another man raised himself to fire, but the machine-gun caught him in the mouth, and as he fell he looked back at me with surprise, blood and teeth dribbling out onto the leaves.”

Mr. Fussell returned from the war with a deep respect for ordinary soldiers but with a lasting contempt for war itself. He was critical of Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose and other writers and filmmakers who, he believed, sentimentalized war without describing the brutality and violence faced by soldiers.

The inspiration for “The Great War and Modern Memory,” Mr. Fussell said, came from his own experiences on the front lines.

“I took all my emotions from the Second World War,” he told The Post in 1982, “disguised them, and put them into that book.”

Paul Fussell Jr. was born March 22, 1924, in Pasadena, Calif., where his father was a prosperous lawyer. He was attending Pomona College in California when he was drafted into the Army in 1943. At 20, he was wounded in France.

To fight boredom, he wrote in his 1996 memoir, “Doing Battle,” Mr. Fussell turned to reading.

“I am entirely serious,” he wrote, “when I assert that if I have ever developed into a passable literary scholar, editor, and critic, the credit belongs to the United States Army.”

He graduated from Pomona College in 1947, then attended Harvard, where he received master’s and doctoral degrees in English in 1949 and 1952, respectively.

He spent much of his early career at Rutgers and taught at Penn from 1984 until his retirement in 1993.

After three books on 18th-century literature, Mr. Fussell told Publishers Weekly, he “got tired of writing what I was supposed to write.” Instead, he began to explore the un­or­tho­dox cultural studies that would lead to “The Great War and Modern Memory” and “Abroad.”

Mr. Fussell’s later books included “Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War” (1989) and two books attacking philistinism and bad taste in America: “Class” (1982) and “BAD: Or the Dumbing of America” (1992), which looked askance at anything “phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring.”

In “Class,” he invited readers to look at the artwork in their living rooms and assigned a point system to determine where they stood on the social scale: “Any work of art depicting cowboys — Subtract 3.”

“Motorcycle kept in living room — Subtract 10.”

His first marriage, to food writer Betty Harper Fussell, ended in divorce. In a 1999 memoir, Betty Fussell wrote bitterly about her marriage, saying her husband didn’t appreciate her cooking and resented her success as a writer.

Mr. Fussell met his second wife, Harriette Behringer, after she read a profile of him in The Post and wrote him a letter. They were married in 1987, and she now lives in Medford.

Other survivors include two children from his first marriage, Samuel Fussell of Bigfork, Mont., and Rosalind “Tucky” Fussell of India; four stepchildren; a sister; and 16 grandchildren.

As a writer, Mr. Fussell meticulously revised his work, following one precept: “My main rule is, Thou shalt not be boring.”

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