This is not "The Official Boy Scout Handbook," Paul Fussell hastens to assure us in his preface, though the cover seems to promote that illusion. Designed to echo the familiar cover of the "Boy Scout Handbook," it shows a figure in Scout uniform -- khaki shirt, kerchief and old-fashioned, broad-brimmed hat -- raising his eyes from a pair of binoculars with a quizzical smile on his face. The landscape reflected in the binocular lenses is not the array of mountains, lakes and forests that seem to be the natural environment of boy scouts, but a bleak industrial skyline. The face is similar to that of Paul Fussell, which appears on an inner flap of the dust jacket.
This image captures remarkably the emotional flavor and basic themes of the book, which has considerable unity of focus although it is a collection of random essays and book reviews published mostly during the last five years in such outlets as The New Republic, Harper's and Encounter. In this collection, as in "The Great War and Modern Memory," which first won him widespread attention and a shower of literary prizes, Fussell's basic subject is the transition from innocence to experience -- the changes of perception induced (in an individual or a whole society) by a traumatic event.
An interesting contrast is provided by a few essays from before 1976 that are included in the book not because they fit thematically but because they are too good to discard: essays on Boswell, Poe, Whitman and on Nabokov's scholarship that are perceptive, readable and a bit irrelevant. Otherwise, Fussell keeps coming back to the same motifs of innocence and experience, no matter what is his ostensible subject: the poetic evolution of William Carlos Williams; the tragicomic efforts of Henry Ford to end World War I; the futile attempts of South African censorship to preserve a totally unrealistic view of human nature and relations; the curious career of Harry Crosby, a would-be poet and nai f libertine whose suicide in New York was "a tragedy of high-minded American literalism." He even finds echoes of the theme in an essay on Shakespearean studies -- actually an extended review of S. Schoenbaum's brilliant "Shakespeare's Lives" -- and in that essay he states a formula that applies interestingly to his own work:
"Like all good scholarly books about literature -- and there aren't many -- Schoenbaum's is something more than it seems. F.O. Matthiessen's 'American Renaissance' was apparently an essay in literary analysis and the history of ideas; actually it was a moving personal statement of faith in American liberalism. Northrop Frye's 'Fearful Symmetry' purports to be 'A Study of William Blake': actually it is a brilliant personal deposition about theory of knowledge. Schoenbaum's book seems to be a history of Shakespeare idolatry and a disclosure of the pitfalls awaiting those who try to write literary biography without a grown-up's sense of evidence. But actually it is a satire which uses 'scholarship' only as its medium, the way a poet uses metaphor and cadence and a painter line and color."
Similarly, we may say that "The Boy Scout Handbook" purports to be a miscellaneous collection of essays, mostly on literary topics, but is actually the elaborate, multifaceted working out of traumas suffered during World War II, when Fussell was plunged from boyhood into manhood by his experiences as a line officer in Europe during the last days of Germany's resistance. Hints of this are scattered throughout the book -- even in an essay on King Edward VII, whose personal history seems to parallel so much in the prewar era that bears his name.
But it becomes most explicit and tightly focused in the book's final section, "Versions of the Second World War," where he keeps returning to the motifs of illusion and reality, innocence and experience, under a variety of guises: the superiority of nonfictional to fictional elements in the war novels of Herman Wouk; the view of the war presented in the Time-Life books about it; the effect of the war on English and American poetry; the war reflected in black-and-white photos, as opposed to prose writing or paintings.
Fussell finally gets to the root of it all in the book's last essay, "My War," which tells of his own experience. At the beginning of the essay, he offers not an apology but an apologia: "I have rubbed the reader's nose in some very noisome materials -- corpses, maddened dogs, deserters and looters, pain, Auschwitz, weeping, scandal, cowardice, mistakes and defeats, sadism, hangings, horrible wounds, fear and panic." The reason is simple: he has been there, it has marked him for life in ways that he explores in fine detail, and he must share the experience, which is probably the central experience of our century. He does so superbly, with a scholar's eye for significant detail and the flair of an expert stylist. One suspects that much of this book is a series of preliminary sketches for his next one, which the publisher tells us will be "a study of the behavior of the imagination in the Second World War." The preliminary indications are that the book should be a blockbuster.