This book looks into the question of the ways in which writers of the first world war wrote about the experiences of wartime, what they brought with them, and how they shaped writing afterward. Specifically, Paul Fussell is trying to bring a sense of British literature (well, British writing) to an American audience. Fussell is a literary scholar and an American combat veteran of World War II. If you’ve read his essays collection “Thank God for the Atom Bomb” you already know how he privileges self-preservation of soldiers and their reactions to war. He also has a clear sense of the total unrepresentability of things especially warfare. He predates Lytoard in this way, theorizing against metanarratives, and for Fussell, the specifics of WWI writing, and especially British WWI writing helps to spell out some answers to these questions.
So I am thinking right now of what American writers wrote specifically about WWI. Fussell mentions John Dos Passos’s novel Three Soldiers. Dos Passos served as an ambulance driver. We have Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms. We have Faulkner’s novel A Fable, as well as books that are decidedly post-war like Soldier’s Pay and Darl from As I Lay Dying. And there’s a scattered few more. But compared to the writing output of WWI British veterans, the American literary output is relatively scant. This is most likely in part due to the comparatively limited role (in terms of time) that Americans played in the war. In addition, Americans don’t really talk or think about WWI all that very much, not in the way it’s discussed and portrayed in Europeans literature.
Some of the ideas that Fussell wants to explain: how the common educational text of the Oxford Anthology of British Poetry provided a clear and present set of literary touchstones for so much of the poetry that the war produced; how the British theater provided additional touchstones; how British public school influenced officers’ writing; and many more.
This is a deeply satisfying book in the sense of providing lots and lots and lots of questions. Some answers, if few, and plenty of ideas to chew on.