on 26 August 2000
This book is deservedly a classic. It explains how the experience in the trenches resulted in the classic works of poetry, novels and memoirs that emerged from British soldiers who endured WWI. At the same time, it shows how pre-war literature impacted the way that young British soldiers viewed the war, and how even the "common soldier" used literary references and frameworks to help understand the unimaginable events of warfare. Finally, as the title suggests, Fussell relates the literary tradition of WWI to "Modern Memory," the way that (particularly in Britain) the literature of the war has helped affect Britain view of warfare, struggle and history ever since. This "literary history" of WWI is a thought-provoking look at one of the last century's great tragedies, and will help you understand how and why the war impacted history and literature ever since.
on 9 December 2007
The study of war literature does not end with Fussell. Things went on in the Anglospeaking world and elsewhere. Now there are many essays on war and literature, some with sounder judgements on single authors and books, though probably not as well written as The Great War and Modern Memory. However, no one can deny the simple fact that we wouldn't be discussing the issue of war and literature hadn't Fussell published this essay in the 1970s.
Having said that, I'd like to point out what aspects of the book are dated, since other readers have listed its merits.
First of all, the purely British canon Fussell analysed led him to some conclusions which are highly questionable when one takes into account the French, Italian, German, American, and Austrian classics of W.W.I literature. Let me say it clearly: an essay on the Great War and how it is remembered which does not take into account Remarque, Barbusse, Hemingway, and Lussu, is definitely too parochial.
Second: the idea that only "plain" narratives are faithful to the experience of fighters is definitely naive. Hence Fussell's bashing of David Jones, who wrote one of the most fascinating war novels (In Parenthesis), and possibly his decision to ignore the Americans (Hemingway, Dos Passos, and cummings being probably a tad too modernist to his taste).
Third: sometimes Fussell's use of Frye is persuasive, sometime it seems a bit stretched. To me Frye remains one of the great critical minds of the 20th century, whatever the bigots of po-mo in US campuses may preach; but the idea that irony explains everything written in this century, and that the main source of this ironic mood/mode is the Great War is a bit too
This doesn't mean I consider The Great War and Modern Memory unworthy of attention. It remains a must-read for all those who want to understand British W.W.I fiction and poetry. But it should not be read as an explanation of what W.W.I really was, and it should be read with other, more up-to-date books, like A.D. Harvey's excellent A Muse of Fire, who also works on non-British texts and offers a much wider and persuasive map of the relationship between war(s), literature, and the arts.
It's almost impossible to overstate the importance of this book. It's definitely one of the landmark publications on Great War literature, and Fussell's arguments and conclusions are so lucid and compelling that you almost find it strange that no-one else thought of it before him.
Each chapter draws on a central theme found throughout the war poetry; the binary oppositions of 'us' and 'them', the troglodyte horrors of the trenches, the comparison of the war to theatre, the homoeroticism of soldiers as comrades and brothers, the pastoral imagery used as a contrast to the industrial machinery of war, the prevalence of myth and romance - and he uses an enormous swathe of literature to illustrate his points. I found upon finishing this book that I had a shopping list as long as my arm of books mentioned in these pages that I want to go on to read.
Fussell's central argument seems to be that WW1, more than any other war, was a literary war, both in the way that those who fought in it used literature as a tool to help them understand what was happening, but also in the way that we ourselves have to come to remember it. Most people's impressions of the Great War have not come from the history books; they've come from the literature that came out of the war - from Graves and Sassoon and Owen. Our very memories of that war have been shaped by literature: think of the very words we use on Remembrance Day from the poem by Laurence Binyon - 'at the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them'.
on 7 October 2000
To this day the Great War has remained as unnerving and far-reaching an experience as mankind has ever faced. In its course, writers, artists and historians strove understandably to mould and, in so doing, cope with, its shattering realities. The starting-point of Fussell's study bears a striking resemblance with two IWM pictures featured on opposite pages in his book: one of a neat row of officers inspecting model trenches at a military school, the other an eloquent testimony to the harsh realities of the 'Troglodyte' hell on the Somme.
Drawing amply from his knowledge of such major war chroniclers as Blunden, Graves, Hardy, Jones, Owen, Reed and Sassoon, Fussell's admirable study does just that: ultimately his work aims at tracing the manifold shapes the literary rendering of that sheer inferno took on through the years. Particularly enthralling reading are the chapters devoted to myth, ritual and romance, where the attentive reader may perceive a thread to Freud or Jung's collective unconscious. Moreover, the author dwells on two conflicting interests. The one of army leaders, on the one hand, - who must have approved of the use of high diction and euphemism as much as they applied censorship in the average subaltern's letters home - and the dysphemism of the likes of Owen and Sassoon as they were forced to follow its devastating wake on the other. Another topic which aroused our interest, was the discussion of the loss of a 'youth unscathed', as Fussell dubs it; of transcended emotions bordering upon homoeroticism, of men (and artists) dependent on each other in the face of the inevitable.
Finally, it is the author's defendable view that only in retrospect would a coherent, let alone, ironic, view of the wartime experience come to the fore. It must have been human nature that the artist's recording eyes fixed on phenomena utterly beyond description must have attempted in the first place to force, or enable him to come to terms with the memory in the aftermath.
The Great War and Modern Memory will not cease to inspire any student of the literary war experience, and at any level. As one turns the pages, one is aware of just how much this book deserves the merits it has been credited with so lavishly.
on 6 February 2003
First published in 1975, "The Great War And Modern Memory," is a study of the influence of the literature of the Great War on modern perception. Fussell limits his study to the familiar image of trench warfare, intentionally neglecting the Navy, Cavalry and the Royal Flying Corps. He also concentrates solely on the British experience, which is unusual and refreshing for an American author.
Fussell proposes a valid rationale for the limitations he imposes, (apart from keeping the study at a manageable size,) that is, the majority of Great War literature is British and generally a product of the trench experience. The breadth of source material used is huge, encompassing everything from the memoirs and dispatches of Haig and Plummer down to the personal diaries of private soldiers. He quite rightly concentrates on the great literary works, making continual comparison to Blunden, Graves and Sassoon. His synopsis of "The Memoirs Of George Sherston," manages to be both succinct and complete. As well as prose he analyses a great deal of poetry including large sections on Owen and Jones.
Whilst the book purports to concentrate on the influence of Great War literature on the modern, Fussell spends as much, if not more time, comparing the literature to the actuality of the experience. The central thread is the irony of the situation, whether it be Blunden comparing the pastoral beauty of the sky to the desolation of the battlefield below, or Graves comparing the comic moments in the trenches to the horror all around. He does, however, also achieve his objective, showing how numerous facets of modern life have been influenced by the literature and specifically how numerous literary works rely on Great War literature. Whilst this is generally well constructed, he could be accused of falling into a kind of literary American isolationism with continual reference to "Catch 22."
Fussell's book is an incredibly well researched and thought provoking study. Perhaps its' most impressive achievements are the questions that it presents in the mind of the reader. In the chapter entitled "Myth, Ritual and Romance," Fussell looks at the literature that influenced the soldiers of the Great War and finds that the voracious appetite for literature at the time had a marked influence on the memoirs and letters of the war and is what leaves a legacy of work of such quality. This begs the question; what would be the standard today with the reduction in quantity and quality of reading? He also shows how literature gave the soldier something to relate his experiences to, a good example being Bunyan's "A Pilgrim's Progress." What would fulfil that role today, paperback novels, television, computer games?
Although now 25 years old and appearing at times to be somewhat dated, Fussell's book is still extremely relevant. In the world of military literature it is a unique book, challenging the modern soldier to relate the literature he reads to his experiences and the experience of those who have gone before.
on 31 October 2011
This is an extensive and scholarly work of literary criticism. Within those limits it is a good general guide to the British literature of WW1, and its influence on later writings. However it is seriously compromised by a simplistic and ill-informed view of WW1 history, and a preoccupation (bordering on obsession)with irony, social class and homo-eroticism. In its polemic, the book perpetuates the worst historical errors and myths about WW1 that it identifies, and more. This is not a history book, and should not be treated as such.
on 4 January 2013
If it's on your course subject, this book was recommended to us by a university lecturer and it was brilliant for quotes and to reference in essays. It made the difference between a grade B and grade A. It worked.
on 15 July 1999
..This book is singly, the most important resource for Historians and Literature teachers that you are likely to find. The literary criticism is impeccable: sensitive and rooted in a firm knowledge of the detail. The history is full of anecdote and overview (look at the bit on postcards from the front, for example) that bring the whole topic alive. This book has been a resource for my teaching for fifteen years. It is central to an understanding of how the whole of first world war poetry sprang from a tradition, already articulated by Hardy and Housman. In literary terms, Fussell argues, it was a war waiting to happen...Fussell is a major scholar, but the book comes across as deeply personal, full of sad reflection on war and what it means for a culture and a literary tradition. It demands careful reading.
I heard about Paul Fussell from watching an Adam Curtis BBC documentary about the memory of the war and how the official 'stories' told about what happened in the Second World War proved traumatic, because those who fought in it knew they weren't true. This led me to listen to one of Fussell's lectures on YouTube about his experiences, it was honest and horrifying. We like to think of our 'brave boys' but war is bestial and corrupting. We end up destroying our own men as well as our enemies.
This is an analysis of Great War poetry and prose, and how its grotesque unreality was sublimated into literature. It's the sort of book that would be on the reading list for an English university graduate, but it's not written in academic prose, it's more elegant and anecdotal than that. It's a melancholy book, I read it in awe of the awfulness of what the soldiers had to go through. And yet, the analysis of the literary traditions and the background to the key poets is so fascinating, I kept reading. I learnt a lot about what it means to be English, and a lot about literary technique. Fussell remarks at the end of the book that his views were stigmatised as being from 'the Boo-Hoo brigade'. Apparently some people think the First World War was a good idea.
This book is a joy to read.
on 13 October 2012
I followed a recommendation for this book from a history of the Great War that said it contained insights into the experience of the war from first hand participants. Unfortunately these were the same old published participants and therefore come from the ruling or literary classes. This book reads more like a sixth form essay or a Sunday newspaper review of books than a standalone history, which is OK if that is what you are expecting.
Long chapters discuss imagery in poetry that bears little relevance to the everyday life in the trenches for the average man. The are better books that describe the real effect of the war on real people.
Basically, avoid this book if you want history.