The Great War and Modern Memory, by Paul Fussell
Reviewed by Fintan O'Toole
The Great War and Modern Memory
Oxford University Press
Very few works of criticism deserve to be seen as classic works of literature in their own right. One of them is the late Paul Fussell’s dazzling, groundbreaking account of the way the trauma of the first World War changed western culture. The Great War and Modern Memory, first published in 1975, itself changed forever the way war is written about. This is no dry study of the work of soldier-writers such as Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. It shows, rather, the way myth, ritual, literature and theatre shaped the shocking new experience of the trenches and determined how it was understood. As Jay Winter writes in his introduction to this new edition, Fussell’s achievement was to “break down the barrier between the literary study of war writing and the cultural history of war” – a barrier that, thanks to his book, has never been re-erected. What makes the work a classic is that it also fuses scholarly elegance with red-hot anger. The book is dedicated to a sergeant who died next to Fussell in France in 1945, and it is permeated with the invisible aura of the Vietnam conflict as well. It becomes a book about not a particular war but the pity and terror of war itself.