Agree or disagree with him (and at different times it was possible to do both), the works of the “literary scholar and cultural critic” (to borrow the NYT’s description), Paul Fussell, who died yesterday were rarely anything less than a fascinating read.
Above all (for me, anyway) his masterpiece was The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), an extraordinary exploration of the impact (large and small) of the First World War on contemporary culture.
Back to the NYT:
World War I’s chief cultural product was irony, Mr. Fussell found, as illustrated by the muttering, cynical language of the men on the battle lines and their governments’ fatuous appeals to patriotism. Popular and serious culture afterward was infused with “the sense of absurdity, disjuncture and polarization, the loathing of duly constituted authorities,” as the critic Robert Hughes wrote in a Time magazine review.
“Fatuous” is a sledgehammer word (I wonder if it is one that Fusell would have used) and the cultural response to the conflict in the immediate post-war years (how it changed is a story in itself) was much less straightforward than those comments imply. Nevertheless for anyone interested in the First World War, Fussell’s book is, I reckon, indispensable.
And if you want a companion piece, try and get hold of Songs and Slang of the British Soldier (1914–1918) by John Brophy and Eric Partridge. First published in 1930, it was revised (and, I think — although I may be wrong — some bowdlerization was removed) and republished as The Long Trail: What The British Soldiers Sang and Said in The Great War of 1914–1918. To say that some of the imagery is unforgettable is an understatement.