(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

In his The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), Paul Fussell explored the creation of the vocabulary used to describe the modern world. He found the genesis of that vocabulary in the events of World War I and the ways in which its participants tried to come to terms with those events in letters, diaries, poetry, fiction, and other acts of writing. What he found especially telling were small shifts in meaning, little heretofore unnoticed changes in the uses of language, which when taken together and compared with prewar usage reveal the absolute discontinuities between prewar and postwar Western imagination. Fussell’s ability to trace word usage through a wide range of sources, coupled with the aptness of his choice of examples and the vividness of his evocation of moods, places, and events, make of The Great War and Modern Memory a tour de force of literary and cultural history.

Abroad is another essay in the same mode. Here, Fussell shifts his attention to the postwar period, that age of illusory calm between wars. His method is the same—to notice the changes in language and attitude that mark shifts in cultural climate, that at once reveal the distance between the present and the past and also show the emergence of our world out of that past. If Abroad is a lesser book than The Great War and Modern Memory, it is because so much of the story has already been told in the earlier book. What is left over to tell here is often surprising, always fascinating, and always delightfully revealing.

The subject of Abroad grows naturally out of the earlier work. As Fussell points out, one consequence of World War I for the English was a sense of unaccustomed confinement to their native country. As a result, when the war finally ended, English men and women struck out for foreign parts in large numbers. A necessary part of the journey required that the travelers returned to tell about it. As a result, the postwar period saw a boom in the number of travel books; accounts of lands visited; and the hardships, dangers, and triumphs of getting there and getting home.

These travel books, many written by authors otherwise forgotten, but others written by such well-known writers as Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence, and Evelyn Waugh, provide Fussell with the primary data for his study. For the most part, these are considered minor or at best occasional works by literary historians and scholars, even when they were written by major authors, but Fussell convincingly argues that they represent a major genre of literature between the wars. He finds among them works well worth attention, even claiming that their efforts in this genre represent some of the best writing by authors more famous for their efforts in fiction or poetry.

Part of the fascination this work holds lies in Fussell’s evocation of the travel experience. So much of what is taken for granted in modern life is of quite recent vintage; we assume that since they are comparatively close to us in time, writers such as Lawrence and Greene shared with us the world we know. By noting small differences, Fussell is able to make us feel how remote the world of the 1920’s and 1930’s really is. As an example, current society takes passports for granted; owning one is a point of pride, for it makes one feel like a world traveler, a cosmopolitan citizen of a larger society. Fussell notes that passports were a consequence of World War I. Before 1915, a person in England who wished to go abroad could just go; after 1915, however, he needed to get government approval, go through the humiliation of a passport photograph, and carry that document with him always. Along with the introduction of the passport came the endless series of jokes about passport photographs, which Fussell argues reveals something of modern self-consciousness and sense of the falseness of public faces.

Along with the passport came the sense of borders and the anxiety about crossing borders. Fussell finds the trenches of World War I the natural...

(The entire section is 1662 words.)