The essays in Paul Fussell’s The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations uphold high ideals of civilized conduct and recognize the depths of irrationality—evil, really—to which man can descend. For Fussell, civilization resides in strongly held ethical values, but also in order, in grace, in knowledge acquired by study and perception, and in the precise and accurate use of language. Irrational evil lies in every man and can manifest itself in the egotism of the individual or in the monstrous insanity of war. The essays suggest that the qualities of civilized man include compassion, sensitivity, breadth of knowledge, and a profound awareness of his own frailties. They also include a sense of irony that protects his sanity in a world which he perceives to be neither reasonable nor just.
In “My War,” the final essay in this collection, Fussell focuses on his participation in World War II as the experience which transformed him, almost literally overnight, from a touchingly innocent nineteen-year-old, upper-middle-class college student into an infantry rifle platoon leader with profound skepticism about man’s capabilities for reason and virtue. Although Fussell maintains that his experience as a foot soldier was the determining force of his life, even prompting him to sophisticate his sense of irony by enrolling in a course in Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift when he entered graduate school after the war, surely his career as a teacher of eighteenth century English literature (he is John DeWitt Professor of English at Rutgers University) has also been a powerful influence on his tastes and values. The abiding attitudes of Pope, Swift, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and the other great eighteenth century writers are Fussell’s attitudes too: a contempt for vague and sloppy language; a distrust of fanaticism; a fascination with paradox in individual character; a respect for order; a delight in the ideal of universal civilization, experienced in part through literature and travel; and, finally, a recognition that only a thin veneer masks human irrationality—and worse.
Among Fussell’s previous books, The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism: Ethics and Imagery from Swift to Burke (1965) and Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing (1971) reveal his interest in the relationship between man’s ethical nature and the quality of his expression. The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), which won the 1976 National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award of Phi Beta Kappa, brilliantly explores the impact of World War I on the modern consciousness. Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars (1980) analyzes the phenomenon of travel and travel books in the 1920’s and 1930’s as expressions of a kind of celebration of life after World War I and a growing awareness of the threat of World War II. In all of his books, but especially in the last two, Fussell demonstrates his command of a vast amount of material, his ability to choose persuasively illuminating details, and his recognition of the cultural significance of certain kinds of writing which other critics have tended to overlook. Further, he writes with so much grace and wit that he makes his achievements look easy. The knowledge, perception, and wit of these earlier books are abundantly evident in The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations.
The essays in this collection appeared during the past fifteen years in The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, Harper’s Magazine, and similar periodicals. In many cases, the incentive for the essay was to review a book, but as Fussell remarks in “Being Reviewed,” a “reviewer is writing an essay, and the book in question is only one element of his material.” Besides the obligation to comment justly and accurately on the book he is reviewing, the reviewer also “has an obligation to be interesting.” This obligation is one that Fussell discharges admirably, at least in part because of the wide range of his own interests. Although most of the essays are about books in one way or another, the five sections of the collection, entitled “Americana,” “Hazards of Literature,” “Going Places,” “Britons, Largely Eccentric,” and “Versions of the Second World War,” offer a variety of topics that move in a rough progression from innocence to experience—from observations on the The Offical Boy Scout Handbook (1979) to an account of Fussell’s ordeal in World War II, from Henry Ford’s World War I Peace Ship to a discussion of the rhetoric of a German officer describing the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, from William Carlos Williams’ poignant sense of deficiency in not having had a liberal education to British poet Ivor Gurney’s being driven mad by his experience of trench warfare in World War I.
Fussell’s method in these essays is suggested by the last word in his title, The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations. He is a splendidly acute observer, with an excellent eye for the telling detail. “What We Look Like” and “The War in Black and White,” two essays in which he “reads” photographs, calling attention to small but revealing items of dress and posture, perhaps demonstrate his talent as an observer most obviously, but this talent is apparent everywhere, whether he is assessing the footnotes in scholarly editions of Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman, checking the list of books banned by the Union of South Africa,...
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