Literary scholar Paul Fussell dead at 88

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PORTLAND, ORE. (AP) - Paul Fussell, an acclaimed literary scholar who won a National Book Award in 1976 for “The Great War and Modern Memory,” died Wednesday morning at age 88.

His stepson Cole Behringer said Fussell died of natural causes in a long-term care facility in Medford, Ore. Behringer said his mother and stepfather moved to southern Oregon two years ago from Rochester, N.Y.

In works published over a 50-year career, Fussell wrote memoir, literary criticism, social commentary and standard English Department fare on topics such as English literature and poetic theory. He made his greatest mark writing about war, a subject he knew well, and his disdain for its romanticization.

Fussell enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II and was later awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

“At first it was rather fun,” he said in a 1997 PBS interview with David Gergen. “It was kind of athletic and lots of fun. It was fast, and amusing, and so forth, and then all of a sudden one realized what the infantry was for. It was for killing the maximum number of young men like you.”

His writings would be forever influenced by the horrors he witnessed.

“Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends,” Fussell wrote in “The Great War,” his study of World War I that ranked No. 75 on the Modern Library’s list of the greatest nonfiction books of the 20th century.

“Great War and Modern Memory” used the work of English poets and authors to demonstrate how war is romanticized and idealized, turned into moral and religious parable, and what happens when the reality of war overwhelms the dream of it.

Fussell was born and raised in Pasadena, Calif., and graduated from Pomona College. He earned his advanced degrees from Harvard and later taught at Connecticut College, Rutgers and the University of Pennsylvania.

In his early career, he wrote “Poetic Meter and Poetic Form,” a well-regarded textbook for understanding poetry, and an analysis of Samuel Johnson.

“Samuel Johnson was his great hero,” said John Scanlan, a professor of 18th century British literature at Providence College and a close friend of Fussell’s for about 30 years.

Scanlan said Fussell, though an academic, “loved to insert himself into everyday American life.”

“Being around Paul was a tonic,” he said.

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