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Reviews in Brief
Waging a War of Words
From Boy to (Angry) Man and Beyond. By Ben Yagoda
The Making of a Skeptic
By Paul Fussell, Emeritus Faculty
Boston: Little, Brown, 1996. 310 pp., $24.95
Paul Fussell gives curmudgeons a good name. That is to say, he is not grumpy, crusty, or in any way loveable or cute. Animating most of his thirteen books is a critique of cant, hypocrisy, and euphemism in human language, laziness and haziness in human thought, and ignobility in human behavior, a critique based on strong conviction and long reflection, expressed with wit, grace and clarity.
Fussell, who recently retired as the Donald T. Regan Professor of English, is one of those rare scholars who can write for fellow academics (for example, Theory of Prosody in Eighteenth-Century England), the general public (Class: A Guide Through the American Status System), and, rarest of all, both (The Great War and Modern Memory). His latest book, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, is ostensibly an autobiography, giving a record of his birth and upbringing (upper-upper-middle class, Pasadena), education (Pomona, Harvard), marriages (two), and teaching career (posts at Connecticut College and Rutgers before coming to Penn). But its real strength and, one imagines, principal purpose is explaining how Fussell's oeuvre is really all of a piece.
His sensibility, we discover, was forged by coming of age in two radically different milieus. Southern California, as Boy Fussell (his self-designation) experienced it, was as privileged and protected an environment as it is possible to imagine -- financially, socially, ideologically and even meteorogically. The sunny idyll came to a screeching halt on May 6, 1943, when Fussell, then but 18, became a member of the United States Army. A passage from one of his first letters home begins to suggest the rudeness of his awakening:
"This KP is really a drudge. An illiterate mess sergeant ... was quite profane.... When I reached the kitchen, I was immediately assigned to the vegetable (potato) room. I peeled potatoes all morning, after which I washed, mopped, and scrubbed the floors and porches.... This morning I passed out sausages (two for privates, three for corporals and sergeants). That's the way everything works around here. In the mess hall, the non-coms sit and eat steaks all afternoon while we work."
If that scene brings to mind a movie comedy on the order of Trading Places, what Fussell experienced when he finally saw combat as the leader of a rifle platoon in France was eye-opening in a far grimmer way. It is not just that he found war hellish. He found it far too often needlessly, senselessly, or stupidly hellish. After being sent four consecutive times on futile, near-fatal night operations, he writes, "I was learning from these mortal-farcical events about the eternal presence in human affairs of accident and contingency, as well as the fatuity of optimism at any time or place. All planning was not just likely to recoil ironically; it was almost certain to do so. Human beings were clearly not like machines. They were mysterious congeries of twisted will and error, misapprehension and misrepresentation, and the expected could not be expected of them."
During an attack on a German position in Alsace in the spring of 1945 -- "a trivial little battle in a war already won" -- Fussell's unit was shelled. Unlike the two soldiers next to him, he was not killed. However, he survived with both deep shrapnel wounds in his back and leg and a conviction to conduct his life according to "a theory of antitheses and compensation" -- that is, to resist at every turn the peacetime equivalents of the forced conformity, verbal obfuscation, censorship, hierarchical power structure, and pervasive busy work he experienced in the Army.
The main site of his resistance was the typewriter: "Most of what I wrote, even if disguised as critical essays or pleasant nonfiction books, was really Protest Literature." This is easy to see in a Fussell work like Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, which argues vigorously and at times angrily against the idea of WW II as a "good war." But he also describes his continuing scholarly interest in the idea of "form" in art and expression as deriving in part from "the intensity of my new opposition to meaninglessness and vagueness, and ultimately dissolution."
As intellectual autobiography, Doing Battle is airtight. But the emotional jigaw puzzle it presents has a lot of missing pieces. Hardly the effusive type, Fussell often requires us to proceed by inference. We note that he does not cite a single close friend, even in his Pasadena halcyon days, and we note that his courtship of, marriage to, and divorce from his first wife are each allotted but a few sentences. We note his statement that, "From the 1950s on, my presiding emotion was annoyance, often intensifying to virtually disabling anger," and we surmise that despite (and maybe sometimes because of) his high principles, he was for many years a difficult person to be close to.
But, conditioned by Fussell to be sensitive to the speech of language, we also note the past-tense was in the last quoted sentence. And Doing Battle can be read to reveal that Fussell has positively mellowed in recent years. In 1982, a Virginia widow wrote him a fan letter, which led to a whirlwind romance, including a decision to take a vacation together. They chose Morocco as a destination, Fussell touchingly writes, because "I was afraid of my tendency to dominate and lecture if we went anywhere I already knew." They married in 1987, and, we can infer from the four beaming photographs of them together in Doing Battle, are happy indeed.
Fussell tells us that in recent years he breaks into tears on more and more occasions -- at church services, weddings, commencements, and performances of "Amazing Grace," and while reading aloud from a growing list of literary works. He had to stop teaching T.S. Eliot's "New Hampshire," because two lines suggesting children's outdoor play,
To-day grieves, to-morrow grieves
Cover me over, light in leaves...
"came too close to commenting on the innocence about their forthcoming deaths and burials of the happy young people before me."
But Fussell is still prickly enough to direct a parting shot at Penn. True, he writes that for him it "was a splendid place. The faculty was serious, learned, and productive, and the students were bright and willing." But he was offended by "the shameless capitalist vocationalism being vended at the Wharton School.... I'd never taught before at an institution where the studies aiming to stretch the intellect and make real the whole course of human history seemed to take second place to those designed to help students make lots of money."
Goodbye, Mr. Chips it ain't. But what else would you expect of America's curmudgeon laureate?
BEN YAGODA, G'91, is book critic for Philadelphia magazine, associate professor of English at the Universitry of Delaware, and author of Will Rogers: A Biography.
A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information from the authors and publishers.
THE SOCIAL MEANING OF MODERN
From Social Darwinism
By Howard L. Kaye, C'74, G'76, Gr'81.
New Brunswick, N.J. and London: Transactions Publishers, 1996. 208 pp., $19.95.
This book, originally published by Yale University Press in 1986, analyzes the problems surrounding the application of biological knowledge to social theory, a common practice since the time of Darwin. In a new epilogue for this edition, Kaye, a professor of sociology at Franklin and Marshall College, considers the changes in both science and society that have altered the terms of debate over the nature of human culture, including the remarkable growth of ethology and sociobiology in the study of animal and human behavior, and the progress achieved in neuropsychology and behavioral genetics.
WOMEN AND MINORITIES IN AMERICAN PROFESSIONS.
Edited by Joyce Tang, Gr'91, and
Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1996. 218 pp., $59.50 (cloth), $19.95 (paper).
This anthology provides original, up-to-date information on how women and minorities are faring in the American professional work force. Each chapter is written by a different contributor and covers fields such as computing, dentistry, social work, management, the military, and others by analyzing gender and/or racial differences in patterns of segregation and discrimination, career paths, and labor market outcomes from a comparative, historical perspective. Tang, assistant professor of sociology at Queens College, contributes a chapter on medical school faculty.
THE HACKER'S GUIDE TO VISUAL
An Irreverent Look at How Visual FoxPro Really Works.
By Tamar Granor, C'78, GEE'81, Gr'86, and Ted Roche.
Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Developers Press, 1996. 912 pp., $44.95.
This guide provides undocumented and insider information on the inner workings of virtually every component of Visual FoxPro, including how all commands, functions, properties, events, and methods perform under pressure. Granor, the editor of FoxPro Advisor magazine, and Roche focus exclusively on those parts of the program that are not documented at all or work differently from the way the documentation indicates they should. Extensive cross-referencing and code samples for every entry make the guide easy to use.
TRANSITIONS IN LAND AND HOUSING:
Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Poland.
By Ann Louise Strong, Thomas A. Reiner, Gr'63, and Janusz M. Szyrmer, G/Gr'84.
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. 324 pp., $49.95.
In those countries undergoing the changeover from communism to a democratic society, the transition to a market economy has created vast shifts in control of land and housing from the public to the private sector. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Poland have responded to the challenges in distinct ways, each influenced by its pre-communist past and by the extent
of state power under communism. Strong, Reiner, and Szyrmer's book is the first
in-depth study to examine the role
of real property in the transition process; the authors address areas such as housing privatization; ownership restructuring; reestablishment of real estate markets and the consequent problems, including the lack of housing and farm credit, plummeting construction, and concerns facing the poor and elderly. The authors are Penn faculty: Strong is professor emeritus of city and regional planning; Reiner is professor emeritus of regional science; and Szyrmer is associate director of social science computing.
THE ADMAN IN THE PARLOR:
Magazines and the Gendering of
Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s.
By Ellen Gruber Garvey, Gr'92.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 256 pp., $39.95 (cloth), $17.95 (paper).
This book is the outgrowth of Garvey's doctoral dissertation in English at Penn, which was a co-winner of the 1992 Diane Hunter prize for the best dissertation in English. Garvey, an assistant professor of English at Jersey City State College, explores the interaction of advertising and fiction in turn-of-the-century magazines, showing how consumption, as well as advertising itself, became established as pleasures. The book traces the steps by which Americans learned the meanings of brand name goods and demonstrates that readers' own participation in advertising, more than efforts by advertisers themselves, made advertising a central part of American culture.
THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL
CRITIQUE OF CAPITALIST CULTURE.
By Ronald J. Schindler, C'64, Gr'78.
London: Avebury Press, 1996.
308 pp., $72.95.
APPLIED SOCIAL SCIENCES
IN THE PLUTOCRATIC ERA
OF THE UNITED STATES:
Dialectics of the Concrete.
By Ronald J. Schindler.
London: Avebury Press, 1996.
220 pp., $63.95.
The Frankfurt School Critique examines American society -- of which the prestige universities are an integral part -- ruled by what Schindler describes as a "recently emerged quasi-hereditary elite/master class" whose loyalties are to international capitalism and super-profits, not to the welfare of the people. Interestingly, the book discusses how this elite uses multiculturalism as a strategic diversion: political correctness is presented as a ruse to disguise the restructuring of power on the global level. In Applied Social Sciences, Schindler critiques the clinical-medical model of community psychology. He views the "clinician/master" as the enforcer of capitalist society's code, which socializes citizens into "objectified" client/patients. The book concludes with techniques for practical intervention into individual and institutional problems.
NEW OLD-FASHIONED WAYS.
By Jack Santino, G'73, Gr'78.
Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1996. 175 pp., $14.95.
The author, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University and editor of the Journal of American Folklore, presents an in-depth investigation into the various ways in which traditional holidays are exploited in America's commercial, consumerist society. Santino analyzes movies, television programs, packaged foods, and other products to show how holidays such as Christmas, Halloween, Valentine's Day, Easter, Hanukkah, and Fourth of July give companies the opportunity to create an illusion of novelty for products that are basically unchanged. The book also examines the logic by which commercial holidays and consumer culture are linked.
GOOD WIVES, NASTY WENCHES,
& ANXIOUS PATRIARCHS:
Gender, Race, and Power
in Colonial Virginia.
By Kathleen M. Brown, Faculty.
Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996. 496 pp., $49.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).
In this study Kathleen Brown, an assistant professor of history at Penn, investigates the ways in which gender and race became interconnected components of the social order in Colonial Virginia. As a model for other social hierarchies, gender helped determine the construction of racial categories and the institution of slavery, which also transformed relations between the genders, such as ideals of masculinity. Brown's analysis begins with the first colonization and extends through Bacon's Rebellion in 1676; she concludes that despite the dominance of a patriarchal society, women, children, free people of color, and the enslaved continued to influence the meaning of race and class into the eighteenth century and beyond.
Great Writers and Readers Celebrate Reading.
Edited by Laura Furman and
Elinore Standard, CW'55.
New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc. 323 pp., $13.95.
The anthology Bookworms contains two centuries worth of selections from diaries, letters, stories, poems, and novels reflecting our relationship to the joy and art of reading. Furman, an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, and Standard, a teacher and writer, provide commentary on the paeans of writers and readers as diverse as E. M. Forster, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, Franz Kafka, Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Mansfield, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Vartan Gregorian. The anthology approaches books and reading from a number of perspectives, including the excitement of learning to read and the way in which books provide a unique companionship throughout our lives.
Travelers' Views of the City from 1800 to the Present.
By Philip Stevick.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. 204 pp., $22.95.
This book captures the observations of visitors to Philadelphia through a variety of sources, including travel narratives, diaries, memoirs, letters, and even fiction. Stevick, a professor of English at Temple University, analyzes travelers' accounts of the city illustrating the patterns of outsiders' views, through chapters that include observations on the Fairmount Waterworks complex, the Eastern State Penitentiary, and Independence Hall, as well as everyday life on the streets of Philadelphia.
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