Friday, June 15, 2012

Paul Fussell, Author of Class, R.I.P.

Paul Fussell died earlier this year.  He is best known for The Great War and Modern Memory, a study of the effects of World War I on popular and literary sensibility.

For me, though, Fussell is primarily the author of Class. I have taught that book in my "Introduction to Sociology" class for two decades.  I often use it as the closer.  Fussell is mean about the status strivings of every class.  One of the students' possible assignments is to write a class analysis of their family Thanksgiving, an event that often brings people of different classes together on intimate terms.  Students find the book irritating, but also eye-opening. 

I have found that the people who write the most insightful books about the experience of social class are British literary scholars, steeped in English novels of the status struggle to be rated a gentleman, or not.  Fussell, though an American, was officially a scholar of British literature, especially of the 18th century.  His several books on the experience of war came from his own harrowing experience in World War II, but also from his study thereafter of the British war poets of the Great War.

For a teacher, the most helpful parts of Class are the illustrative examples of status markers from the early '80s, when the book was written.  These, inevitably, now seem quite dated to students.  Yet the basic idea remains true: status is not based on things, but on freedom.  And people whose identity is bound up in their things are not free.

I will leave you with one illustration of Fussell's insight about class.  He says the middle class is touchiest about class, sometimes denying that there even are classes in America.  He says the middle classes are most prone to use euphemisms and to avoid pungent words about topics they find embarrassing - such as the concept of class itself.  And this is shown in the short history of his own book.  My edition, an early one, is subtitled A Painfully Accurate Guide Through the American Status System. The edition the students now get, after some years of middle-class de-flavoring, is subtitled An Accurate Guide Through the American Status System.

No comments: