The Great War and Modern Memory

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The Great War and Modern Memory
Author Paul Fussell
Country United States
Language English
Genre Literary criticism
Publisher Oxford University Press
Publication date
Media type Print
ISBN 0-19-513331-5

The Great War and Modern Memory is a book of literary criticism written by Paul Fussell and published in 1975 by Oxford University Press. It describes the literary responses by English participants in World War I to their experiences of combat, particularly in trench warfare. The perceived futility and insanity of this conduct became, for many gifted Englishmen of their generation, a metaphor for life. Fussell describes how the collective experience of the "Great War" was correlated with, and to some extent underlain by, an enduring shift in the aesthetic perceptions of individuals, from the tropes of Romanticism that had guided young adults before the war, to the harsher themes that came to be dominant during the war and after.[1]


Fussell's criticism crosses genre boundaries, attempting to describe how the experience of the war overwhelmed its participants and forced them to share a common atmosphere in their essays, letters home, novels, humor, and poetry. This experience, in turn, dealt a death-blow to the way they and their peers had responded to the prewar world. Fussell later (1996) described what he had found to an interviewer from the National Endowment for the Humanities:

Also, I was very interested in the Great War, as it was called then, because it was the initial twentieth-century shock to European culture. By the time we got to the Second World War, everybody was more or less used to Europe being badly treated and people being killed in multitudes. The Great War introduced those themes to Western culture, and therefore it was an immense intellectual and cultural and social shock.[1]


Fussell describes the lives and works of many figures, but centers on four key writers of early English Modernist literature who became productive, or who significantly changed the form of their literary work, in combat on the Western front: Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon. In many cases, the experiences of trench warfare not only affected what these and other authors wrote during the conflict, but (if they survived the war) shaped their output for the remainders of their lives.


The Great War and Modern Memory was honored with the last annual National Book Award in category Arts and Letters[2] and with the inaugural National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.[3] It was ranked #75 on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century.[4]


Various historians have critiqued The Great War and Modern Memory for its flawed methodology, overstated assertions and outright errors. For instance Professor Jay Winter notes that the effort to make sense of the war, and particularly the loss of life, evoked many conventional and traditional motifs.

‘This vigour mining of eighteenth and nineteenth century images and metaphors to accommodate expressions of mourning is one reason why it is unacceptable to see the Great War as the moment when ‘modern memory’ replaced something else, something timeworn and discredited’.[5]

Dr Dan Todman, among others, notes that Fussell selected a narrow range of sources, ignoring those which do not complement his thesis, and assuming that the poets and novelists he selects can be treated as spokesmen for the ranks.

‘In terms of cultural history, Fussell came to his subject with a strict theoretical framework and then selected texts which supported his case. He therefore blinded himself to the variety of different literary reactions to the war, which included not only a striving for new modes of expression but also a falling back onto reassuring traditions … The Great War and Modern Memory is, in other words, a work of polemic rather than analysis and has to be treated as such.’ [6]

Dr Robin Prior and Professor Trevor Wilson outline the major flaws in Fussell’s understanding of the military history of the war.[7]


  1. ^ a b "The Initial Shock: A Conversation with Paul Fussell". National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved 2012-02-23. 
  2. ^ "National Book Awards – 1976". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-23. 
    "Arts and Letters" was an award category from 1964 to 1976.
  3. ^ "National Book Critics Circle: All Past National Book Critics Circle Award Winners and Finalists". National Book Critics Circle. Retrieved 2012-02-23. 
  4. ^ "100 best nonfiction". Modern Library. Retrieved 2012-05-28. 
  5. ^ Jay Winter, Sites of Memory: Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.5.
  6. ^ Dan Todman, The Great War: Myths and Memory (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2005), p.159.
  7. ^ R. Prior and T. Wilson, ‘Paul Fussell at War’, War in History, 1, 1 (1994), 63-80