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In the preface to Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, literary historian and former infantry officer Paul Fussell sets himself a weighty task. “For the past fifty years,” he writes, “the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty. I have tried to balance the scales.” With My Kitchen Wars, Betty Fussell’s memoir from the home front of her ex-husband’s academic and journalistic career, she might be said to offer a similar corrective on a more personal scale. She stands up for many of the qualities her husband claimed were assailed by the war: “intellect…honesty, individuality, complexity, ambiguity…irony….and wit.” But she casts “discrimination” in an entirely different light from that shone upon it by the master of the house. And “privacy”? That gets chucked out altogether—much to the benefit of nosy readers familiar with the writings of the family Fussell.
Admirers of Betty Fussell’s work as one of America’s premier foodies (she is the author of, among other things, the celebrated The Story of Corn, which, though it sounds as if it belongs on Mad magazine’s shelf of very short books, is an exhaustive, scholarly, and entertaining account of—dare I say it?—the goodness of maize) will appreciate My Kitchen Wars as the tale of a woman who overcame an unfortunate childhood and shucked her uxorial chains to come into her own as a sensualist and an epicure. By her own admission, though, Betty didn’t effect this transformation until she was in her 50s. Before then, she was always under someone’s thumb.
Betty was born in 1927 in Riverside, Calif., in the back of a Model T, and raised on a failed chicken ranch shrouded in the dust from a neighboring cement plant. After the death of her mother, a rat-poison suicide less than two years later, her father married a spinster osteopath, a heartless woman called “the D.O.” by her stepchildren, in mockery of the professional designation adorning the shingle hanging outside her house. It was a household shaped by Calvinism, cancer, and colonics, where pleasure was denied as sinful and affection was frowned upon. “Not long ago,” Betty writes, “I found a little black notebook of the D.O.’s in yet one more box of family junk. It is filled with penciled reminders to herself, listed, as always:
Bob is bad.
Betty musn’t cry so much.”
When the war came, it offered a way out. Brother Bob “was glad when Pearl Harbor was bombed, because he was eager to ship out for action in the South Pacific. You couldn’t get farther away from Riverside than that.” He came home a killer, jumpy and malarial. Betty headed off for Pomona College, where she met Paul, also now a killer, jumpy and deemed by Uncle Sam to be 40 percent disabled. Arrogant and embittered, he channeled his energies into literature with the fervor of a true believer. “When I fell in love with Paul,” Betty writes, “I fell in love with literature, in sickness and in health, for better and for worse, and no matter what course the narrative took, I never fell out of love with either.” She also had occasion, however, to observe that he “could be mean as a snake, just because he felt like it.” And when he eventually proposed, she sought a girlfriend’s counsel, writing, “What do you think? I know I love him but I’m not sure I like him.”
She followed Paul as he moved from grad school at Harvard to teaching positions at Connecticut College for Women and at Rutgers, and developed into the respected scholar who would eventually win the National Book Award for The Great War and Modern Memory. She suffered two miscarriages and a stillbirth but also bore two healthy children, Rosalind, called Tucky, and Martin, called Sam. She would fitfully pursue her own academic career but, she writes, “My real work, full-time, was to take care of Paul. Everything else was peripheral. Everything else, including children, came last.” By the time she and Paul split, after more than 30 years of marriage, drinking, and dinner parties—and extended periods of intramural hanky-panky—she had, despite his frequent protestations that she couldn’t write, established her own career as an author. Her first book, a biography of silent-movie star Mabel Normand, was pointedly subtitled “Hollywood’s First I-Don’t-Care Girl.”
Paul once devoted a couple of hundred pages to “the dumbing of America,” distinguishing between “bad” (“introducing sawdust into breadstuffs”) and “BAD” (“[insisting] that the adulterated bread is better than any other sort”) and going on to identify “BAD Language,” “BAD Ideas,” “BAD Behavior,” and the like. Odes to lobster aside, much of the pleasure to be derived from Betty’s book lies in being offered the ammunition with which to beat Paul at his own game. If it is bad to be discovered by one’s wife in such a posture that one feels compelled to take one’s grown children to dinner and announce to them one’s fondness for boyflesh, surely it is BAD to later remark in print, despite the fact that these “boyish obsessions” have persisted into adulthood, “how little they interfere, ultimately, with fully adult heterosexual life and happy marriages.” And don’t we run straight off the end of Paul’s own scale (what next? BAD?) when he prefaces his admiration for globe-trotting boy-connoisseur Norman Douglas—a liking that may prompt regular PF readers to note that the author deems public humming a graver offense than the abuse of catamites—with the demurrer, “Although not myself a pederast…”?
Now that Betty’s version of the facts is available, Paul’s intermittently evasive 1996 memoir, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, opens itself to the armchair detective—or armchair family therapist—willing to read between the lines. Why, after all, would we think him a pederast, rather than merely a permissive admirer of the noble British tradition of cruelty to children? Why, indeed, is it necessary for him to lavish one of his infrequent references to life with Betty and the kids on this same section, and why does he go out of his way earlier in the book to tell of having rebuffed the advances of male colleagues at the “pederastic paradise” that was Harvard?
And when Paul writes, “As late as the 1970s, running up the stairs was for me a positive delight, and I still looked and felt young. But soon I became aware as never before of my mortality, of the way each day and week shortened my time here,” we can’t resist the comedy of Betty’s description of this dawning awareness:
It was around this time that Paul became obsessed with his body. He took to wearing nylon bikini briefs in Day-Glo colors that he ordered from catalogues. He became fanatic about his Canadian Army isometric exercises, this man for whom croquet was heavy exercise. I knew he was terrified of regressing to the Fat Boy of his youth, but there was something more. When I stayed up talking with friends late into the night it wasn’t unusual for Paul to descend the stairs nude and parade about the room until someone said, “Oh, Paul, go back to bed.”
Paul frequently outlines his personal vanity, but Betty makes damn sure to color the pictures in. Time and again, she reveals the personal background to his professional life. Paul foregrounds the folly of delivering a paper at a Moscow conference only to have a government functionary announce, “‘We will have no discussion of Professor Fussell’s paper. It deviates too far from Leninist norms.’” Betty mentions that, upon his return, “he couldn’t stop talking about a student he’d met,” apparently having developed “a crush on a young Russian boy.”
It would be nice to be able to say that Betty simply picks honesty over privacy whenever they are at loggerheads, but if readers want to more fully honor complexity, ambiguity, and wit, they’ll have to turn to the memoir of another member of the clan, son Samuel Wilson Fussell’s 1991 Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder. Sam’s childhood clearly was not a success. A tremulous young adult given to tears, he is terrorized by urban life, noting that a “recent MIT study indicated that a combat soldier had had a better chance of surviving World War II than a New Yorker surviving New York.” The Oxford honors graduate resolves to bodily remake himself. The decision to sink his inheritance into bodybuilding baffles his mother, who nonetheless attempts to come to some sort of aesthetic appreciation of his quest.
His father is “less charitable.” Before Paul and Sam cease talking altogether, father writes son, “‘Since you first emerged crying from your mother’s womb, you’ve always begrudged the world for its failure to measure up.’” That line, with its overtones of Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” one of Paul’s poetic touchstones, reminds me of nothing so much as the anti-drug ad of several years ago in which an irate father confronts his son with his stash, demanding an explanation for his misbehavior. “I got it from watching you, Dad,” the boy replies. Likewise, when Sam questions himself, “Was I, too, a case of arrested development, caught in a perpetual nightmare of adolescence?” we think of Betty’s account of a debriefing Paul gives her after seeing a therapist: “‘The shrink says I’m a permanent adolescent….I never grew up and that’s what makes getting old such a shock.’”
You can tell a family by the titles of its memoirs, and once you come to understand that Muscle might as easily have been called Armor—for that is precisely what Sam sought in his new physique—you see that it wasn’t for Paul and Betty only that combat became a metaphor for living. (Because sister Tucky doesn’t seem to have ventured onto the battleground of print, we can be free to assume that her phantom volume might be titled Retreat or AWOL or, a friend suggests, Just Deserter.)
All the “greatest generation” claptrap being floated this year glosses over the fact that severely damaged men are as likely to perpetuate their injuries as remedy them. Sometimes they merely nurse their wounds to a state of robustness that has nothing to do with being healed. From a recent episode of All Things Considered, listeners learned why a survivor of the Bataan Death March and subsequent internment in a Japanese POW camp might later insist on his children’s membership in the Clean Plate Club and, decades later still, amass hoards of distasteful food without harboring any millennialist agenda. In Doing Battle, Paul writes that military cemeteries drive him to pity not for the dead “but for their families, who can never be wholly happy again.” What Betty’s memoir makes plain is that survivors’ families suffered, too. Headed by an angry, supercilious, self-centered man, by his own admission “incapable of loving anyone but [himself]” (at least according to Betty), her own family never stood a chance.
Betty scarcely comes out the heroine of the family melodrama. Children function in her narrative mainly as bars to self-actualization. “Poor darling Tucky,” she writes, “her parents lived in literature, not life, and the babies in literature were all taken care of by somebody else.” But even given the limited contraceptive options of the day, Tucky and Sam were children she chose to have. Surely adults could enter parenthood with greater desire? When Betty finally gets out of the house and moves to Manhattan, she emphasizes the solitariness of her new life. She writes of her slim body’s “late middle-aged blooming,” cattily noting that “there were lots of men out there who liked women because they were different from men,” but she introduces us to none of them.
Instead, she offers an exultant description of dining alone at her cluttered kitchen table. By the end of My Kitchen Wars, the woman once dubbed by Philip Roth’s jilted wife “the Great White Ice Queen,” far from having melted, is the only Fussell to have succeeded in building a castle all her own. CP