Boss of the Plains

D.A.N. Jones

  • The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations by Paul Fussell
    Oxford, 284 pp, £9.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 19 503102 4

Paul Fussell’s 34 essays were written in different moods and time-zones for different British and American journals, between 1967 and 1982. Some are boyishly truculent, politically partisan, denouncing wrong-headed fellow Americans (so that the British reviewer whistles between his teeth, thinking: ‘They can’t be as bad as all that’). Others are what he calls ‘ironical’, with complaints against Americans who misunderstand his tone: he seems to expect British readers to do better. Still other essays – about warfare and his own military experiences – are so confessional and impassioned that the British reviewer feels he needs to be very tactful.

A prevailing theme is the matter of American idealism, innocence and patriotism. Often he recommends Americans to emulate the wiliness, the ‘irony’ and ‘sophistication’ of wicked old Europe. Sometimes, though, without his confusing ‘irony’, he urges his fellow citizens to hold fast to the simpler values of the log cabin and the little red schoolhouse. He admires E.A. Poe’s ability to ‘occupy imaginatively and plausibly such scenes as Eton, Oxford or the back streets of Paris’. But his patriotic heart is with ‘the perennial and democratic concretes’ of Walt Whitman. ‘If Whitman is really the kind of poet their critical view implies,’ he thunders against literary opponents, ‘God help the Republic. The Republic’s not finished yet, and no one knows what it’s going to be.’

Where does Fussell finally stand? He has nailed his colours to the mast by printing, first and foremost, his essay of 1979 in praise of the American Official Boy Scout Handbook. (This must not be confused with the British Scout Handbook, reprinted in 1983.) An American professor of English literature, with a strong admiration for George Orwell and Kingsley Amis, Fussell uses his nation’s Handbook in their fierce, blustering way, to challenge the conceptions of trendy-left and radical-chic folk, explaining to them that a boy who tries to obey Scout Laws, whatever else he does, will not grow up like Richard Nixon. (In Britain, of course, where Scoutcraft entails wiliness, such a boy might well grow up like Harold Wilson.)

On Fussell’s cover is a picture of a keen-eyed lad with ‘Boy Scouts of America’ stitched on his khaki shirt: he is wearing the B.P. hat – to which American boys are fully entitled. Robert Baden-Powell, a skilled dress-designer, ordered those cowboy hats from the States in 1900 when he was kitting out his nurses and constables in Africa. B.P. has recorded: ‘They were known in the trade as “Boss of the Plains” or “B.P.” pattern, which brought about the mistaken notion that they were something to do with me.’ What Baden-Powell and his followers like about America is the cowboys-and-Indians bit, powwows and wigwams, tom-toms – and jazz (highly praised by Baden-Powell). It is the same with Asia, Africa and Australasia. British boys have been persuaded to enjoy jamborees and corroborees, to imitate Zulu trackers and Indian scouts, to learn campfire yells and Kim’s Game (part of the Great Game against Russian imperialism) and ‘Hold him down, you Swazi warriors’ and (when transmogrified into Asian wolf-cubs): ‘Akela! We’ll do our best!’

A Scout is a friend to all and a brother to every other Scout, no matter to what country, class or creed the other may belong. (At least, that was the rule when I was a boy: it’s been trimmed down since. The Scout Laws are not immutable, as Paul Fussell supposes.) Let me draw friendly, fraternal attention to certain differences between the British and American traditions. British Scouts have been encouraged to ‘go native’ (like Kim or Greenmantle or Colonel Lawrence), to learn the skills and ceremonies of pre-industrial peoples while stealthily introducing the Anglican values of the Christian soldier, the happy warrior. Paul Fussell will remember (for he quotes it in his book, Abroad) Evelyn Waugh’s sly description of a British Scoutmaster instructing Arab boys in Aden. The Indian novelist, R.K. Narayan, went to a school where ‘the great god was Baden-Powell and the principal recreation soccer’; the African playwright, Wole Soyinka, served under a Scoutmaster nicknamed ‘Activity’. So those Scout-like writers of the Commonwealth are not quite so exotic as they might seem to Little Englanders.

But the Boy Scouts of America, by Paul Fussell’s account, represent more inward-looking, almost isolationist ideals: they are thought to be innocent – maybe too innocent – but they express the civic virtues of American plain folks, patriotic citizens, republican and democratic. They don’t anticipate foreign wars. Paul Fussell’s impression may be illustrated by Dave Brubeck’s jazz march, ‘History of a Boy Scout’, jaunty but elegiac, commemorating brave, innocent American boys following the flag of their Republic into a subtly evil outside world where they will feel ‘disillusioned’ – thinking their ideals to have been illusions. The music is in the mood of ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’ – the song of an idealistic, disillusioned capitalist, lamenting: ‘And I was the kid with the drum.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in