Philip Beidler, longtime Alabama professor whose experience in Vietnam influenced his writing, dies at 77

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WIAT) – Philip D. Beidler, longtime professor of English at the University of Alabama whose own experience of the Vietnam War served as the focus of several books on literature and art of the time, died Wednesday. He was 77 years old.

Beidler, known as “Phil” to those close to him, had taught at the university for more than 40 years, arriving in 1974 after earning his doctorate from the University of Virginia and remaining there until his retirement in 2019. , although he remained professor emeritus. in the departement.

“I know Phil was a good friend and colleague to anyone who knew him in that department. He was definitely a good friend to me,” said Steven Trout, professor and chair of the UA English department. “I admired his imposing work on American literature and culture of war for decades before dreaming that I would join the faculty at the University of Alabama.”

Brian Oliu, senior instructor in UA’s English department, said he’s known Beidler since grad school and was one of the first people at the university to encourage his writing.

“We would have long conversations about depictions of war in video games,” Oliu wrote in an online tribute to Beidler on Wednesday. “He used to tell me the stories of old Egan – of Barry Hannah making holes in his convertible. Have you read ‘Ray’? Phil is Dr. Beidler.

While an undergraduate at Davidson College in North Carolina, Beidler was drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam in 1969, where he was a lieutenant in the 17th Armored Cavalry Regiment, Troop D, part of of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade.

“He didn’t have an easy war,” said Don Noble, a retired professor who taught alongside Beidler at UA for years. “The man who was Phil’s mentor was killed. Many of the men Phil served with were killed.

Beidler’s experiences in Vietnam served as a focal point in many books he would write over the years. Trout said Beidler’s first book, “American Literature and the Vietnam Experience,” was important in opening up the field for studying Vietnamese-era literature. Published in 1982, Beidler analyzed the type of literature that came during and after Vietnam and how the war affected writing during this time.

“What the best writing about Vietnam seems to have in common is a commitment on the one hand to unflinching concreteness – a feel for how an experience actually grips us, grips us all at once as a thing of the senses, of the emotions, of the intellect, of the spirit – and on the other hand an awareness distinct from the engagement in a primary process of the creation of meaning, of discovering the particular ways in which the experience of war can now be made to mean in the broader evolution of culture as a whole,” Beidler wrote.

Over the years, Beidler’s work on studying literature through the prism of the Vietnam War has been widely reviewed.

“Philip Beidler, like John Hellmann and others, explores American literature of the Vietnam War in terms of American myth and myth-making,” wrote Renny Christopher, a professor at California State University at Stanislaus. , when reviewing “Rewriting America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation”. .”

In a discussion for an oral history project of Vietnam led by UA, Beidler spoke about what he thought the war had revealed to the American public.

“At the time, most of us felt, whether we were soldiers, veterans, or stayed home and demonstrated against the war, that we had finally got our reward,” Beidler said. “This idea that we were the redeeming nation. This idea that we were always the good guys. We thought we had put that aside. You know, we lost this war. We got our ass kicked.

However, Beidler did not limit his interests or his writings to just Vietnam, covering subjects as varied as Mark Twain, essays on Cuba, and the early literary history of Alabama. One of his latest books, “Great Beyond: Art in the Age of Annihilation,” will soon be published by University of Alabama Press.

“He had this powerful curiosity,” Noble said.

Noble, who reviews books for Alabama Public Radio and hosts “Bookmark with Don Noble” on Alabama Public Television, said Beidler always writes in an accessible way and is just as engaging in class as he is in print.

“I think his energy, his good nature and his sense of humor came through in the writing voice and in the class voice,” Noble said.

Oliu said he enjoyed both Beidler’s company and friendship.

“When I graduated and started teaching, he immediately treated me like a colleague,” he said. “Always stopping in the hallway to chat, to crack a joke, to shoot Washington Irving quotes at the air.”

Noble said that in addition to being a good writer or a good teacher, he was a good friend.

“He was a really good guy,” he said. “He was a good natured person, he had a great sense of humor and he was really good company. I enjoyed my time with him.

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