TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WIAT) — Philip D. Beidler, a longtime English professor at the University of Alabama whose own experience in the Vietnam War served as the focus of several books about literature and art from the time, died Wednesday. He was 77.
Beidler, known as “Phil” to those close to him, had taught at the university for over 40 years, arriving in 1974 after receiving his doctorate degree from the University of Virginia and staying until his retirement in 2019, although he remained as professor emeritus in the department.
“I know that Phil was a good friend and colleague to everyone in this department who knew him. Certainly, he was a good friend to me,” said Steven Trout, professor and chairman of UA’s English department. “I admired his towering work on American war literature and culture for decades before I ever dreamed that I would join the faculty at the University of Alabama.”
Brian Oliu, senior instructor at UA’s English Department, said he had known Beidler since graduate school and that he 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 Wednesday. “He’d tell me old Egan’s stories—of Barry Hannah shooting holes in his convertible. You’ve read ‘Ray’? Phil is Dr. Beidler.”
While an undergraduate student at Davidson College in North Carolina, Beidler was drafted to the Army and sent to Vietnam in 1969, where he was a lieutenant in the 17th Armored Cavalry Regiment, Troop D, which was part of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade.
“He did not 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. A lot 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 Experience of Vietnam,” was important in opening up the field of Vietnam-era literature study. Published in 1982, Beidler analyzed the kind of literature that came during and after Vietnam and how the war affected writing during that time.
“What the best writing about Vietnam does seem to have in common is a commitment on one hand to an unstinting concreteness–a feel for the way an experience actually seizes upon us, seizes all at once as a thing of the senses, of the emotions, of the intellect, of the spirit–and on the other a distinct awareness of engagement in a primary process of sense-making, of discovering the peculiar ways in which the experience of the war can now be made to signify within the larger evolution of culture as a whole,” Beidler wrote.
Over the years, Beidler’s work on literature study through the lens of the Vietnam War was widely reviewed.
“Philip Beidler, like John Hellmann and others, explores the American literature of the Viet Nam war in terms of American myth and myth making,” wrote California State University at Stanislaus professor Renny Christopher while reviewing Beidler’s “Rewriting America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation.”
In a discussion for a Vietnam oral history project that was conducted by UA, Beidler talked about what he felt the war revealed to the American public.
“At the time, most of us felt, and that’s whether we were soldiers, veterans, or whether we were people who had stayed at home and demonstrated against the war, that we finally got our comeuppance,” Beidler said. “This idea that we were the redeemer nation. This idea that we were always the good guys. We thought that we had put that to rest. You know, we lost that war. We got out asses kicked.”
However, Beidler did not limit his interests or writing to just Vietnam, covering about subjects as varied as Mark Twain, essays on Cuba, and Alabama’s early literary history. One of his last books, “Great Beyond: Art in the Age of Annihilation,” will soon be released through the University of Alabama Press.
“He had this powerful curiosity,” Noble said.
Noble, who does book reviews for Alabama Public Radio and hosts “Bookmark with Don Noble” on Alabama Public Television, said Beidler always wrote in an accessible way and was just as riveting in the classroom as he was on paper.
“I think his energy, his good nature, and his sense of humor showed up in the writing voice and in the classroom voice,” Noble said.
Oliu said he enjoyed both Beidler’s company and friendship.
“When I graduated and started teaching, he treated me immediately like a colleague,” he said. “Always stopping me in the hallway to chat, to crack a joke, to pull Washington Irving quotes out of midair.”
Noble said that more than just being a good writer or 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.”