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Alex Zwerdling
In Memoriam

Alex Zwerdling

Professor of English, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

Professor Emeritus Alex Zwerdling died on May 16, 2017, after a protracted illness. He is survived by his spouse, Florence Elon, and their son, Antony Daniel Zwerdling. Zwerdling was born on June 21, 1932, in Merano, Italy, close to the German-Austria border, but his family was forced to flee that country in 1939 to escape the Nazis. The Zwerdlings went first to Cuba, and then moved to the United States in 1941, settling in New York City. Young Alex attended the Bronx High School of Science, went on to get his B.A. in English at Cornell University, and earned his doctorate from Princeton University. He joined the Berkeley English department as an assistant professor in 1961, and taught a wide range of courses on twentieth century literature over the next 40 years, until his retirement in 2002.

Zwerdling was an influential scholar of both modern British and American literature, who devoted his scholarly career to expanding our understanding of the interplay between distinctive writerly voices and the social contexts in which they are developed and received. A prolific scholar who published five books and numerous articles on a range of twentieth-century British and American writers, he mapped the subtle pathways of individual careers across changing cultural and political landscapes. He relished the archival research that excavates the multiple drafts, inchoate projects, and uncensored correspondence that help to shape but never make it into a writer’s published work. A graceful writer and avid reader who succeeded in addressing a general public as well as literary scholars, he wore his extensive learning lightly and tempered his commitment to literature’s cultural complexities and complicities with a sense of humor and pleasure in the craft of writing. That pleasure lit up scores of classrooms and conversations in Wheeler Hall and fueled a career that garnered support from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and the National Humanities Center.

After receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton, Professor Zwerdling reworked his dissertation into his first book, Yeats and the Heroic Ideal (1965), in which he unpacks Yeats’ transformation of the Victorian hero from a figure of self-sacrifice to a model of self- fulfillment. The social pressures underlying this transformation assume a different guise in Zwerdling’s second book, Orwell and the Left (1974), which nuances the received account of Orwell’s disaffection from the Left by reconceiving Orwell as the Left’s “loyal opposition.” Zwerdling’s breakthrough piece of scholarship was Virginia Woolf and the Real World (1986), which radically reoriented Woolf studies away from the putatively reclusive author’s representation of consciousness to what Zwerdling characterizes as her “social vision – her complex sense of how historical forces and societal institutions influence the behavior of the people she describes.” Designated by feminist scholar Elaine Showalter as “the finest critical book on Virginia Woolf to date,” an accolade particularly striking during the heyday of feminist criticism, Virginia Woolf and the Real World has developed a life of its own, both as a text and as a tag phrase that reminds us to position unlike terms in relation to each other.

In his two most recent books, Professor Zwerdling turned his attention from individual authorship to collective literary experiences and genres. His magisterial Improvised Europeans: American Literary Expatriates and the Siege of London (1998) offers a rich exposition of the logic and consequences of the decision by four signal American writers – Henry Adams, Henry James, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot — to leave the United States at the emergence of its cultural ascendance to become “improvised Europeans” in London. Most recently, The Rise of the Memoir (2016) charts the history of a genre whose current popularity has obscured a trajectory that starts with Rousseau’s unprecedented determination to “say everything.” Reaching from Rousseau’s Confessions through Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, Virginia Woolf’s “Sketch of the Past,” George Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys,” Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: an Autobiography Revisited, and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz to Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior and China Men, Zwerdling tracks the erratic course of a constantly changing genre as it negotiates the tensions between self- disclosure and self-defense. After noting the discomfort that memoirs can inflict on their readers, Frances Wilson, who reviewed the book for the Times Literary Supplement, affirms that “The Rise of the Memoir, on the other hand, will be greeted with resounding applause.”

Zwerdling’s devotion to Berkeley’s English department across the four decades of his career assumed many forms. He chaired the English department’s hiring committee for many years, shaping the department by recruiting young scholars who contributed a great deal to its current distinction. Zwerdling was always a supportive mentor for younger faculty members, each of whom he welcomed individually to the department: “he was the welcome,” as one of his colleagues recalled. Always eager to extend his understanding of diverse methodologies and fields of study, he sought out and fostered the distinctive interests of each new member of the department. He made a special point of encouraging young women who were entering the profession at a time when there were few in senior positions. His judgments were trusted by his colleagues, and his opinions were always a mainstay of discussions. He gained the respect of colleagues in other departments as well and was appointed to the Academic Senate’s Committee on Budget and Interdepartmental Relations as well as the Committee on Prizes. For his scholarly distinction and many forms of academic service, both locally and nationally, he was awarded the Berkeley Citation in 2003.

A natural teacher, he won praise from students in a wide array of courses for the scope of his knowledge, the depth of his preparation, and the lucidity of his presentation. One student called him the “best and most intelligently organized teacher in the department.” Among the department’s most sought-after doctoral advisors, Zwerdling was well known for his meticulous reading of student writing, his blend of patient attention with rigorous critique. “He was endlessly kind, and patient, and funny,” as one of his graduate advisees put it. For another, his greatest gift was teaching by example how to teach.

“I am the luckiest person in the world,” Zwerdling often noted, “because I get paid to do the things I love.” Incredulous when, as a chemistry major at Cornell, one of his professors (the legendary scholar of Romanticism M. H. Abrams), let him know that some people make a living by reading and writing, he never got over his delight at discovering that he could be among them. His wholehearted embrace of his work and belief in its value made him an exemplar of the humanistic ideals that have come under attack in recent years. By embodying those ideals in his scholarship and teaching, Alex Zwerdling has given them a form that will outlive our shifting critical and political trends.

Catherine Gallagher
Elizabeth Abel
Mitchell Breitwieser