Still Transformative After All These Years
Vereen Bell changed the face of the English department…and continues to change lives.Vereen Bell, an iconic figure in the Department of English, has been making waves at Vanderbilt for 50 years. And he shows no signs of letting up.
“He’s a brilliant and caring teacher, a productive and admired scholar, a supportive if sometimes provocative and crabby colleague, and a witty, refreshingly naughty presence around the department,” says Paul Elledge, professor of English, emeritus.
Mark Schoenfield, professor and chair of English, echoes that sentiment: “He’s a transformative figure in the department. I respect him enormously. He cherishes his Southern tradition but is a relentless critic of what needed and still needs to change.
“Fifty years ago our department was full of white men teaching about dead white men,” Schoenfield says. “Today it’s enormously diverse not only in terms of our faculty, but also in what we are teaching: Caribbean literature, African-American literature, film, women’s literature and gender studies. Vereen was very much a part of that change—a voice for transformation.”
Often, Bell’s was a lone voice. As a young professor during the turbulent 1960s, he was a strong advocate for civil rights and academic freedom and an opponent of the war in Vietnam.
“He marched, protested, joined the Nashville sit-ins and delivered petitions on campus,” Elledge says. “He was forcefully behind hiring African Americans, other ethnicities and women, even when it was not popular.”
The grandson of a Georgia Supreme Court justice, Bell was born in Cairo, Ga. His father, novelist Vereen McNeill Bell, was killed in action during World War II when the younger Bell was barely 10 years old.
“He was a wonderful father,” Bell remembers. “We’d go fishing and hunting together with his friends, and then he’d take some pictures and write an article about it for Sports Afield or Field and Stream. It gave me a warped idea of what real life was going to be like.
“My stepfather was a very literate person himself, a small town, Faulknerian lawyer who had me reading Hardy and Hemingway and Dostoyevsky before I was out of high school,” Bell says. “I guess all of this steered me to study English literature.”
“He is the best example of ‘Gladly would he learn and gladly teach’ that I ever came across. And he can fish good.”
—Humorist Roy Blount Jr., BA’63
Bell came to the College of Arts and Science in 1961, after earning degrees from Davidson College and Duke University. Today the professor of English has received just about every teaching honor Vanderbilt offers, including the Madison Sarratt Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the Outstanding Graduate Teaching Award, and the Chancellor’s Cup for contributions to student-faculty relations beyond the classroom. He also received a university award for contributions to diversity and equity.
Bell is a favorite of both students and alumni, Schoenfield says, and his classes are always full.
Former student Nancy Page Lowenfield, BA’10, says, “Professor Bell taught me to think critically and act thoughtfully in a way that no other professor or class has.” First-year Vanderbilt law student Andrew Preston, BA’09, remembers Bell’s lectures as “funny, engaging and incisive.”
“Professor Bell brings a wealth of experience to his lectures,” Preston continues. “Once, upon returning from a summer abroad, I told him that I had gone running with the bulls in Pamplona. Professor Bell responded with a story about how he had met Hemingway during his own trip to Pamplona some 50 years earlier. I didn’t think that anyone would be able to make my running of the bulls experience seem boring by comparison, but, sure enough, he did. And, honestly, I should have seen it coming. Professor Bell is just that legendary.”
Being a legend has hardly slowed him down. He teaches both undergraduate and graduate students and serves as associate chair of the department. His scholarship includes the modern British and American novel, modern British poetry, W.B. Yeats and Irish history, film studies and literary theory.
In addition to books on Robert Lowell, Cormac McCarthy and Yeats, Bell has written about Charles Dickens, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. “I’m interested in a lot of different things that don’t connect with each other,” he says wryly.
He is currently working on a book about British and Irish writers in the 1920s and early ’30s. “I’m looking at the nature of their interest in Italian fascism, what it seemed like from that end of history as opposed to our end.”
Bell and his wife, Jane, have five children and more than half a dozen grandchildren. He nurtures old friendships, annually traveling to Florida for saltwater fishing with humorist Roy Blount Jr., BA’63, and four other friends—a ritual that has lasted for 33 years—and to Montana for fly fishing with two other Vanderbilt alumni, Will Johnston, BA’66, JD’69, and his brother Duck Johnston, BA’71. The families of all these friends get together every fall for a long weekend in the Smokies.
“Vereen came to Vanderbilt as a young professor during my junior year, and we have been friends ever since,” Blount says. “He is the best example of ‘Gladly would he learn and gladly teach’ that I ever came across. And he can fish good.”
A baseball fan, Bell has visited the Yankees spring training camp in Tampa several times with friends Roy Gottfried, professor of English, and August Johnson, a 60-year Vanderbilt employee and former Negro League baseball player.
“We met in the 1970s and from then on our relationship began to grow,” Johnson told the Vanderbilt Register in 2001. “We were all interested in baseball, but mostly we shared some of the same ideas. Over the years, we became close.”
During his half-century in the College of Arts and Science, Bell has witnessed academic, racial and cultural changes on campus. “Vanderbilt has changed over the years just like the rest of the world,” he says, “but usually about five years later than everyone else.”
Called a “catalyst for change” by many, Bell pauses when asked what, if anything, needs to change at Vanderbilt today. “Vanderbilt is racially diverse, but I would like to see it also become more socio-economically diverse,” he finally says, noting that rising tuition seems to make the university less accessible to students of modest means. “The administration seems to be moving us in the right direction on this score,” he says, referencing Vanderbilt’s national leadership in eliminating need-based loans and meeting fully demonstrated financial needs for all undergraduates.
“Most of the good things in my life right now are associated with having been at Vanderbilt—my wife, my children, my friends and students, my colleagues, my intellectual life. It’s an amazing thing to be able to work in a place where everyone working around you is way smarter than you are. I couldn’t be happier doing what I’m doing,” he says. “What other job could someone like me have where every day you get to be around such attractive, articulate and intelligent young people? Going to work every morning is like going to the show.”
photo credit: Daniel Dubois