Beloved Vanderbilt University English professor Vereen Bell has died at 86

 

photograph of Vereen Bell wearing blue shirt and tie, sitting in front of crowded book shelf
Vereen Bell taught at Vanderbilt for more than 50 years. (Daniel Dubois/Vanderbilt)

Vereen M. Bell, a professor of English, emeritus, who had a transformational influence on countless students, challenged institutional structures and pushed for greater diversity at Vanderbilt, died Aug. 24 at home in Nashville. He was 86 years old.

“Professor Bell’s classes all but defined the educational experience for generations of Vanderbilt students,” said John Geer, the Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science. “He demanded rigor, provoked new ways of thinking and—most memorably—championed students’ intellectual growth with an inimitable style and a wry humor.”

Bell was born on Oct. 31, 1934, in Cairo, Georgia, and grew up in the nearby cities of Thomasville and Quitman. He graduated with a bachelor of science from Davidson College in 1955 before enrolling at Duke University, where he earned his doctorate in 1959. He taught at Louisiana State University for two years before joining the Vanderbilt Department of English as an assistant professor in 1961. His areas of expertise included American and British literature and modern American poetry.

“A scholar of early Modernist literature, he had the soul of an artist and the mind of a writer: associative, curious, deeply empathic, in love with language and unafraid of intense emotion,” said Kate Daniels, Edwin Mims Professor of Literature. “His lifelong Georgia drawl, his love of humor, his storytelling genius, his impressive height, his hospitality at work and at home, his dog-whispering abilities, his intense interest in absolutely everyone he met—even his creative and hilarious use of profanity—drew people to him. He had more friends than anyone I ever knew, all besotted with affection. It was my joy to be one of them.”

photograph of Vereen Bell in boat near bridge on St. Marks River
Vereen Bell enjoyed exploring the waters of the Florida panhandle and south Georgia, where he connected with his roots. (submitted photo)

Bell was promoted to associate professor in 1965 and received the Chancellor’s Cup the next year for making the greatest contribution outside the classroom to student-faculty relationships. Other university teaching awards during his career included the Madison Sarratt Prize for excellence in undergraduate teaching and the Outstanding Graduate Teaching Award.

“Vereen cared deeply about the quality of the student’s course experience. He was supportive of his students as well as the department’s junior faculty,” said Roy Gottfried, professor of English, emeritus. “In class, Vereen would hold long, free-wheeling discussions with students to talk through his and their ideas of the meaning of literature, including the complex works of writers like William Faulkner and William Butler Yeats.”

In 1987, Bell was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to further his biographical research on Yeats in Ireland and England. His books included Robert Lowell: Nihilist as Hero (1983), The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy (1988), and Yeats and the Logic of Formalism (2006), and, with his Vanderbilt colleague Laurence Lerner, he co-edited On Modern Poetry: Essays Presented to Donald Davie (1988).

“He was known for being sharp and direct in his conversation, and he would always root for the underdog,” Gottfried said. “I would describe him as an iconoclast from top to bottom. He was very eager to challenge a variety of thoughts and structures when he was a faculty member and department chair.”

Bell was an outspoken advocate for increasing diversity on campus, including hiring more underrepresented minorities and women in faculty positions. He served on the Committee on Afro-American Affairs and spoke out during the late 1980s on the need for a reinvigorated Black studies program at Vanderbilt with the hiring of Black scholars to lead it.

Humorist Roy Blount Jr., BA’63, was a junior when Bell was hired at Vanderbilt, and they had been friends ever since.

“He tended to be gruff, I guess is the word, and even sardonic,” Blount said. “I’m not going to say he was cloaking his essential sweetness, because he would snort at such a cliche.”

Blount recounted that he spent “many a rollicksome, word-loving night” at Bell’s Nashville home—a tradition stretching back to the 1960s when he welcomed Black students like Perry Wallace and Walter Murray.

Bell is survived by his five children: Mary Vereen Bell, BA’82, MEd’84; Leighton Alexander Bell, BA’83, MAT’84; Eleanor Bell Hall, BS’85, MSN’02; Julie Marx and Jonathan Marx.

An event for Bell’s friends and colleagues to celebrate his life will be announced later. The family requests that any memorial contributions be designated for the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands and/or the Tennessee Justice Center.