Campus English professor emeritus Alex Zwerdling dies at 84

Campus English professor emeritus Alex Zwerdling died May 16 after a protracted illness. He was 84.

Zwerdling was an influential scholar of modern British literature, according to campus English professor Mitchell Breitwieser. Breitwieser added in an email that Zwerdling served as the chair of the campus’s English department hiring committee for several years, “shaping the department by hiring a number of young scholars who contributed a great deal to its current distinction.”

“When I first came to Berkeley 30 years ago, (Zwerdling) was one of the first people to welcome me,” said Genaro Padilla, professor and chair of the campus English department. “Most importantly, he was always encouraging every single step of my academic work.”

Zwerdling was born in Merano, Italy, and fled to Cuba to escape the Nazis during World War II, according to his son, Antony Zwerdling. Zwerdling later moved to the United States in 1941 and earned a bachelor of arts in English at Cornell University and a doctorate at Princeton University. Zwerdling began teaching in 1961.

During his career, Zwerdling received several awards, including the Berkeley Citation in 2003, which is awarded to “a variety of distinguished individuals or organizations … whose contributions to UC Berkeley go beyond the call of duty and whose achievements exceed the standards of excellence in their fields” according to the UC Berkeley Foundation Awards Program award archives.

Zwerdling was also awarded a Fulbright scholarship, Guggenheim fellowship and a National Endowment of Humanities fellowship. He authored five books, with his most recent, “The Rise of the Memoir,” published earlier this year.

“He was a humane and thoughtful reader of an exceptionally wide range of literature and scholarship,” said campus English professor Elizabeth Abel in an email. “He was an eloquent writer who sought to address a readership beyond (as well as within) the academy.”

Zwerdling was part of a group of faculty that helped establish the campus English department as one of the best in the country, according to Anthony Cascardi, campus dean of arts and humanities, in a statement.

According to Cascardi, Zwerdling will be remembered for the “subtle and refined intelligence” evident in his writings and teaching.

“(Zwerdling) serves as a tremendous example of the great contributions that immigrants have made to U.C. Berkeley,” Cascardi said in a statement. “We will miss him very much.”

Zwerdling is survived by his wife, Florence; his son, Antony; daughter-in-law, Virginia; and grandchildren, Alexis and Jesse.

“My dad was thoughtful, curious and compassionate,” Antony Zwerdling said in an email. “He really cared about people — students, colleagues, writers, friends, family — and had a unique way of entering their inner world.”

Zwerdling’s family plans to hold a memorial on campus later this fall, but an exact date has not yet been decided, according to Antony Zwerdling.

Contact Jamari Snipes at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @JamariSnipes.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Alex Zwerdling was born in Nerano, Italy. In fact, Zwerdling was born in Merano, Italy.”
Due to misinformation from a source, a previous version of this article was incorrectly amended to show Alex Zwerdling received his Bachelor of Arts from Princeton and his doctoral degree from Cornell. In fact, the article was correct in stating Zwerdling received his Bachelor of Arts at Cornell and his doctoral degree at Princeton.