Louis D. Rubin Jr., fount of Southern writing, dies at 89

November 23, 2013

Louis D. Rubin Jr., an influential teacher, novelist, publisher and writer who helped define the scholarly study of the literature of the South and launched the careers of many Southern writers, died Nov. 16 at a a retirement home in Pittsboro, N.C. He was 89.

His wife, Eva Redfield Rubin, confirmed his death to the Associated Press. He had heart and kidney ailments.

After beginning his career as a journalist, Dr. Rubin turned to a life of teaching, writing and scholarship, primarily at Hollins College in Virginia and later at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

There was no field of the literary South that Dr. Rubin did not cultivate. In 1953, he was co-editor with Robert D. Jacobs of “Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South,” which traced a long line of Southern writers from the Revolutionary Era to the 20th century.

Two years later, Dr. Rubin published a critical study that helped revive the reputation of North Carolina novelist Thomas Wolfe. He wrote major works on the “Fugitive” poets of the 1920s, 19th-century writers, African American poets and novelists of his own time. He was a co-editor of the definitive “The History of Southern Literature” in 1985. He wrote or edited more than 50 books.

In 2006, Vanderbilt University literary scholar Michael Kreyling pronounced Dr. Rubin “the master builder of southern literature as a field of academic study.”

As a critic, Dr. Rubin believed that a writer’s voice and personality — what he called “the teller in the tale” — gave Southern writing its distinctive flavor.

He also maintained that critical writing should not be abstruse, difficult or boring but should be conversational and free of jargon.

Dr. Rubin had a reputation as a rumpled, grumpy character who could sometimes be intentionally hard of hearing, but he developed a fiercely loyal following through the years. Early in his career, when he was teaching at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, one of his students was novelist John Barth.

At Hollins, a women’s university in Roanoke, his students included Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard and novelist Lee Smith. Among his students at Chapel Hill were writers Jill McCorkle and Kaye Gibbons.

“If my work is honest and speaks anywhere near to the heart of things,” Gibbons told the Atlanta Journal-
Constitution in 2002, “it is because Louis raised my mind and heart right.”

Dr. Rubin helped found the Southern Literary Journal and edited other literary quarterlies. He founded and edited the influential Southern Literary Studies series of books from the Louisiana State University Press. At Hollins, where he taught from 1957 to 1967, he launched an early writers-in-residence program with such celebrated authors as Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, William Styron, Peter Taylor, James Dickey and Allen Tate.

Describing Dr. Rubin’s teaching style to the Journal-Constitution, Smith said, “Louis never told us what to write . . . It was an atmosphere in which it was safe to take risks, to try new things. If it didn’t work, he’d tell you, but he’d never make you feel dumb or put you down.”

In 1983, Dr. Rubin called on one of his former students at Hollins, Shannon Ravenel, and founded Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill as a publishing house for overlooked writers, particularly writers from the South.

Initially headquartered at Dr. Rubin’s house, Algonquin published the first books by such writers as Gibbons, Clyde Edgerton and Larry Brown.

Louis Decimus Rubin Jr. was born Nov. 19, 1923, in Charleston, S.C. His father was an electrical contractor who lost his business in the Great Depression and later became a weather forecaster.

Dr. Rubin captured his youth in his three novels and in a well-received memoir, “My Father’s People: A Family of Southern Jews” (2002).

“Nostalgia is an impoverishing emotion; it robs our memory of all its complexity,” Dr. Rubin wrote in the book. “There were no Good Old Days; my father’s generation knew that very well.”

After serving as an Army journalist during World War II, Dr. Rubin graduated from the University of Richmond in 1946, then worked at newspapers in Virginia and New Jersey for several years.

He received a master’s degree and doctorate in English from Johns Hopkins University in 1949 and 1954, respectively. After teaching at Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania, he returned to journalism in 1956 as an editorial writer at the Richmond News Leader, where his views sometimes clashed with those of chief editorial writer James J. Kilpatrick, who then was an advocate of segregation.

“We do not ever eradicate the early patterns of our experience,” Dr. Rubin wrote in a later memoir, “Small Craft Advisory” (1991). “They remain with us all our lives.”

Survivors include his wife of 62 years, Eva Redfield, a former political science professor; two sons; a brother; a sister; and two grandchildren.

Recalling Dr. Rubin’s close mentoring of his proteges, novelist Edgerton once recalled sitting in Rubin’s back yard, thinking up names for characters for Edgerton’s first novel, “Raney.” As Edgerton began to drive away, Dr. Rubin came toward his car, shouting, “Naomi! N-A-O-M-I. Naomi! That’s the name!”

“It was the perfect name for my character,” Edgerton said in 2002. “Aunt Naomi. It was like naming rain.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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