Louis Rubin, monumental voice in Southern literature, dies

ablythe@newsobserver.comNovember 16, 2013 

— Louis Rubin was a prolific writer, editor, publisher and literary critic who built far more than his own impressive body of work.

As an educator and mentor, he humbly and generously kindled the muse in many — including such noted Southern writers as Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Kaye Gibbons, Clyde Edgerton, Annie Dillard and John Barth.

Rubin, a longtime creative writing professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, died Saturday at Galloway Ridge at Fearrington, a Chatham County retirement community. He had been suffering from kidney disease for several years and died three days shy of his 90th birthday, his family said.

News of his death brought many colorful stories from legions of acclaimed storytellers about a man with many seeming contradictions.

He brimmed with childlike enthusiasm while harboring a deep Solomonic wisdom.

He was a dreamer and a doer.

He often was described as having a gruff and curmudgeonly demeanor that was countered by his big-hearted, boyish twinkle.

He was a harmonica player who could make a musical statement with genius riffs and licks.

He was a father-figure and adviser to many who also thought nothing of seeking counsel from the mentees he considered his colleagues.

He was a co-founder of Algonquin Books and founder of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

"He totally changed my life, and you know, I'm just one of thousands who say that," said McCorkle, who has published 10 books since taking creative writing with Rubin as a UNC-CH senior. "He was just the greatest teacher and friend — and loyal."

Born in Charleston, S.C., Rubin spent two years at the College of Charleston and received a history degree the University of Richmond after serving in the Army during World War II.

He earned his master's and doctoral degrees from Johns Hopkins University. In 1953, while still at Johns Hopkins, he co-edited his first book, "Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South," a work that put him a long ways down a path of recognition as an eminent scholar of Southern literature.

"He's given credit for reawakening everybody's understanding of how important Southern literature had been," said Shannon Ravenel, a former student of Rubin's who worked in the publishing industry for 50 years and co-founded Algonquin Books with him. "He was just a proponent of Southern literature and put it on the map in many different ways."

Before getting into academia, Rubin worked for newspapers and the Associated Press, where he learned how to produce copy quickly, a trait that stayed with him throughout his career.

Before coming to Chapel Hill in 1967 as a professor in the English department, he spent two years at the University of Pennsylvania and 10 years at Hollins College in Virginia.

Dillard, whose book "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, learned a lesson from Rubin while a Hollins student that remains with her today.

Many of the Hollins students that Rubin took under his wing, Dillard said, would end up being college professors in addition to writing books.

Rubin often invited his students into his home — for seminars, for meals and conversation. They rarely lost touch through the years, keeping up through letters and visits.

"His notion of teaching was the biggest influence on how I taught," Dillard said Saturday, "in that your students are your students for life."

In 1989, Rubin retired from the UNC faculty after 22 years, devoting his energies full time to Algonquin Books.

One of the authors Rubin drew to Algonquin was Edgerton, a North Carolina native who has published 10 novels, a book of advice and a memoir.

Rubin founded the press with Ravenel after talented young writers he knew were having difficulty making any headway among the New York and other big-city publishing houses.

Edgerton and McCorkle, who also benefitted from Algonquin's interest in her work, chuckle about the early days.

Rubin, a pipe-smoking, raspy-voiced father of two who could tell fascinating stories about growing up as a Jew in the South, set up publishing offices in a backyard shed. There was a sign on the building and a sign on the gate. "Close the gate," it said, so Hambone, his big, bumbling dog wouldn't escape his confines.

"He was a brilliant editor which grew out of his childlike enthusiasm for literature and his wisdom for narrative," Edgerton recalled.

Edgerton shared all his work with Rubin, knowing that a two- to four-page single-spaced letter would typically follow.

"It usually started off, 'Well, old buddy, it's not working,'" Edgerton said.

Then in the pages that followed, Rubin would explain why a particular chapter or piece needed more work and offer sage advice that led to more polished revisions.

"He had more than a touch of genius," Edgerton recalled. "He would cover everything and Shannon [Ravenel] was the same way."

A family graveside service will be held in Charleston, S.C., in the coming week, his family said, and a memorial service will be planned for this area at a later date.

Rubin was married to Eva Redfield Rubin, a political science teacher who taught at N.C. State University. Their two sons, Robert Alden and William Louis, remember how their parents opening their home to their many students resulted in extended family.

Not only did the sons consider many of the writers adopted siblings, the writers found family among themselves after getting together so often with the Rubins.

In addition to books and letters, Rubin was a fan of baseball, fishing, history and boats, a theme of the watercolors he painted.

With friends in Chapel Hill, Rubin helped organize the Chapel Hill Angling Optimists Society, or CHAOS, as they called themselves. They were avid fishermen who got together at ponds around the area.

"As a dad, he was just a very warm and encouraging person," said Robert Rubin. "He was sort of gruff and curmudgeonly, but kind."

To his many adoring students, he was one of a kind — smart, generous, funny and giving, a teacher, mentor and friend who remained interested in them until the end.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service