Louis D. Rubin Jr., Southern author, dies

Louis D. Rubin, Jr., a curmudgeonly patron of contemporary Southern writing who as an author, teacher, editor and publisher helped establish and advance the careers of John Barth, Annie Dillard and dozens of others, has died. He was 89.

Eva Redfield Rubin said by telephone that her husband, who lived at a North Carolina retirement home, died Saturday, just three days before his 90th birthday.

A Charleston, S.C., native who switched from journalism to academia in the 1950s, Rubin for decades mentored and published Southern writers.

He was among the first to write a scholarly analysis on the posthumous reputation of Thomas Wolfe, taught such future stars as Barth, Dillard and Kaye Gibbons and, through Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, published fiction by Clyde Edgerton, Jill McCorkle, Lee Smith and many more.

Rubin himself was a prolific author who wrote novels, critical studies, histories, memoirs and even a guide for predicting the weather. He started or co-started such influential publications as The Hollins Critic and the Southern Literary Journal. Algonquin Books, co-founded in 1982 by Rubin and Shannon Ravenel, has been an invaluable resource for writers overlooked by New York editors.

In 2005, the National Book Critics Circle presented Rubin with a lifetime achievement award.

He was as much a presence in person as on the page, a case study for the word “rumpled,” an impulsive yeller and selective smiler who wore hearing aids that friends swore broke down when conversation turned tiresome. Dillard, Ravenel and others would acknowledge being frightened by him at first, then coming around.

“He’s tireless, loyal, gruff and a genius, really,” Ravenel once said of Rubin, who left Algonquin in 1992. (The publisher was bought out in 1989 by the New York-based Workman Press).

Born in 1923, Louis Decimus Rubin was a descendant of Russian Jews who by age 10 had already written a play and owned a typewriter soon after. Early heroes included Ernest Hemingway and H.L. Mencken. He graduated with a degree in history from the University of Richmond, and worked for The Associated Press and such newspapers as the Richmond News-Leader before returning to school as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University.

He quickly emerged as a keeper of the past and present. His study of Wolfe, “Thomas Wolfe: The Weather of His Youth,” was an early treatise on the late novelist known for “You Can’t Go Home Again” and “Look Homeward, Angel.” A review of authors from Edgar Allan Poe to Eudora Welty that Rubin co-edited with Robert D. Jacobs, “Southern Renascence,” is credited as a starting point in modern Southern literary criticism.

As a teacher at Hollins College, then at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Rubin had a gift for attracting such established authors as Howard Nemerov and William Golding as instructors and for spotting talent among his students. In recent years, he would be criticized for (benign) paternalism, especially at Hollins, where the undergraduates all were women. Rubin would define his approach to creative writing as “teaching people how to read.”

“If this be elitism, make the most of it,” he wrote in the essay “What Are All Those Writers Doing on Campus?”

Ravenel was one self-described “Rubin groupie,” an undergraduate at Hollins at the time Rubin joined the faculty. He not only convinced Ravenel to edit the school’s literary magazine, but remained in touch after she graduated, helping her find work as an editor with Houghton Mifflin and sending her manuscripts of promising writers.

In a 2002 essay published in Southern Review, Ravenel remembered receiving a letter from Rubin in the early ’80s that declared the imminent death of literary fiction from New York City and called for a new publisher, based in the South and run by Rubin, with Ravenel’s help.

“I don’t mean regional or experimental avant-garde stuff, but simply the best fiction (and nonfiction) I can locate,” wrote Rubin, who named the company Algonquin, not after the New York hotel, but after a passenger ship he remembered from childhood.

Algonquin was very much homegrown: The company started in his study, expanded to his living room, then a bedroom, a porch and to his woodshed in the back yard. The initial editors all were former Rubin students. They worked together and truly played together, forming the Algonquin Bluegrass Band, which featured Rubin on harmonica.

Rubin’s passions also included baseball, boats, trains and his Jewish roots, all duly documented in his own books, including “Small Craft Advisory,” ”Babe Ruth’s Ghost” and “A Memory Trains.” The memoir “An Honorable Estate,” published in 2001, covered his years in journalism. “My Father’s People,” which came out in 2002, was a dry-eyed reflection on his immigrant ancestors.

“Nostalgia is an impoverishing emotion; it robs our memory of all its complexity. I hope I have avoided it,” Rubin wrote in the prologue. “There were no Good Old Days; my father’s generation knew that very well. Yet we are our memory, and we exist in Time. What we can know is the distance we have traveled, and where we have been.”

The Rubins were married in 1951. They had two children.

The News & Observer said Rubin died at Galloway Ridge at Fearrington, a retirement community in North Carolina’s Chatham County.

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