When the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill honored Louis D. Rubin Jr. upon his 1989 retirement as Distinguished Professor of English Literature, his good friend Eudora Welty cautioned in her tribute that if he "doesn't watch out , he's going to be called a legend."
She was, of course, jestingly alluding to her fellow Southerner's diverse roles as a preeminent critic of their region's literature, nurturer of such writers as John Barth, Lee Smith and Annie Dillard, founder of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill and author or editor of almost 50 books, ranging from his 1953 Southern Renascence: The Literature of the American South from Johns Hopkins University Press to LSU's just-out My Father's People: A Family of Southern Jews.
Indeed, in the editor's note to the Southern Review's autumn issue devoted to his career and influence as a man of letters, Rubin is hailed as "the father of southern literature," although he shrugs off such encomiums. "It's not me, but the writing and books I have had some hand in that is important," he says in the book-filled home where he and his wife raised their two sons; it is also next to the shed where Algonquin was launched in 1983. The name for the self-announced "new trade publishing house" for "books of quality" was that of a favorite boat of his, since sold, a love affair he evoked in his 1991, and still in print, Small Craft Advisory (Atlantic Monthly).
Soon to turn 79 and now a hobbyist painter of nautical watercolors good enough to have several gallery shows in the Carolinas and Virginia, he attributes his passions for writing, boats and baseball to growing up in the old South Carolina port city of Charleston. Looking up to the examples of his father's brothers, one of whom was a Charleston newspaper editor while the other was a journalist turned Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, the writing career he initially aspired to was in newspapers, not books. That's just what he began pursuing at small papers in New Jersey and Virginia and with the Associated Press in the latter state's capital city after graduating there from the University of Richmond and completing army service, an era recounted in last year's An Honorable Estate: My Time in the Working Press (LSU).
Rubin enrolled under the G.I. Bill in a writing seminar at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. But taking a year off from newspaper work led to earning a Ph.D. and becoming the editor of the Hopkins Review. "I hadn't meant to get a doctorate, but I've always been glad I got that thing because it is, in effect, a union card for college and university teachers." In fact, it proved invaluable when he left his final newspaper job to begin teaching at Hollins, a Virginia women's college.
The appointment finally placed him in an environment that unleashed his multifocused literary interests. "In some ways," he says, "my best time was my 10 years at Hollins." Affectionate anecdotes are still told by his former students there but, says Rubin, "I doubt I taught anyone at Hollins—or later at UNC—to write. Lee Smith is always saying that without my guidance at Hollins she could never have become a writer. But actually, that came from within herself. All I've ever done is to try to recognize talent and encourage its development in whatever way I could."
That was also his goal at Algonquin in trying to establish an alternative to the New York publishing gauntlet for promising young Southern writers. Founded with Shannon Ravenel—a student of his at Hollins who went on to edit Houghton Mifflin's Best American Short Stories series—and a group of backers, Rubin's independent enterprise, a fast-starter at winning national notice for its books, ultimately floundered amid marketing and financial difficulties and was bought by Workman the year he retired from UNC and two years before he exited from his creation.
"I have mixed feelings about Algonquin," he candidly says in hindsight. "We succeeded in launching the writing careers of Clyde Edgerton, Jill McCorkle, Larry Brown and Kaye Gibbons, which was in line with what Shannon and I set out to do. But we were far less successful on the business side."
A Secret Jewish Youth
The early background of his immediate paternal forebears in Charleston was also elusive until recently, primarily due to their refusal to talk about impoverished childhoods during which the family's three boys were sent to live at a Jewish orphanage in Atlanta. "I fictionalized these people in The Golden Weather, but my new book is an attempt to find a better understanding of them and explain to myself their nuances, all of which are reflected in me. They were Reform Jews living in a small Southern city where the Jewish community might be thought of as very different from that in New York, say. For example, when I meet people, I don't think about whether they are Jewish or not, and that's because of how I was raised in Charleston where I had many non-Jewish friends. But although my father, aunts and uncles weren't especially religious, I think religion, in the sense of believing in always doing something as well as you can, had a lot to do with their lives, and thus my own."
But will My Father's People be his final book? Despite his ambiguous answer, Ravenel, who is cited in the affecting memoir's acknowledgments as giving its "manuscript a close, skillful, and imaginative reading," thinks that is unlikely, noting that Rubin "is always at his computer working when I stop by for a visit." Still, the energetic septuagenarian insists any future book will not be Southern literature, about which he says, "I've had my say."