Louis Rubin leaves a treasure chest of letters

Dec. 07, 2013 @ 09:19 AM

Late last month, a headline in The New York Times announced “Louis D. Rubin Jr., Publisher, Scholar and Champion of Southern Writers, Dies at 89.” Similarly at the top of a story in The Washington Post, “Louis D. Rubin, fount of Southern writing, dies at 89.”
When our longtime Chapel Hill neighbor, Louis Rubin, died Nov. 16, three days before his 90th birthday, some of us learned for the first time about his national reputation as a teacher, editor, publisher, scholar, definer and promoter of Southern literature, and mentor to some of our favorite writers.
Writing in the Times, Bruce Weber described Rubin “whose wide-ranging career as a man of letters -- he was a teacher, novelist, essayist, editor and publisher, among other things -- was devoted to the practice and promotion of American Southern writing,”
In the Post, Matt Schudel described Rubin as “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.”
Rubin wrote or edited countless books, including three novels, several memoirs, and books on Southern literature so important that, as Weber pointed out, he has been described as “perhaps the person most responsible for the emergence of Southern literature as a field of scholarly inquiry.”
Folks in Chapel Hill have many more reasons to be grateful to Rubin. As a teacher at Hollins and Carolina, and later as a publisher at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, he discovered, nurtured, and promoted many of our favorite writers including Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, Jill McCorkle, Robert Morgan and Clyde Edgerton.
Shannon Ravenel, who co-founded Algonquin Books with Rubin in 1983, told me about the day she met Rubin in 1957. She was a sophomore at Hollins. He was a new professor teaching American literature and writing. As she signed up for his course, he noticed “Ravenel” on her name tag and asked her if she came from Charleston, his hometown. They quickly made several Charleston connections and began an association that lasted until his death.
Although he was only 35 years old, Rubin was already hard of hearing and became increasingly uncomfortable in conversation. He preferred to write down his thoughts, and he wrote prolifically to his students, authors, and friends. These long letters are now treasures.
Ravenel shared a long letter Rubin wrote to an author to turn down a book that had been offered to Algonquin for publication. Rubin explained in great detail why the book did not work for him. Then he suggested that the author share the book with other publishers who might have a different reaction. Pages later, at the end, he told the author that if no other publisher accepted the book to come back so they could discuss a contract for the author’s next book.
“There must be thousands of letters like that,” Ravenel told me.
If they could be rounded up and published, Louis Rubin’s critical and encouraging words would continue to nourish writers and students of writing for many years.
Note: A conversation with Shannon Ravenel about Louis Rubin is available at: http://chapelboro.com/category/wchl/lifestyle-weekly/whos-talking/

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.