Obituary: Louis Rubin Jr. / Author and publisher devoted to American Southern writing

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Louis D. Rubin Jr., 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, died Saturday in Pittsboro, N.C. He was 89.

Mr. Rubin had heart and kidney ailments, his brother, Manning, said in confirming the death.

After starting his professional life as a journalist, a trade he once described as a "literary entree, the chance to commence a vocation in writing," Mr. Rubin eventually found newspaper work stifling and turned to literature.

He wrote three novels, which drew on his upbringing as a Jew in the South between the world wars: "The Golden Weather" (1961), "Surfaces of a Diamond" (1981) and "The Heat of the Sun" (1995). He also wrote personal histories, including "An Honorable Estate" (2001), a memoir of his newspaper days, and "My Father's People: A Family of Southern Jews" (2002).

But in a life of prolific production -- he wrote or edited more than 30 books -- his greatest contribution was as a cultural historian and critic who became, as the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities described him, "perhaps the person most responsible for the emergence of Southern literature as a field of scholarly inquiry."

In 1953, Mr. Rubin edited, with Robert D. Jacobs, a collection of essays, "Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South," which many critics have considered seminal in the definition of Southern writing as a distinct regional literature. The two edited a second collection, "South: Modern Literature in Its Cultural Setting," in 1961.

Among Mr. Rubin's own critical works are "Thomas Wolfe: The Weather of His Youth"; "The Wary Fugitives," a study of Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson and Robert Penn Warren, four of the poets who established the literary magazine Fugitive at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s; and "The Faraway Country: Writers of the Modern South," a 1963 collection that includes essays about William Faulkner's legacy and the promise of a young William Styron.

Over more than three decades of teaching, first at Hollins College (now Hollins University) in Virginia and later at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, he was mentor to a host of writers with distinctive Southern voices and now familiar names, among them Annie Dillard, Lee Smith, Kaye Gibbons and Jill McCorkle.

With another student, Shannon Ravenel, Mr. Rubin founded Algonquin Books in his Chapel Hill home in 1983. Created to be a hospitable alternative to the publishing houses at the insular nexus of the industry in New York, Algonquin has published dozens of writers of fiction and nonfiction, both Southern and not, and even a few New Yorkers.

In the opening essay of "Faraway Country," Mr. Rubin wrote about what he considered the characteristics of modern Southern literature. As the 20th century proceeded, he suggested, Southern writers felt themselves both part of and apart from the rest of American culture.

Louis Decimus Rubin Jr. was born in Charleston, S.C., on Nov. 19, 1923. His father, Henry, was an electrical contractor whose business foundered during the Depression but who, after moving to Richmond, had a second career as a popular amateur meteorologist known in Virginia as the Weather Wizard.

Mr. Rubin spent two years at the University of Charleston and then served in the Army during World War II, working for the base newspaper at Fort Benning, Ga. After the war he finished his bachelor's degree at the University of Richmond and then worked as a reporter and editor for newspapers in New Jersey and Virginia and for The Associated Press.

He later entered the writing program at Johns Hopkins, earning an M.A. and a Ph.D. (His Thomas Wolfe book began as his dissertation.)

In addition to his brother, Mr. Rubin is survived by his wife, Eva Redfield, whom he met at Johns Hopkins and married in 1951; a sister, Joan Schoenes; two sons, Robert and William; and two grandchildren.

"The nature of the daily editorial format was inhibiting me from communicating the complexity of a topic," Mr. Rubin wrote about why he had given up journalism for the literary life.

In his later work he indeed did not shy from the complexities of Southern culture, including its painfully ingrained racial prejudice, even when examining himself. Looking back on his return to the South after his sojourn in New Jersey, he chastised himself for having idealized the region.


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