With a mix of sadness and honor, the department notes the death of Professor Louis Rubin, who passed away on November 16th in Pittsboro at the age of 89. Louis Rubin was a long-time professor at UNC Chapel Hill as well as a novelist, essayist, editor, and founder of the Algonquin Books publishing label. Professor Rubin's legacy is far-reaching and his passing has been noted in a myriad of publications, including the New York Times and Algonquin Books.
In memory of Professor Louis Rubin's recent passing, several department members have also written tributes to their colleague and friend:
Professor Joseph M. Flora:
The decision of Louis D. Rubin, Jr., to leave Hollins College in 1967 for a professorship at UNC would impact his new department and his new community in extraordinary measure. He came to Chapel Hill because he appreciated the department’s strengths in American literature—American literature with a Southern accent. And he came because he wished to work with graduate students. At Hollins he had created a thriving undergraduate creative writing program that was becoming legendary, and UNC had no desire to curb that passion for creative writing. In a sense, Louis had to surrender nothing. Indeed, many of his Hollins students would eventually follow him to North Carolina—to live, to write, to teach, and to support the arts in their communities.
But no one had a crystal ball to reveal what Louis’s UNC tenure would bring. With his bear-like demeanor and brusk voice, Louis Rubin could be intimidating. Junior faculty and graduate students felt it most. But graduate students took his courses, and most of them learned what a kind bear he was. He inspired many of them to specialize in the literature of the South—and, yes, he’d be happy to direct their dissertations and get them published.
Colleagues also learned what an affable and generous man inhabited the burly exterior. He regularly invited junior and senior colleagues to join him in this or that enterprise: Louis was always conceiving of new ventures that would honor Southern writers and promote understanding of Southern writing. He team-taught creative writing with Max Steele, and Carolina undergraduates soon joined the Hollins brigade of Rubin loyalists. Louis would play an important role in the expansion of UNC’s creative writing program. He vigorously supported efforts to bring more women into the English department, and no voice was more influential than his in the push that brought the first African Americans to the department’s faculty roster—Blyden Jackson, Thadious Davis, Trudier Harris, Lee Greene.
I was one of the junior faculty who early got to see Louis up close. A reader on many of the dissertations he directed, I also served with him on many oral examinations. (Examiners take turns questioning the candidate, but Louis needed activity other than listening to others question. So usually his black felt pen drew portraits, once of me.) He encouraged my interests in Southern writing. Though I never took a formal course from him, I count Louis among my most influential teachers.
Eventually chair of the department, I benefited immensely from his wisdom and counsel. The longer I knew Louis, the more my admiration grew. As editor and critic, he shaped the Southern American Literature discipline. His books and articles, his fiction and journalism summoned attention. My colleague Bob Bain said that Louis “came out of the womb with his hands on the typewriter.” But Louis was never a careerist. He prized the genuine and scorned pretension. His democratic instincts ran strong. Always, he had time for friends and camaraderie. He had been wise in choosing Eva for his wife—and he knew it. Their home was a hospitable one that knew much laughter. It was also a safe haven for their sons and their friends. In the busiest years, Louis—longtime avid fan of “the American game”—still had time to coach his sons’ baseball team. He knew his own strengths, of course, but time and again, I was struck by his humility. Throughout the academy and in his department, Louis occupies a special place among the giants.
November 21, 2013
Professor Connie Eble:
Before women were welcomed as faculty members outside of women’s colleges, Louis Rubin understood “women’s liberation” and mentored and supported women students and faculty colleagues. I never saw Louis at a rally in support of women’s causes or ever knew him to serve on any of the numerous University committees created in the 1970s to address gender iniquities. As a matter of fact, I am not sure that I ever had a conversation with him about these matters. But I always knew that he had my back. And that was no small assurance for a young woman trying to succeed in academia.
When I joined the Department of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in fall 1971, I was the only woman in a tenure-track faculty position in a department of sixty males. Doris Betts, Daphne Athas, and Carolyn Kizer were already on the faculty, all Lecturers in creative writing. To address the gender imbalance and to respond to the protests of female graduate students, in fall 1971 the department also hired as fixed-term Instructors ten newly-minted female PhDs from universities like UC-Davis, Vanderbilt, Emory, and UC-Berkeley. Two of those, Margaret Anne O’Connor and Joy Kasson, were moved to tenure track positions within a couple of years. So I would say that 1971 was a very good year for the Department. However, at that time there was no affirmative action, no spousal hiring, no courses on female writers and little inclusion of female writers in any literature courses, no women’s studies as a discipline. No woman voted on my tenure and promotion until it reached the level of the Board of Trustees, which had one female member.
When I heard about Louis Rubin’s death, I recalled a newspaper column that he wrote during my first year on the faculty, Louis regularly contributed a light-hearted column to the Chapel Hill Weekly, usually about fishing, baseball, trains, dogs, or the like. But his column of January 23, 1972, is the one I remember forty-one years later. With the help of the staff of the North Carolina Collection, I located that column. A copy is included here. It lives up to my memory of it. Louis’ straightforward description of the challenges educated women faced was inspired by a pregnant graduate student. Almost forty-two years later, that student has retired following a distinguished teaching career at a liberal arts college; her expected child, a girl, is now a faculty member at MIT, with a biology laboratory and a daughter of her own. Thanks for the confidence, Louis.
November 22, 2013
Professor Fred Hobson:
The way I can best understand Louis Rubin, professionally speaking, is to approach him not, or at least not exclusively, as a literary scholar--although he is generally acknowledged as the most prominent figure in southern literary studies over the past half-century--but rather as a figure in the much earlier tradition of Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and H. L. Mencken: journalist, belletrist, editor, publisher, general man of letters--a heavy hitter but also a sort of utility infielder of the literary vocation. Like his predecessors, he began as a newspaperman, filled with the romance of the printing press and the thrill of being at the center of the action; like them, he was driven by tremendous energy, a deep desire for self-expression, and a great need to speak to a larger audience; like Twain and Mencken, he was attracted to the play of language--the sheer fun of writing. Although he taught in an English department for more than thirty years--principally at Hollins College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill--there was always in Louis a desire to connect with a broader world, to engage (as he once put it) in "the hurly-burly, the give-and-take of everyday middle-class experience," to rub shoulders with people "who were interested in politics, sports, and the like . . ."
That's Louis the writer - and he wrote some three or four dozen books (literary criticism, biography, memoir, fiction, memoir, and much more), nine of them after retiring at age 66 (that's at least twice as many as the average productive scholar turns out in a career). But he was more than writer. When he saw the need for a journal in the field of southern letters, he founded it (the Southern Literary Journal in 1967). When he saw the need for a a publishing house that would give a hearing to young, talented writers who might not get such a hearing in New York, he began it (Algonquin Books). As a mentor he was unequaled: dozens of novelists and scholars and writers of other varieties will testify to that. He had his hand in any number of things, and he did them all exceptionally well. As one might say--focusing both on his many accomplishments and his primary area of scholarly inquiry--he was a Southern Renaissance man.
November 25, 2013