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Louis D. Rubin Jr.’s Fellowship

In memory of Louis D. Rubin Jr., who passed earlier this week, here is a piece I wrote about him and the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 2007.

William Faulkner had been gone for a quarter-century when the brightest stars in Southern letters first convened to celebrate the joys of life and literature. Called the Fellowship of Southern Writers, they’ve met every two years since 1989 to kindle a sense of kinship and try to unravel the enigmatic question Faulkner posed in “Absalom, Absalom!”:

“Tell me about the South. What’s it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?”

But the story of the South has never been just moonlight and magnolias, and the fellowship, despite the festivity of its gatherings, has always been haunted by death. That fact is much on the mind of one of its founding members, Louis D. Rubin Jr.

In the cluttered study of his Fearrington Village home, Rubin, 83, describes the vintage photograph of literary giants who helped him start the fellowship. His voice fills with rueful playfulness born from long years of looking at life at head-on, this is how it is, as he moves across the bottom row:

“Cleanth Brooks, he’s dead. Blyden Jackson, he’s dead. Elizabeth Spencer. Andrew Lytle he’s dead.” Moving to the back row of standing figures, Rubin continues:

“Lewis P. Simpson, he’s dead. George Core, George Garrett. Fred Chappell. Shelby Foote he’s dead. C. Van Woodward he’s dead. Walter Sullivan he’s dead. Myself, going fast, and Sally Robinson.”

Rubin, the author of more than 50 books and an editorial genius who helped launch the careers of Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Kaye Gibbons, Jill McCorkle and John Barth among others, is now focusing his boundless energies on ensuring that the fellowship does not go the way of its founders.

“I believe the original reasons we had for starting this group to recognize that there is a thing called Southern literature, to honor those who have defined it and to recognize those who are redefining its purpose and legacy every day are still valid,” he says. “To continue and expand those efforts, we have to get our house in order.”

Throughout its history, the fellowship has concentrated on three main tasks, starting with organizing its biennial conference at its home base in Chattanooga, Tenn. The group also awards eight prizes each year, mostly to younger writers who are placing a stamp on Southern poetry, drama and fiction. The other task is maintaining the elite membership, which is capped at 50. This has kept the all-volunteer group plenty busy.

“Writers live complicated lives,” Rubin said with a laugh. “Most have teaching duties and their own work to attend to as well as the occasional divorce, health scare and other personal problems that seem to go with the territory.”

But he’s no longer satisfied with relying on the initiative of a few members. So last month, the fellowship jettisoned its informal structure and elected its first board of directors to help transform the group from one that bestows honors to an active outfit that spreads the good news of Southern literature. Among the board’s first acts was the appointment of the fellowship’s first executive director, Susan Robinson, to help coordinate and publicize the group’s work.

“We want to raise the visibility of the awards and widen the net of recognition for good writing,” said novelist Richard Bausch, the group’s chancellor and a member of the first board. The 10-year plan seeks to ramp up the fellowship’s writers-in-schools efforts, launch a program of readings/conferences around the country, publish a newsletter about its activities and organize fund-raising campaigns to pay for it all.

While the Fellowship is responding to its own aims and concerns, its push reflects a larger movement among arts groups across the country. As funding sources have dried up and mainstream media outlets have curtailed coverage, many organizations have discovered the empowerment of self-reliance.

“There is a new type of aggressiveness on the part of arts organizations as they realize that if they don’t market themselves, if they don’t do outreach, no one will do it for them,” said Felicia Knight, director of communications for the National Endowment for the Arts.

One example: For much of its 33-year history, the National Book Critics Circle like the Fellowship focused its efforts on awards. Four years ago, with newspaper space for reviews shrinking, it began sending members to book conferences, sponsoring literary panels and maintaining a Web site, Critical Mass, as a source for news and views about good writing. The result: Paid membership has more than doubled, to 716.

The NEA’s Knight observed: “After years of despair, arts groups are taking up the challenge and telling the public why their work matters, why it’s worth supporting.”

Finding a voice

The landscape of Southern literature is ever-changing, but Rubin says the forces that necessitated the fellowship have not abated. For one thing, a narrow focus on Northeastern writers persists in New York’s powerhouse book world.

“Last year, when The New York Times named the best novels of the last 25 years, they asked very few Southerners to vote, and consequently, very few works by Southerners made the list,” he said. “We have tried to provide a forum, especially for young writers, so their work wouldn’t be judged by people who thought everyday life in the South was freakish or unimportant.”

Hillsborough essayist Hal Crowther underscored this point in a phone interview: “About 10 years ago I asked this really well educated editor, a good friend, a New Yorker, ‘Which Southern writers do you like?’ He couldn’t come up with anybody.”

Such disregard helped fuel the fellowship, which Rubin said was the brainchild of the literary critic Cleanth Brooks (1906-94), who had spent his life trumpeting the work of others.

“He talked about it for years, but I resisted it because I knew it was going to be a lot of work,” said Rubin, who founded Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill. “After Cleanth’s wife died, he brought it up again, and I figured it was the right thing to do.”

Its logical home was one of the region’s two main literary hubs, Vanderbilt University or UNC-Chapel Hill. Both were rejected, Rubin said, “because they were associated with particular groups of writers, and we didn’t want to appear to be associated with any cult or writing center.”

Impressed by the Southern Conference on Literature, organized by the Arts & Education Council of Tennessee, Rubin contacted the group. It leapt at the chance to host the fellowship and establish a symbiotic relationship. Since 1989, the council has hosted the group at its biennial Southern Conference on Literature in Chattanooga. In turn, the fellowship’s literary firepower has added a major draw to the event.

The conference has enabled Southern writers to meet their readers and their heroes. Tar Heel novelist Clyde Edgerton remembers walking into a small room two decades ago when he was just starting out.

“There were Eudora Welty, Walker Percy and James Dickey,” he said. “I just stood there looking at the backs of the heads of these people, my literary gods.”

Doris Betts, the Chatham County writer, recalls eating breakfast with Mississippi writer Ellen Douglas. “I’d read her for years but had never met her,” Betts said. “It was such a privilege to spend time with her.”

Another board member, retired UNC-CH professor John Shelton Reed, remembers drinking bourbon with poet Andrew Lytle. So does Edgerton: “He loved talking about bourbon almost as much he loved drinking it.”

Edgerton, who plays a mean banjo, also remembers the jam sessions with various artists/musicians, including Rubin on harmonica.

Sense of community

It’s more accurate to say that the fellowship tapped into, rather than created, a strong sense of community among Southern writers. But it is hard to overstate the role it plays in maintaining that sense of camaraderie.

At a time when the idea of the South, not to mention Southern literature, can seem archaic, when the arrival of newcomers and the rise of global economy are transforming traditional culture, the fellowship’s gatherings offer stark reminders of kinship.

“You get in the same room with all these folks, and you realize how much you have in common,” Reed said. “There’s no question that the humor is similar and different from what it is in the rest of the country. There are shared assumptions, things that go without saying, the joke ahead of the joke.”

Edgerton adds: “The fellowship meetings have become like a family reunion, where you run into people you don’t see but once every two years but still feel close to them. You end up talking about history and names and funny family stories and food, always food, because that’s what Southerners do.”

The organization hopes to spread those feelings of regional identity and pride that sense of fellowship its members feel with writers and readers across the South. Rubin believes its reorganization will allow it to better fulfill its core mission: to celebrate and encourage literary greatness.

“When we started the Fellowship of Southern Writers, we wanted to create a group that would outlive us all,” Rubin said. “I do believe we are well on our way.”

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