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Memoir Review     


An Honorable Estate: My Time in the Working Press
by Louis D. Rubin Jr.
Louisiana State University Press, 2001
ISBN:  0-8071-2732-9

When I first heard my friend Shelley Fraser Mickle speak about her mentor Louis D. Rubin Jr. in a reverent manner, I wondered what there really was with this guy: is he really the great writer-teacher to be revered? I look back on my own early career as a student of Hudson Strode with some feeling of reverence, but nothing compared to the way Shelley thinks of Rubin, who was her editor at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill and who obviously taught her a great deal. 

Now, with the reading of this memoir, I understand better my friend’s reverence toward her editor. With the sentence, “A calling to write the news, to put into print what was important or interesting or amusing about a community’s life, was held to be an activity fully as valuable, and as consecrated and nonpartisan, as that of healing the sick, teaching the young, enforcing the law and meting out justice, caring for the poor, ministering to the sinful, or creating works of art,” I am struck by the author’s genuine feeling for his career as a journalist. While acknowledging an inner strength as a professional, the young newsman of the early 20th Century knew that he was “a salaried employee” with a pay scale that “ranged from poor to abominable.”

Furthermore, entering journalism, he explains, was to some, like Hemingway, Dreiser, and Sherwood Anderson, to name only a few, a step toward a career in literature -- from 1875 to around 1950. And so it was with Louis D. Rubin Jr., who not only entered the profession but read every major journalistic source he could find and made valuable use of the information he discovered.

As a teenager he wrote sports for a Charleston paper. After college he worked for The Bergen Record in New Jersey. At Hackensack he rode a fire truck and recounts the experience with dramatic emphasis on pertinent detail. Covering the small community of Teaneck, he discovered the importance of these details, the strength and weakness of the way he wrote about local politics and the people with power.

Rubin moved on to Staunton, Va., where he became city editor, where he learned even more about local politics and personalities, where he experienced first hand the extraordinary operation of a small-town newspaper.

With poetic precision, Rubin not only recalls interesting anecdotes in An Honorable Estate, he explores the journalistic territory of mid-20th Century America through his inimitable vision as he began work with the Associated Press in Richmond. Beginning to realize his work was a way to earn a living while attempting other styles of writing, i.e, fiction, he studied Thomas Wolfe, Walt Whitman, and others. From advice of his uncle, a newsman who had become a dramatist, he learned “to divide his day into two days.” He made the most of his time in every respect.

During an interlude from journalism, Rubin became editor of the Hopkins Review in Baltimore. He returned to daily newspapers as a copy editor, gaining experience that would stand him in good stead later. A good writer from the beginning, Rubin used every iota of observation with each new adventure. Finally, returning to his southern home of Richmond, where he became an editor writing editorials, Rubin ran head-on into the stubborn brilliance of James J. Kilpatrick, who had succeeded Douglas Southall Freeman as editor of the Richmond News-Leader. As associate editor, Rubin in essence became Kilpatrick’s assistant.

With Kilpatrick waving the banner of Interposition, the anti-desegregation philosophy of the Senator Harry Byrd machine, Rubin found himself in the backyard of those who thought contrary to his own philosophy.

Although the two men remained friends -- and Rubin characterizes Kilpatrick as an honorable gentleman, a thoughtful intellectual, and a complete professional, they had opposing views when it came to basic ideas about the South. Kilpatrick was a true believer in staunch conservatism and Rubin believed segregation was wrong. An avowed Democrat, Rubin supported Adlai Stevenson’s candidacy for president when the News-Leader backed a little-known third-party conservative, finding even incumbent Dwight Eisenhower too liberal. As a result, he found himself surface-writing for the newspaper and began thinking that “literature, not journalism, had become my chosen vocation.” 

With little short of praise for his old boss and friend Kilpatrick, Rubin left Richmond after 16 months there. He went on to teach at Hollins College and later at the University of North Carolina. An Honorable Estate is a deeply interesting account of his newspaper days, filled with rich reflective prose. It is a small gem, an understanding and understated recalling of days that were not always filled with romantic wonder. As I read his words, I began to understand why my friend speaks so highly of her mentor.


Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews

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