The Legacy of Louis D. Rubin, Jr.
Louis Rubin arrived at Hollins in 1957 from Johns Hopkins University, where he had earned a Ph.D. in the aesthetics of literature. Rubin was primed to change the creative atmosphere at Hollins. At many universities and colleges around the country, post-war students, going back to school on the G.I. Bill, had been clamoring for a program of study that connected the critical study of literature with the more concrete craft of writing. Johns Hopkins had responded by offering the Writing Seminars. As a graduate student Rubin had participated in the seminars and then instituted the same model at Hollins: an instructor with just a handful of students, discussing one another's work in the New Criticism vocabulary that highlighted the use of metaphor, the writer’s voice, and form.
"I know that when in the spring of 1948 I became interested in doing graduate work I looked around for creative writing programs and the only ones I could find were Iowa, Johns Hopkins, and Boston University," Rubin said. "Creative writing was definitely not a customary part of literary study on the graduate level." Not much had changed by the time he arrived at Hollins after working as a reporter at various newspapers and as an editorial writer for the Richmond News Leader. With fewer than a handful of creative writing programs in the country, it was unheard of for a small, liberal arts college, let alone a women’s college, to support a graduate writing seminar. Rubin, however, believed he could create a program at Hollins that stressed writing as a discipline and profession. He was persuasive, winning over the college’s administration, especially its forward-thinking president, John R. Everett, and Everett's successor, John A. Logan. Both presidents gave Rubin the freedom to shape the program as he saw fit. For Rubin that meant two things: adding a master's degree and attracting working writers to come to Hollins as writers-in-residence.
"When I proposed the M.A. it was to be a one-year program with no separate courses for graduate students, designed for students who were just out of college, and interested in spending a year in which they could concentrate on writing and reading poetry and fiction," he said. To this end Rubin saw the three or four graduate students admitted to the program as an enhancement to the undergraduate creative writing program. "We had some extremely talented undergraduate writing students," Rubin explained, "and not least among my motives was the notion that having a few young men on campus who thought about writing fiction and poetry in terms of a professional career might serve to encourage our better students to view their own lives in terms of professional careers."
From its inception, then, the Hollins creative writing program has focused on community and forming strong relationships between and among faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students, another aspect that distinguished Hollins’ program from those at bigger, research-driven institutions.
No one valued these relationships more highly than Rubin. "The Hollins undergraduate students were the best I’d ever had…they were a remarkable group," he observed. "Some have become lifelong friends." In 1963, when Rubin published The Faraway Country: Writers of the Modern South, he thanked not only his colleagues, but also four of his Hollins students: Katherine "Katie" Letcher Lyle '59, Shannon Ravenel '60, Elizabeth "Buffy" Seydel Morgan '60, and Anna Sevier Morgan '62. Rubin helped senior undergraduate Sevier publish her first novel, Porphyry. Twenty years later, long after Rubin had moved on to Chapel Hill, Ravenel and Rubin started Algonquin Press, which has proven to be one of the few successful trade publishers outside of New York. Two of the first five books that Algonquin published were written by Hollins alumnae.
Even with all of its early success, it is unlikely that Hollins' program would have become the nationally recognized program that it is today if Rubin hadn't aggressively recruited working writers to come here for one-year stints as writers-in-residence. In 1963 William Golding arrived in Virginia from England. His novel Lord of the Flies had been in print for seven years, but it hadn’t become a bestseller until 1963. Golding's celebrity status propelled Hollins into the national eye. The following year some of the most celebrated writers of the second half of the twentieth century—Flannery O'Connor, Karl Shapiro, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle, George Garrett, and Howard Nemerov—streamed through campus.
Colleagues and students describe Louis Rubin as energetic and generous. The early success enjoyed by the writing program and its graduates is a testament to this characterization. When asked what might account for the program’s success and reputation, rather than expound on his own contributions, Rubin demurred. "If Hollins and those who were part of it were removed from my experience, my life would have been a greatly diminished thing." Rubin did, however, take credit for one thing. "All in all," he said, "I think that hiring Richard Dillard may have been my chief contribution to the success of the Hollins writing program."
—Daniel Edward Nemes M.F.A. '11, from his article "In the Beginning," spring 2010 Hollins magazine