HONORABLE ESTATE -
MY TIME IN THE WORKING PRESS
by Willard Manus
There won't be many more books like AN HONORABLE ESTATE --MY TIME IN THE WORKING PRESS by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Rubin's subject is
newspapermen. Not just reporters but all the people who worked on papers, including those who copy-edited the stories, did the layouts, set the type and ran the printing presses. Newspapers are still published but in such a high-tech way as to make obsolete most of the craftsmen who are at the heart of Rubin's concerns. Without them, the newspaper trade has become as dull and colorless as the computer industry.
Rubin was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1923. At the age of ten he published his own newspaper, The Bulletin, typing it in two columns on his father's portable. In high school he worked for four years on that institution's newspaper, combining this with part-time work on the Charleston Evening Post, of which his uncle Manning was city editor. Rubin wrote about high school sports but received no pay, just a byline.
His first salaried job (at $8 a week) came right after he graduated from college in 1941, when he became "reporter, sports editor and general factotum" for a Charleston weekly. Then came the army, where he was put to work writing news stories and editing a newspaper at Fort Benning, Georgia. When WW II ended, he took a reporter's job on The Bergen Evening Record in Hackensack, New Jersey. He was 22 years old.
The pay was poor, the hours long and hard, but journalism had hooked him from a young age. In order to understand why, he writes, you would have to have been there. "The newsroom and the print shop were able to lure some few of us while young by means of a certain near-aphrodisiac that was every bit as potent and evocative as the taste of scalloped wafers steeped in lime-flower tea. It was the aroma of printer's ink, tangy and sour-sweet and tinctured with the somwhat acrid odor of newsprint, and it functioned for our kind as a kind of musk. It could entice otherwise-respectable youths to become enamored of careers in the reporting and writing of the news."
Rubin worked as a newspaperman from 1946-57 for a variety of periodicals, serving not only as reporter but copy editor, rewrite man, book reviewer and editorial writer. His recollections of those days make for enjoyable and informative reading, especially when he describes some of the characters with and for whom he worked. On one paper, for example, "the night foreman who operated one of the linotype machines was a deaf mute. To communicate with him it was necessary to write out what one wished to say. Another of the linotype operators was given to strong drink, and sometimes came to work incapacitated."
Rubin's heroes were such fellow reporters (on the Baltimore Sun) as Bill Gresham and Russell Baker (who later became a columnist for The New
York Times), and Jack Kilpatrick, editorial writer for the Richmond Newspapers. Kilpo, as Rubin calls him, was a disciple of H.L. Mencken;
though a conservative, especially on questions of politics and integration, "he wrote with roguishness and exuberance" and peppered his prose with "wit, irony, satire, drollery, inspired invective, and farce."
Rubin's liberal views clashed with the editorial stance of the Richmond
Newspapers and were a factor in his decision to leave the business. Fond as he was of it, he knew that it no longer satisfied his deepest need, which was to become a literary writer with a special interest in history and southern fiction. Consequently, he went back to college and got an academic degree, enabling him to become a teacher, scholar and, eventually, a publisher (he founded Algonquin Books in 1982 and served as editorial director until 1991).
In looking back, Rubin makes an honest but painful admission: that he
did not have what it takes to become a topnotch journalist: the "kind of
practicality of approach" and lack of inhibition that allows one to write with "a full use of imagination or irony."
He was not really fit, he confides, "for the vocation that since childhood I had intended for myself." (Louisiana State University Press, 216 pages, $22.50 hdbd).