Category: World of Letters

Editor Sarah Miller on Wilderness and the American Mind

Sarah Miller—

Right before Yale College’s course “shopping period” at the beginning of each semester, I visited the campus bookstores. Among the best parts of each new semester was an excuse to buy new books, and I was drawn to more than a few courses based solely on the corresponding titles on display at the York Street Barnes & Noble or our beloved former Labyrinth Books. One such course was a seminar on the history of environmental justice taught by a new visiting faculty member, and now a Yale University Press author, Paul Sabin. The book that drew me in was Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind.

3rd edition copy of Wilderness and the American Mind

Wilderness was then in its third edition, published in 1982; its unremarkable jacket featured 70s era sans serif type and cattails along a lake. It wasn’t the jacket that drew me in, but the title, and particularly the questions embedded therein: is there really such a thing as the “American mind”? If so, what does wilderness have to do with it? I spent several weeks with Wilderness during Sabin’s course and came to admire Nash’s accessible, direct writing style, as well as his prescient insight into the efforts that would become our present day environmental and conservation movements. I toted it around in the dining halls and read it on the city bus, dog-earing and underlining. It was one of those books that I had to keep, that remained a companion and reference long after the class was over.

Waiting in the lobby for my first interview at Yale University Press, I noticed that same edition of Wilderness on a bookshelf. Only then did I run my eyes down the spine and notice the publisher. Years later, as I began to work on our course books program here at YUP, I wrote to Nash about reissuing his now classic text as a fifth edition. For months, he didn’t respond. I left messages at the UC Santa Barbara Environmental Studies office. I sent old-fashioned printed letters. Finally I wrote with my story of picking a class based on his book, of its role in piquing my interest in environmental history, of toting it around with me from country to country, apartment to apartment, all these years. And this time he replied.

Wilderness and the American Mind, 5th edNash told me that he submitted Wilderness to Yale University Press as an unrevised doctoral dissertation, when he was not much older than I was when I first read it. The year was 1965, the peak of the African-American Civil Rights Movement and U.S.  military engagement in Vietnam. Environmental concerns were not making headlines. Nash not only examines all of American environmental history but also boldly offers an historically-framed call to action. Through evidence, Nash demonstrates that the positive shift in American ideas about wilderness does not independently ensure any level of protection for wild places. It takes broader movements and efforts to save them.

Published in 1967, Wilderness and the American Mind was met with immediate critical acclaim. Though its influence would only be felt over time, as the movements Nash traced continue to grow in importance. Now more than four decades later, Nash’s book is an essential classroom text in environmental history, American history, and environmental studies, warranting our brand new fifth edition. This trajectory has also earned the book its oft-cited descriptor as “the Book of Genesis for conservationists.” And, much less remarkably, it was the first of many books I would come to love from Yale University Press.

YUP Editor Sarah MillerSarah Miller is College Editor for Yale University Press. 

The Rise and Fall of Urbanism: Douglas W. Rae’s City

Settled by Puritans in 1638, New Haven, Connecticut was the first planned city in America. A few weeks ago in New Haven, a group of citizens met in the basement of a middle school to discuss the well-being of their town. Issues like “food deserts,” street crime, and health problems came to the forefront as dozens of people discussed the results of a health survey targeting specific neighborhoods, while suggesting possible solutions.

With a storied history, New Haven is the site of both the affluent Yale University as well as significant poverty. This city makes a fascinating case study for examining urban development and decline. In City: Urbanism and Its EndDouglas W. Rae, Richard Ely Professor of Management and professor political science at Yale, explores New Haven’s urban life and in doing so illuminates urban vitality and decline more generally.

City: Urbanism and Its EndParticularly in the 19th century, unexpected and unplanned events such as immigration patterns, transportation development, and shifts in industry and energy came together to form the character of city-life in the United States. Rae notes, “there was nothing inevitable or even predictable about this temporary historical alignment: if God, or nature, should elect to run the same history a thousand times, there is no particularly good reason to expect that the same alignment would recur very often, or at all.” Rae describes how economic, political and social factors came together in America’s newly industrialized cities to form “urbanism.” City describes how these elements slowly and unevenly eroded within that concentrated city space, which he understands as the end of urbanism.

Within this decline, city officials were faced with the task of managing and revitalizing New Haven. Rae gives a fascinating account for these efforts and the personalities of those involved, like Mayor Richard Lee and his administration in the 1950s and ‘60s whom Rae calls “the smartest and most arrogant people who had ever served in the management of so modest an American city.”

Rae brings out the way cities live or die based on incremental shifts over time. “Downward-sloping change in a city typically unfolds without a big bang, without an eruption that makes headlines,” he explains, “but instead by the rapid accumulation of small changes.” These changes are hard to undo as well. Rae explains, “Cities are among the least agile creatures in America’s system of capitalist democracy – they most slowly, reactively, and awkwardly in response to change initiated by more athletic organizations.”

As suburbs grew, expectations and experiences of the city changed too. Commuters on their way to work approached its limits at certain times of day, which Rae describes in appealing prose: “Morning was for the city — its noise, its traffic, its strangers, its cash.”

Any city develops its character from disparate and complicated pressures. Rae paints a picture that is rich in detail and expertise from factors as varied as the inner-workings of municipal government, to the influence of the burgeoning railroad, to the development of capitalist enterprise. In doing this he illustrates not only the history of one city, but both the small and sweeping ways any urban centre is shaped.

In his final chapter, while laying out the factors the city could not control, the author suggests opportunities for action. Rae quotes Bart Giamatti, former president of Yale University:

Human beings made and make cities, and only human beings kill cities, or let them die. And human beings do both – make cities and unmake them – by the same means: by acts of choice.

The Courage to Be

Courage to BeFew thinkers, let alone theologians, have managed to inspire the popular imagination as Paul Tillich did in the mid-twentieth century. As a public intellectual, he has been compared to Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose writings also gained mass appeal and whose lectures attracted large audiences in the 19th century. One of Tillich’s landmark works, The Courage to Be, was originally conceived under the auspices of The Terry Lecture Series at Yale University between 1950–1951. Though the work was published over fifty years ago, it has become a staple in college curricula. His work was relevant in the 1950s as the U.S. enjoyed a postwar boom but suffered from Cold War anxiety; half a century later, it is just as applicable in today as we deal with new and wholly different anxieties that stem from economic turbulence and the global War on Terror. But rather than explore these external anxieties caused by current events, Tillich examines our collective internal anxiety, that of our own existence, which is tied to issues of fate, guilt, and death. This book deals with existentialism and the many lines of flight that derive from this charged term. Tillich explores the idea of anxiety from a variety of religious and secular perspectives. But he ultimately seeks to encourage us—to inspire us with courage—to develop an absolute faith, a state of mind that transcends religious, divine, or mystical connotations. This absolute faith is the ultimate manifestation of courage, a self-affirmation of being in spite of non-being.

 The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.

As our world changes, so does the way we lead our lives in it. But Tillich provides a clear and sage commentary that applies to all generations on the existential challenges we face and how we can develop an honest but hopeful response to the challenges brought forth by anxiety and nonbeing, our lifelong companions. The Courage to Be is available from Yale University Press as part of the Terry Lectures Series publications.

The American Crisis: A Serial Drama

America the Possible: Manifesto for a New EconomyIt would hardly be an understatement to say that environmental advocate Gus Speth has seen it all. An “ultimate insider,” according to TIME, he’s worked for two presidential administrations and the United Nations, founded two environmental organizations, served as an academic dean at an Ivy League institution, and currently teaches environmental law. But what he’s seen is not pretty and an indication of a grim future if we don’t start taking significant steps to change the status quo.

In light of his most recent publication America the Possible: A Manifesto for a New Economy, Speth reminds us—as he did in a recent interview with YUP— that this latest book is the third installment of a progression, “a trilogy perhaps,” that began with Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment and continued with The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. As such, it’s worth revisiting the earlier chapters of this ongoing and troublesome story.

All three books share a similar structure of laying out the problem, the system failure, before delving into the root causes and then providing recommended strategies to confront the issues at hand. Red Sky at Morning takes a close look at our current environmental crisis, focusing on how climate change affecting areas all over the world. What has strained our planet above all is expansion. The world’s population has exploded over the years, urbanization and businesses have grown exponentially, and nations are wealthier than ever before. But as human society grows, our world’s glaciers and forests gradually shrink, particularly in the Amazon rainforest, the lungs of the world; and as our global economy grows, so does the strain on natural resources and the quantity of pollutants.9780300107760

Growth has been the order of the day in our modern psyche, but the effectiveness of the FROG approach (“First Raise Our Growth”) has reached its limit. This attitude of focusing on economic growth and tackling the environment later is no longer effective. We’ve reached a point where in fact reduction is the catalyst for future long-term, sustained growth: our need to reduce carbon emissions, air and water pollution, the global population, the wealth inequality gap, and the gap between science and the public, among others. As as the diversity of this list suggests, scaling back to assure continued growth is a way of thinking that applies to areas besides environmental reform, and Speth elaborates more on the implications of this mindset in The Bridge at the End of the World. While the second installment his American Crisis trilogy also emphasizes reform in environmental policy, he makes it clear that the environmentalist movement essentially champions a reassessment of current economic and governmental paradigms that would affect citizens in a variety of ways.

The Bridge at the Edge of the WorldA key factor in starting us on this ‘reduce to produce’ path is active engagement on all levels. According to Speth, “If there is one country that bears most responsibility for the lack of progress on international environmental issues, it is the United States.” Beyond American support for environmental policy changes, he suggests another potentially effective resource: the creation of a World Environmental Organization (WEO). This organization that would incorporate the work of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) to serve as the environmental branch of the UN similar to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO); it would be an earnest attempt at fully embracing the motivations of GEOpolity—that is to say, encouraging governments to focus the market for environmental and social ends—and strengthen this movement.

While shifting the focus from FROG to a genuine embrace of GEOpolity suggests a “post-growth” economic approach, Speth points out a “post-growth” economy is not synonymous with a “no-growth” economy. In fact, protecting biodiversity has direct benefits in the marketplace: nature-based recreation and eco-tourism have quickly become a booming industry; nature-based jobs in agriculture, fishing, and forestry are still responsible for one of every two jobs worldwide; and the pharmaceutical field always benefits from discoveries of new plant species or the curative properties of existing ones. What’s more, the annual rankings on the Happy Planet Index indicate that countries with lower ecological footprints tend to lead happier lives, regardless of GDP. Costa Rica, one of the most eco-conscious nations in the world consistently ranks at the top while the vastly wealthier United States consistently ranks near the bottom, below countries like Syria and Bangladesh. It’s evident that a genuine push for GEOpolity would have positive effects on our social and psychological environment in addition to our geological and economic environment. And this mission requires support from international bodies as well as state and local institutions.

But above all, GEOpolity and the overall environmentalist movement require the collective support of individuals and businesses. In a world dictated by the JAZZ approach—which involves unscripted, voluntary initiatives from both parties—businesses cater to an environmentally conscious consumer market by supporting sustainable decisions. But this beneficial dialogue can’t happen if the public is under-informed about the gravity of the environmental crisis. For this reason, Speth stresses the need for every student who graduates from school to be environmentally literate, and the need to invest in environmental education. By doing so, we can expect returns in the form of a new, trained generation of environmental professionals and an environmentally conscious corporate landscape. This would strengthen the growing international social movement for change and make clear that environmentalism needs to be actively supported and discussed in governmental forums. Because what this movement champions transcends the preservation of our Earth to also support the proliferation of well-being amongst its inhabitants.

Click here or watch below to listen to Gus Speth give a lecture at Dartmouth College called “System Change Not Climate Change: Manifesto for a New Economy,” in which he discusses ideas from his earlier books as well as his latest publication.

Leila Ahmed and Women’s Voices in Islam

What does it mean for a Muslim woman to wear a veil? What is the role of women in Islam? What is the relationship between culture and faith? Leila Ahmed, an author and professor at Harvard Divinity School, investigates these topics most recently in A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America, for which she won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. In her 1992 book, Women and Gender in Islam, we find Ahmed’s foundational text, in which she combines history, cultural analysis, and religious insight into the under-studied and frequently misunderstood topic of the relationship between womanhood and Islam.

Women and Gender in IslamIn order to unpack this topic, Ahmed explores different strains of influence on the culture into which Islam was born. Deciphering women’s roles from a distant place in history is not a simple task, but Ahmed deftly handles legal and religious material in a nuanced way. She examines the varying legal and economic independence of women in the cultural groups that played a role in the religion’s early social formation, from property ownership to marriage practices. As Ahmed explains, “The type of marriage that Islam legitimized was, like its monotheism, deeply consonant with the sociocultural systems already in place throughout the Middle East.” In looking at this historically, Ahmed helps to tease out the complicated social and political aspects from the ethical and religious tenants of the faith.

What are the ethical and religious ideals of Islam when it comes to women? Ahmed explores how believers have found in Islam’s holy texts a deep egalitarianism that upholds the validity of women’s spirituality alongside that of men. She quotes from the Quran, noting especially that faithful women and men are addressed in the same breath:

“For Muslim men and women, –

For believing men and women,

For devout men and women …

Engage much in God’s praise, –

For them has God prepared

Forgiveness and a great reward.” (Sura 33:35)

As we see in the passage from the Quran, Islamic history hasn’t had one monolithic message to women. “There appear, therefore,” Ahmed explains on early Islamic history, “to be two distinct voices within Islam, and two competing understandings of gender, one expressed in pragmatic ulations for society, the other in the articulation of an ethical vision.”.

A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to AmericaBy untangling some of the political and spiritual elements of Islam, Ahmed sheds light on what female followers of Islam may actually experience versus what someone outside might assume. “The unmistakable presence of ethical egalitarianism,” she writes, “explains why Muslim women frequently insist, often inexplicably to non-Muslims, that Islam is not sexist. They hear and read in its sacred text, justly and legitimately, a different message from that heard by the makers and enforcers of orthodox, androcentric Islam.”

This fascinating issue is made even more complicated by the interaction between Islam and the Western world. Ahmed concludes her book by exploring how feminism and Islam can be caught up in the relationship between Western and Muslim cultures (and cultures within them). One danger, particularly in the scholarly and political sphere, is the temptation to broadly apply a strict Western notion of the role of women. As Ahmed explains, this is implicated in prejudice and misunderstanding, and it can be used to justify antipathy to Muslims or Arab people. Women and Gender in Islam illuminates how Muslim women can and have negotiated their own voice from their own context of faith.

Proust, Revisited: 100 Years after Swann’s Way

Read the In Search of Lost Time centennial press announcement from Yale University Press! 

Marcel Proust: A LifeWilliam C. Carter is obsessed with Marcel Proust. He has published two biographies of the man, Marcel Proust: A Life and Proust in Love, and has been called “Proust’s definitive biographer,” by Yale’s own Harold Bloom. He’s co-produced a Proust documentary: “Marcel Proust: A Writer’s Life.” He even maintains a blog, Proust Ink, “devoted to studying and celebrating the life and works of Marcel Proust while enjoying what he calls ‘the revealing smile of art.’” So it seems only fitting that Carter would have something momentous planned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Proust’s most famous and acclaimed work, À la recherche du temps perdu (or in English: In Search of Lost Time.)

While Carter recognizes the merits and incredible scope of C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s original English translation, he also realizes that this and further revisions have taken the text a little too far from Proust’s original intentions and artistry. This new, centennial edition will work to correct these misconceptions, allowing readers to fully appreciate what is regarded as the greatest novel in all of French literature.

This March, Yale University Press will reissue Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life with a new preface by the author, followed by the new edition of Swann’s Way (the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu) in November to celebrate the text’s original publication in November 1913.

This new edition is sure to engage new readers and brilliant fanatics of Proust alike!

World of Letters: The Work of Poet and Translator Peter Cole

Listen to Peter Cole Reading from The Poetry of Kabbalah

Each Day

Nut Garden

In an interview with Ready Steady Book, poet and translator Peter Cole reflected on the medieval Hebrew poetry of Muslim and Christian Spain, remarking that he was attracted by “the notion of beauty it embodies…and its potency as a vehicle for the transmission of wisdom.” This description is particularly relevant to his most recent work, The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition, the first substantial collection of Kabbalistic poems in English, spanning three continents and more than 1,500 years of Jewish mystical tradition, new from the Margellos World Republic of Letters.

Known for his work with Hebrew and Arabic texts, Cole was a 2007 MacArthur Fellow, receiving the so-called “genius grant” for his translations, which have transformed even poems “long regarded as “untranslatable,” into English versions that “retain the subtleties, complexities, and formal elegance of the original verse.” Along with this expertise in the realm of translation, the MacArthur Foundation praised Cole for the “implicit message of cultural and historical cross-fertilization that is also evident in his work as a poet and a publisher.” The publishing house Ibis Editions, founded by Cole and his wife Adina Hoffman in 1998, dedicates its mission to the literary works and languages of the Levant.

While no simple description can frame the widespread spiritual and religious history of Kabbalah, it’s helpful to keep in mind Cole’s observation that the “poems not only depict a mystical process, they produce it.” It is the poems’ ability to act as “highly charged carriers of initial vision and actual practice” that appeal to the Kabbalist, the philologist, the poet, and the general reader. In a recent interview for Margellos WRL, Cole expressed his hope to “bring readers into the world and force field of this verse in every way—acoustically, spiritually, culturally, historically.” If poetry allows for the “transmission of wisdom,” translation allows for the transmission of that wisdom across linguistic and cultural boundaries.

Dissemination of wisdom, of lux et veritas,is central to Yale University Press’s purpose, and for this reason, we have been exceedingly proud to publish both Cole and Hoffman’s work, beginning in 2009 with Hoffman’s acclaimed biography of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century. A friendship—that to some would seem unlikely—had developed between the two American Jews and the Palestinian shopkeeper-writer. Working with the poet himself, and with Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin, Cole translated and published the first of Muhammad Ali’s collections in English, Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story in 2000; then in 2006 Copper Canyon Press published So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971-2005 in 2006.

Now, with The Poetry of Kabbalah, Cole has presented a poetic tradition that transcends the constraints of language, the sublime and startling elements of Jewish mysticism speaking to each other on the pages of this work as loudly and clearly as they would in Hebrew. The Poetry of Kabbalah takes its readers on a journey both poetic and emotional, with this superb translation, enabling the ideas of Kabbalah to flow naturally. Cole’s poetic treatment and careful selections are thus an invaluable guide to understanding experiences not only beyond English, but beyond ourselves in ways both spiritual and physical.


World of Letters: The Beginnings of Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich is unforgettable. Last month, we announced the winner of the 2012 Younger Poet Series competition, and beginning our celebration of Poetry Month in April, it takes little effort to remember one of YSYP’s best and greatest poets. The world was sad to note her passing last Tuesday, March 27, but the language of this most noteworthy American poet is her lasting gift, one that is sure to reward us more and more, just as it has in the 61 years since she was first published.

Born May 16, 1929 in Baltimore, Rich was encouraged from an early age to write poetry. Her father took a special interest in her education and that of her younger sister, Cynthia, and Rich herself would later comment that her father intended for her to be a “prodigy.” After finishing high school, Rich enrolled at Radcliffe College, where she continued to study and write poetry.

Meanwhile since 1947, W.H. Auden had been serving as judge of Yale University Press’s Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, a position he would hold until 1959. His run as series judge brought to light poetry collections from promising mid-century poets like John Ashberry, W.S. Merwin, and John Hollander. In 1951, Rich’s final year at Radcliffe, Auden selected her submission, A Change of World, as the winner of the competition and subsequently wrote the introduction to her first published book. The prestige of the literary award and Rich’s own poetic brilliance and use of form would establish her writing career in the time-honored way that Yale Younger Poets beautifully achieve.

Over the next six decades, Rich challenged convention and conformity alike with her writing. She wrote more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, the last of which was published by W.W. Norton in 2010, her publisher since the publication of her fourth poetry collection in 1966. Her single identification as a woman evolved into many: as a feminist, a lesbian, and increasingly as a Jew, as the years went on and she began to reflect on her father’s family heritage. As the New York Times reported in an obituary last week, “For Ms. Rich, the personal, the political and the poetical were indissolubly linked,” and as part of the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, she was involved in civil rights and feminist activism, and turning her writing towards themes of womanhood and motherhood. Following her the end of her marriage to Harvard economics professor Alfred Conrad, Rich came out as a lesbian and began to publish in prose, as forceful and effective as her poetry, about identity politics and the question of rights in the United States. She is best known through this second half of her life, but for YUP’s acquaintance, we remember most the one packet—of the hundreds and thousands of submissions—that started it all and simply read:

Adrienne Cecile Rich.

World of Letters: Eugene O’Neill’s Yale-Rescued Plays

Eugene O’Neill has oft been regarded as the greatest American playwright.  Born in New York City in 1888, O’Neill’s dark and haunted personality, the least of which was a symptom of his depression, made him a notorious creator of fearless drama. Unafraid to confront societal themes that were popularly regarded as taboo or even beneath the taste of drama’s high culture, O’Neill was nothing short of genius, winning his first Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his first published play, Beyond the Horizion, at age 31. Two more Pulitzers followed in the 1920s for his plays, Anna Christie and Strange Interlude, and in 1936 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Despite a long-standing relationship with Yale—the only institution from which O’Neill accepted an honorary degree after expulsion from Princeton—Yale University Press’s history with the playwright began after his death in 1953. O’Neill had given rights to Long Day’s Journey into Night to publisher and Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf, with the understanding that Cerf would not publish the autobiographical play for at least twenty-five years after O’Neill’s death. O’Neill’s widow and literary executor Carlotta felt differently. Demanding the sealed manuscript stored in Random House’s vault, Carlotta approached Yale University Press and “assured” that Eugene O’Neill had lifted his original restriction on use of the material, now widely considered to be his greatest masterpiece.

Published in 1956, Long Day’s Journey into Night earned O’Neill a posthumous and unprecedented fourth Pulitzer Prize, and gained the YUP distinction of becoming the fastest selling title in the Press’s then 50-year history. In the decades since, it has remained an organization best seller, with well over half a million copies sold. The Eugene O’Neill archive at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library has also led to the publication of many other plays and writings from YUP, including The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and letters of his correspondence.

Today, we publish another hidden work by O’Neill: Exorcism: A Play in One Act, which was originally performed in 1920 and disappeared soon after when O’Neill canceled production and ordered all copies of the play destroyed, remarking: “the sooner all memory of it dies the better pleased I’ll be.” But O’Neill’s second wife, Agnes Boulton, whom both he and Carlotta tried to obscure, had retained a copy of the manuscript and later gifted it to screenwriter and producer Philip Yordan. Yordan’s widow then discovered the handwritten manuscript in 2011 among her husband’s papers, complete with handwritten edits by O’Neill himself. The Beinecke acquired the play from a New York bookseller, The New Yorker published the play in its entirety for their October 17, 2011 issue, and finally, the book, complete with a Foreword by Edward Albee, an Introduction by Beinecke curator Louise Bernard, and facsimiles of the original typescript.

Based on a 1912 suicide attempt by the playwright, Exorcism recreates a defining event that led to O’Neill’s first serious efforts to write. The play displays early examples of his unparalleled skills in capturing deeply personal human drama, and it explores major themes that would permeate his later work. As Bernard writes in the Introduction to the play:

We might read Exorcism in light of what Freud termed the uncanny, here the reemergence or unintentional return of that which is purposefully ‘buried’ or repressed. Just as O’Neill’s suicide bid was abortive, its reenactment introducing a whiff of the Beckettian absurd into his characteristically somber play, so his attempt to destroy, on paper, that which would become a forceful subject in his work, did little to thwart the manuscript’s strange buoyancy, its ability to resurface, out of the blue, after so many decades.

World of Letters: Yale’s History with A Little History

In 1935, with a doctorate in art history and no prospect of a job, the twenty-six-year-old Ernst Gombrich was invited by a publishing acquaintance in Viennato attempt to write a history of the world for younger readers. Amazingly, he completed the task in an intense six weeks, and the book, Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser, was published in 1936. A Little History of the World was an immediate success and became an international bestseller, though the Nazi Regime inGermany stopped publication shortly afterwards, deeming the book “too pacifist.”

In 1985 the original German edition was reissued with a new epilogue bringing the story up to the present, and in the early 1990s, at the end of his long and distinguished life, Gombrich embarked on a new, English version of the book with which he had started.  A Little History was his first book, as well as the only one not originally written in English, but despite editions in seventeen other languages, no work had yet been done to bring the volume into English. The book’s worldly scope is still nevertheless European in perspective, and there was doubt whether English-speaking audiences—the British in particular—would be interested in more than English history.  Rejecting other offers to produce the work in English, Gombrich was determined to do this translation himself.

E.H. Gombrich (1909 – 2001)

Gombrich had nearly finished with the task of translating and updating when he died, at the age of ninety-two, in 2001. His assistant, Caroline Mustill, faithfully and meticulously completed the work, but as Gombrich’s granddaughter Leonie notes in her new Preface to the illustrated book:

Some changes, of course, could not be made without him: we know that he intended to add chapters about Shakespeare and about the Bill of Frights, and no doubt he would have expanded on, for example, his very brief treatment of the English Civil War and the birth of parliamentary democracy, which carried less weight for the Viennese graduate who wrote the book than for the British citizen he became.

Leonie Gombrich, credit Gerald Janssen

The project came to Yale University Press, renowned for its successful list of history titles, appropriately through the London Office, where the book has continued to grow in our World of Letters since its 2005 publication in English. Writing at publication for the London Times, Lisa Jardine rejoiced: “A Little History of the World is much more than an introduction to history for children. It is a manifesto for freedom and integrity, in which the great art historian offers his personal guide to understanding ourselves and the world in which we live. It is an amazing read: clear, informed, thoughtful and passionate;” meanwhile on our side of the Atlantic, Kristin Hohenadel in the New York Times spoke highly of the book and Gombrich as “a lucid, engaging writer, a brilliant mind made accessible by sparkling prose without a whiff of the academy.”


In 2008, the bestselling book was released in paperback to even greater success—it is now a staple item in book and museum shops across the US and the UK—but we had only just begun. Fashioned in the same style of forty chapters, A Little Book of Language, written by expert linguist David Crystal, was published in 2010. And 2011 saw the release of philosophy guru Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy, for which our most dedicated blog readers have already read Warburton’s post on how he was personally inspired by Gombrich to write his survey of the world’s famous thinkers.

Such an important and influential book as A Little History of the World, written by an eminent art historian for children and adults alike, could not be forever without the visual history that accompanies Gombrich’s retelling of human civilization. Already with over 500,000 copies of the book sold, this fall, Yale University Press has proudly published a new, illustrated edition, reflective of its status as a timeless work to be savored and collected, with fine design, cloth binding, and featuring more than 200 color illustrations tied to the text. Parents read chapters nightly to their children, uncovering the story of man from the Stone Age to the atomic bomb, from how people acquired the faculty of speech and learned to make tools to how they waged civil wars and the great global conflicts of the last century, delightfully told by Gombrich’s lively narrative.

E.H. Gombrich with his grandchildren, Carl and Leonie, 1972

It is all the more fitting that A Little History should launch the “World of Letters” column on our blog, as we prepare for stories from Press annals about the books—and the people behind them—that have shaped the legacy of Yale University Press over the last hundred years. A shared history, a little history, is all the space we need to welcome and better acquaint you with our love of books.