A Brief History of Yale University Press

Robert Pranzatelli
Adapted from A World of Letters by Nicholas A. Basbanes


George Parmly Day, Founder.

From its founding in 1908 by George Parmly Day, Yale University Press sought to acquire and publish important works of scholarship, issuing its first book—The Beginnings of Gospel Story, by Benjamin W. Bacon—in 1909. Originally based out of a cubbyhole-size office in Manhattan, the Press moved to an office in New Haven in 1910, where it could develop alongside the University. From the start, the Press set a high standard not only for its acquisitions but also for its vision of the book as object. From 1918 to 1948, all of its books were designed under the guidance of Carl Purington Rollins, later celebrated as a highly influential craftsman of the art of the book.

Perhaps the idealism behind YUP’s founding was most memorably expressed in 1920, when Clarence Day—George Parmly Day’s brother, and a partner in the establishment of the Press—issued this declaration: “The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead.”

During its first half-century—known as the George Parmly Day era, for it was Day who presided over the Press throughout those decades—the Press augmented its list of individual titles with several notable series, including popular compact illustrated histories known as The Chronicles of America, as well as the single most popular and well-known series of the era, The Yale Shakespeare, which, from 1918 to 1929, presented all of Shakespeare’s plays in small, low-priced hardcover editions. (Revised editions appeared in the 1940s and 1950s, and a new series, The Annotated Shakespeare, began in 2003.)

In 1919, the Press launched the Yale Series of Younger Poets, which has continued without interruption ever since. This celebrated series—an annual contest, award, and publication of a first book of poetry by a poet under forty—is regarded as the most important poetry award in America and has introduced such distinguished poets as James Agee, John Ashbery, Carolyn Forché, Robert Haas, John Hollander, M. S. Merwin, Ted Olson, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Cecile Rich, James Tate, and Margaret Walker, to name only a few of the many who have gone on to extraordinary careers. After the 1961 Younger Poet, Alan Dugan, saw his winning volume, Poems, published in the series, that book went on to win both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. The acuity of the selections made for the series is not accidental: through the years, the Press has recruited major poets to serve as judges, an honor roll that includes William Alexander Percy, Stephen Vincent Benét, Archibald MacLeish, W. H. Auden, Stanley Kunitz, James Merrill, James Dickey, and Louise Glück.

The ambitious nature of the Press’s mission also manifested in its willingness to take on decades-long multivolume projects based on enormous scholarly efforts, such as the forty-eight volume Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Letters, produced between 1924 and 1982; the nine-volume Bibliography of American Literature, published for the Bibliographical Society of America, produced between 1955 and 1991; and the fifteen-volume Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More, produced from 1963 to 1997. Others are still ongoing: there have been eighteen volumes in the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, begun in 1955; twenty-five volumes of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, since 1957; and thirty-seven volumes in the magisterial The Papers of Benjamin Franklin series, in partnership with the American Philosophical Society, since 1954. Other long-running series that continue more than a half-century after their inception include the Yale Judaica Series and the annual Psychoanalytic Study of the Child.

From early on, several of Yale University’s endowed lecture series, including the Terry Lectures, Silliman Memorial Lectures, and the Storrs Lectures, yielded important and enduring books, among them The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932), by Carl Becker; A Common Faith (1934), by John Dewey; The Realm of the Nebulae (1936), by Edwin Hubble; Psychology and Religion (1938), by Carl Gustav Jung (named a Book of the Century by the New York Public Library); The Nature of the Judicial Process (1949), by Benjamin N. Cardozo; The Meaning of Evolution (1949), by G. G. Simpson; The American Mind (1950), by Henry Steele Commager; and Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950), by Erich Fromm. The diversity of the subject matter in even this extremely short sampling of titles not only reflects the intellectual excitement of Yale University’s lecture series, which continue today to generate important books for the Press, but also suggests the broad array of subject areas embraced by YUP even in its early years.

Among the most remarkable publishing successes of the Press’s first half-century is The Lonely Crowd (1950), by David Riesman with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, a book that reached a vastly wider audience than anticipated, introduced the terms “inner directed” and “other directed” to the general public, and became by some counts the best-selling book in the history of American sociology. An even larger success occurred a few years later, in 1956, when Yale published, posthumously, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. With a standing-room-only opening on Broadway, three Tony awards for 1957 (including best play, best playwright, and best actor), and an unprecedented fourth Pulitzer Prize for O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night became the fastest-selling title in YUP’s history, and its continuing status as a classic has kept it among the Press’s most perennially successful books. 


The leadership of the Press underwent a slow transition at midcentury, a process that began in the mid-1940s, when George Parmly Day stepped down as director to become chairman of the board. The next decade and a half saw a succession of directors that included Edgar Furniss, Norman Donaldson, and, in 1959, Chester Kerr, who oversaw the Press for the next twenty years. Also in 1959, the Press moved its headquarters from 143 Elm Street to 149 York Street.

London Office in Bedford Square.

The year 1961 brought two major changes. The Press formally became a department of Yale, further enhancing its ties to the University (though it remained, and still remains, financially and operationally autonomous), and in the same year it established a London branch—then called Yale University Press, Limited—to sell books abroad. Nearly a decade later the role of the London branch began to expand, in part due to Yale University’s commitment to assist in the publishing efforts of the Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, established in London in 1970. In 1973, John Nicoll was hired to oversee the Press’s London office, which he did for the next thirty years, developing it into a full-fledged editorial division with its own acquisitions strategy and identity, its own reputation for excellence, and its own specialties—not least among them the publishing of extremely high quality, critically acclaimed art books and distinguished works of social history. The name of the division was changed to Yale University Press, London, in 1984, and today the London office, overseen by its present director, Heather McCallum, is responsible for nearly one third of Yale University Press’s titles.

New Haven Office.

In 1973, the New Haven office of the Press took up residence at 302 Temple Street, in a building designed in 1840 by the architect Ithiel Town and acquired in 1890 by the United Church on the Green, which added to the back of the building a large chapel with a cathedral ceiling. When the Press moved in, the chapel was transformed into “the library”—unanimously regarded as the most charming part of the Press’s physical space, with its two tiers of open offices for manuscript editors installed along the two-story walls (on the ground level and on the balcony), a large central meeting space, and wooden bookcases to shelve one copy each of the thousands of books the Press has published in its history. (By the early 1990s, the ever-growing Press would again desperately require more space, and in 1992 added the Evans Wing, named for Edward M. Evans, Class of 1964, and designed by architect Cesar Pelli.)

During the 1960s and 1970s the number of titles published annually by the Press tripled, from thirty to ninety—a number that was thought large at the time, but would grow much larger.

At the beginning of the 1980s, John G. Ryden succeeded Kerr as director and presided over the Press for the next twenty-three years, from 1981 through 2002. At a time when many university presses were in crisis and unable to find a way to continue operating, the Press pursued a strategy of diversification to include in its list books that, while appropriate to its mission as a university press, had a broader appeal: important books that were also commercially viable and could, through their success, help subsidize the more highly specialized monographs. Often the same authors who wrote scholarly monographs would be encouraged to amplify their message for a wider audience. Among the scholars who succeeded brilliantly in this endeavor was Yale historian of religion Jaroslav Pelikan, who based his critically acclaimed book Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (1985) on a series of lectures he had given in New Haven at Ryden’s suggestion. The book was a success on all levels, and the Press later published both an illustrated edition and a companion volume. To create even greater diversity in its already varied list, the Press branched out into publishing textbooks and further developed its strength in art history, an area that eventually became one of its hallmarks. (In addition to the growing art list from the London office, there had been earlier precedents in New Haven: in the mid-1960s, Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color had been recognized as a milestone in art book publishing almost from the moment the Press released it, in a hardcover limited edition of two hundred copies, each weighing in at twenty-two pounds and featuring 150 silkscreen color plates.) During this era, YUP’s list also began to reflect both the increasing accomplishments of women scholars and the growing field of woman’s studies, with such widely influential and much-discussed works as The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, (1979), by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar; Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, (1982), by Elizabeth Young-Breuhl; and Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, (1990), by Camille Paglia. In the same years, i (1981), a nineteenth-century journal edited by Yale historian C. Vann Woodward, became a bestseller, received lavish critical acclaim, and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

In the eighties and nineties, the Press continued its tradition of ambitious, long-term efforts with high ideals. Major projects included a lavish Culture & Civilization of China series based on an innovative international cross-cultural partnership; the pioneering Encyclopedia of New York City, for which historian Kenneth T. Jackson enlisted 680 experts to write 4,288 entries (a great success, it paved the way for other one-volume encyclopedias on such varied topics as the American West, the Holocaust, underwater and maritime archaeology, Ireland, and New England); and an unprecedented series based on documents from Soviet archives. This latter undertaking was recognized, from the first volume (The Secret History of American Communism, 1995), as a revelatory scholarly enterprise of major proportions; under the series title The Annals of Communism, it grew to embrace twenty titles in its first fourteen years and was hailed as “one of the most important publishing projects in the world” (National Review). 


In 2001 Yale partnered with Harvard University Press and MIT Press to create TriLiteral LLC, a limited liability partnership to manage distribution of all three presses’ publications, and together built a 155,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center in Rhode Island.

That same year, YUP entered the twenty-first century with an extraordinary, unexpected success, albeit one with a grim catalyst: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, prompted an immediate demand for what was, at the time, the only available primer on who and what the Taliban were. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, by Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, had recently been brought out in paperback by YUP, which had bought the U.S. rights in 1998 and published the book in hardcover in 2000. Expectations for sales had been modest, but in the wake of the attacks, the book sold hundreds of thousands of copies and quickly reached the top of the New York Times paperback bestseller list. It remained on that list for months, and its author made the rounds of national television interviews.

Also receiving a surprise burst of attention immediately post-9/11 was the backlist title Five Days in London, May 1940, by John Lukacs, which New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani cited as an “inspiration” in a number of national interviews. YUP’s longstanding strength in the History category was soon bolstered again, most happily, with the 2002 publication of Edmund S. Morgan’s Benjamin Franklin, a New York Times bestseller that allowed the eminent historian and Yale professor emeritus to epitomize, as effectively as any author ever has, what the phrase “scholarly but accessible” means to Yale University Press. The following year, another YUP bestseller, Gore Vidal’s Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (2003), launched the Icons of America series and treated readers to its author’s characteristically incisive take on American history.

After twenty-three years (and more than 4,000 books), John Ryden retired as director of the Press, to be succeeded by John Donatich, who arrived in January 2003 to take even further the Press’s growth, expansion, and diversification, while guiding it into an era of new technological possibilities.

The vitality and variety of the YUP list in the 2000s can be seen in the success of such titles as E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World (2005), a remarkable classic that parents can share with their children, which has gone on to sell nearly one million copies in multiple editions and formats, and inspire an entire series of “Little Histories”; critically acclaimed and award-winning volumes that included Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003), by George M. Marsden, and Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic (2005), by Erskine Clarke; and current events books that made headlines and played a significant role in the public dialogue, such as Francis Fukuyama’s America at the Crossroads (2006) and Ali A. Allawi’s The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (2007), each of which became part of the ongoing debate over American foreign policy. In another important area of influence, the Press’s leading-edge books on climate change, such as Gus Speth’s Red Sky at Morning (2004), made major contributions to the global conversation on a vital issue. Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008) had a public policy impact on a broad array of issues; that book went on to become a bestseller and its authors went on to related notoriety, Richard Thaler winning a Nobel Prize in Economics and Cass Sunstein serving in President Obama’s administration where he set about applying the book’s principles for the greater public good.

These years also saw beautiful editions on Yale’s outstanding natural sciences list, such as In the Company of Crows and Ravens (2005), by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell; a bestselling and critically acclaimed foray into the growing study of graphic novels and cartoon art as literature with An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories (2006), edited by Ivan Brunetti; and important books on law, business, architecture, Jewish studies, psychology, every aspect of the arts and humanities—in short, a large, vibrant picture of publishing at its best.

Benjamin Schwarz, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, called Yale University Press “the most important and exciting university-press publisher of humanities titles today.” Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, in the Literary Review, stated, “Publication by Yale University Press has become a guarantee of literary merit as well as scholarly excellence.” And Robert Leiter of the Jewish Exponent declared: “I think Yale has consistently had the finest line-up of books—season after season—during the last two decades or more.”

Over the years, the Press had established an extraordinary array of partnerships with leading museums—including the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the National Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the National Gallery in London, among many others—to publish and distribute major exhibition catalogues and other works. As a result it became—and has remained—the widely recognized leader in the field, its seasonal catalogue divided into two parts, one devoted exclusively to art and architecture books, the other to the rest of the list (general interest and scholarly titles in all other categories).

By the second decade of the new century, Yale University Press had become the largest books-only, U.S.-based university press. Having already published more than eight thousand books, it continued to publish upwards of 300 new books per year and broaden its offerings. Its major digital initiatives included a logical outgrowth of the earlier Annals of Communism series, the Stalin Digital Archive which provides unprecedented access to historically significant content—primary source materials from Stalin’s personal papers and insightful monographs on communism—with robust online capabilities that allow scholars and students to interact with the content and collaborate in new ways. Another innovative digital initiative, the A&A ePortal, provides a digital environment in which to discover and interact with important art and architectural history scholarship. With deep tagging on images and text, a robust image search that directs users toward relevant publications, and an interactive online reader tailored for highly illustrated works, the A&A ePortal is a powerful research tool.

In another groundbreaking digital initiative, Yale University Press introduced an award-winning and critically acclaimed mobile app for iPad, based on one of its most lastingly influential books, The Interaction of Color by Josef Albers. Built on Albers’s methodologies and packed with interactive features, it offers users a fresh, dynamic way to introduce themselves to Albers’s challenging and enlightening principles, experiments, and ideas. At the same time, the Press’s commitment to, and success with, lavish print catalogues continued to prove the appeal of the art book as irresistible object, nowhere more evident than in the phenomenal ongoing sales and visual impact of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2011), a volume that has proven itself a landmark art monograph for the 21st century.

Other innovations in its publishing program have also continued to energize the Press. The Cecile and Theodore Margellos World Republic of Letters series, championing the translation and publication of important literary works from around the world, has come to include Nobel Prize, Best Translated Book Award, PEN Translation, and Saif Ghobash Banipal prize- winners, among other internationally recognized awards. Its roster of extraordinary authors includes Patrick Modiano, Can Xue, Claudio Magris, Adonis, Hoda Barakat, and Cees Nooteboom, among many others. Jewish Lives, a prizewinning series in partnership with the Leon D. Black Foundation, offers contemporary biographies that pair notable authors with notable subjects ranging from Ben-Gurion, Louis D. Brandeis, and Sarah Bernhardt to Einstein, Freud, Mark Rothko, and Barbra Streisand. The Yale Drama Series, funded by the David Charles Horn Foundation, celebrates new works by previously unheralded playwrights, through both publication and a staged reading. (The drama series was launched in 2007 with eloquent remarks by the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee, the competition’s inaugural judge.)

As these and other ambitious initiatives grew stronger, Yale University Press continued to publish important books that expanded and clarified the historical record, such as Pekka Hämäläinen’s critically acclaimed volumes The Comanche Empire (2008) and Lakota America (2019), Andrew Lipman’s The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (2015), Lisa Brooks’ Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (2018), and Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’ They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (2019). Significant cultural criticism such as Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (2011) and madison moore’s Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric (2018) also played a substantial role on the Yale list.

In 2019, the Press celebrated the centenary of its best-known series—and the oldest annual literary award in the United States—with the publication of the anthology Firsts: 100 Years of Yale Younger Poets, edited by Carl Phillips. In 2020, it launched Yale Press Audio, its own audiobook program, to further expand the number of its books that are available in audio format.

One of the most vivid examples of Yale University Press bringing essential knowledge to the wider world can be seen in the evolution—from an online Yale course, to a book, to a global resource—of Frank Snowden’s Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (2019), a book that in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic has provided desperately needed context for policymakers, journalists, and citizens everywhere. In 2020 and beyond, Yale University Press continues to strive to exemplify publishing at its best and most meaningful.