From the Vault: Frank E. Robbins and Illuminating What Was to Come

by Mikala Carpenter on August 12, 2013

Our “From the Vault” posts allow you to take a peek into the history of the Press, where you can rediscover past authors, projects, editors, awards, and more that led to the development of the university publisher that the Press is today. This window into our past spotlights backlist or out-of-print titles and series and also recommends and contextualizes them with similar current and forthcoming titles. Explore the drawers of the Vault with our intern, Mikala Carpenter, as we uncover the hidden treasures that await us in the archives of the University of Michigan Press.

From 1858 to 1930, the University of Michigan had no organized entity for its scholarly publications, which were generally conference proceedings or department-specific research. The number of publications picked up to an overwhelming and unsupervised amount of titles, until the University Press was established in 1930 under the University’s Graduate School. Despite initial efforts, the University soon discovered the newly developed University Press could not handle the influx of materials to be published without someone organizing its process and projects. This led to the appointment in 1935 of Frank E. Robbins, already assistant to University President Alexander G. Ruthven, as the managing editor of the University Press. Robbins would continue to hold this position at the Press until September 1954, when Fred D. Wieck was appointed as Press Director.

Many of Robbins’s projects aimed to appeal to the University itself, narrowing in on the school’s historical and current affairs while also cultivating opportunities for research and creativity among its professors and graduate students. Though initial plans for the “University Press,” as Robbins refers to it in his correspondence, only foresaw it maintaining the output of conference materials and Alumni Readings Lists, Robbins expanded this vision to include publications on diverse fields of interest, such as archaeology, linguistics, and international interests. Robbins initiated a Fine Arts Series in 1935 as well as an Ars Islamica series in the 1940s. He also supported the development of several academic journals, including University of Michigan Contributions in Modern Philology, Publications of Studies in Language and Literature, and History and Political Science Series. When acquiring A.E.R. Boak’s Historical Essays in 1937, one of the volume’s advantages was that it constituted “a scholarly volume which [would] reflect credit upon the University.”

In acknowledging Robbins’ status as the first leader of the University Press, it seems fitting to also recognize the Press’s many firsts that coincide with his time as its managing editor. Robbins worked with the Committee on Scholarly Publications to acquire the third book of Heinrich Issac’s Choralis Constantinus, by Louise E. Cuyler, associate professor of musicology at the University. Published in 1950, this volume was the first musical publication ever printed by the Press and aided Robbins in expanding the Press’s “field of publication [for] graduate work and research.”. Robbins also successfully instituted the publication of Hopwood lectures in individual volumes, as was proposed by Roy W. Cowden in 1952. Cowden’s The Writer and His Craft reflected the prestige of the University at the same time that it started a University tradition as Hopwood lectures continue to be published by the Press today. In 1954, Robbins also started but did not finalize the process for the first royalty agreement in the history of the University Press when publishing G.B. Harrison’s Elizabethan Journals.

While expanding the fields represented by the University Press’s publications, Robbins reached across the United States and around the world in order to propagate relations with a wide range of prospective authors, literary publications, and other publishers, accumulating reviews from French and Turkish literary magazines and collaborating with English printers. Interestingly, correspondence I discovered in the Vault illustrated the effect World War II, which spanned six of Robbins’s nineteen years as managing editor, had on the University Press. Letters to Robbins warned of delayed book shipments and apologized for authors’ slowly arriving manuscripts. Dr. Kenneth Lee Pike’s Phonetics was recommended to Robbins in 1943 as a book that would “provide real practical help in dealing with the problems arising in our struggle with many exotic languages as part of the war effort,” exemplifying the impact of the war on the University Press.

When Cowden’s The Writer and His Craft was reviewed in 1954, The Saturday Review wrote that the collection was “not only… readable and useful, it [was] illuminating and valuable.” In a way, this description also applies to Robbins’ constant efforts to increase the Press’s value to, interaction with, and participation in the University and beyond. Many of Robbins’ firsts have become Press traditions as the Press continues to seek out professors on and off campus in acquiring prospective projects that appeal to many research fields, from classical literature and University-focused interests to international relations and musicology. In these ways, Robbins’s expansion of the Press’s interests and influences continue having an effect today.



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