Archive for March 4th, 2013

Au revoir, Joe Frank: NYT remembers a terrific man, terrific scholar

Monday, March 4th, 2013

Prof. Joseph Frank and his wife Marguerite (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The New York Times obituary for Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank is up today.  I don’t know why they chose to compare his work with three other books in the first paragraph, but other than that, it’s a good read.

It traces the story of Joe’s beginnings in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, his debilitating childhood stammer, the death of his father while a boy, and the acquisition of a stepfather who bestowed the name “Frank” (he was born “Glassman”).  He was rejected by the military (that stammer again), lost both mother and stepfather within the same year, and did poorly in high school.  He bypassed a bachelor’s degree, and went to Paris on a Fulbright scholarship in 1950.  (He got a PhD from the University of Chicago a decade later.)

According to the New York Times, “Mr. Frank was an emerging critic in the early 1950s and preparing a lecture on existentialist themes in modern literature when, to provide historical background, he began studying and analyzing Notes From Underground, Dostoevsky’s anguished cri de coeur in the voice of an embittered ex-civil servant, a novel that had influenced Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. The close encounter with the text changed his life, pivoting his interest to the intellectual culture of 19th-century Russia and consuming him to the degree that he undertook to learn Russian.”

His Dostoevsky biography, after Volume One:

“Not only a great book about the early life of a great writer,” Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “but probably the best book any American writer has yet given us on the literary culture of 19th-century Russia.”


His Dostoevsky biography, after Volume Two:

“Everything about this ambitious enterprise is splendid — its intellectual seriousness, its command of the Russian setting and sources, its modesty of tone, its warm feeling,” Irving Howe wrote in The Times Book Review. “Mr. Frank is clearly on the way toward composing one of the great literary biographies of the age.”

His Dostoevsky biography, in toto:

“It’s now regarded as the best biography of Dostoevsky in any language, including Russian, which is really saying something,” Gary Saul Morson, a Dostoevsky scholar and professor of Slavic languages and literature at Northwestern University, said in a telephone interview, referring to the five-volume work. “That’s more or less universal. And this is my opinion, I don’t know if others will agree, but it’s the best biography of any writer I’ve ever read.”


“But he would always follow the evidence where it took him,” Robin Feuer Miller, a 19th-century Russian literature specialist at Brandeis, said in a telephone interview Friday. She added that his influence was immense. “Every time he would write something,” she said, “what a change in the reading of a novel it would engender!”

Read the rest hereA terrific man, a terrific scholar.

Postscript on 3/6:  Washington Post obituary here.  “I cannot remember a time when I was not writing,” he once said.