Blog Post

A Critic, His Life, His Age: A Tribute to Joseph Frank (1918-2013)

Image courtesy of the Frank Family.

Great musicians, it is said, do not choose their calling—music chooses them. Reading and rereading Joseph Frank’s writings after his passing, it seems that the spirit of modernity itself chose him to be its voice among literary critics—in the age when brute force remaking the world was matched and animated by a titanic struggle of ideas.

How else to explain, then, that Frank’s debut in Scholastic,[i] bore an impossible title, one he used to chuckle about, “Prolegomena to All Future Literary Criticism”? The year was 1935. Frank was seventeen and an orphan. He had lost his father (Glassman) when he was five; Frank, his stepfather, who adopted him and his younger brother Walter and with whom he lived in a wealthy Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, died when he was a teenager; soon thereafter, he lost his mother, Jennifer Frank (née Garlick). Somewhere on the Lower East Side of New York, there was still his Yiddish-speaking grandmother, who was taking care of Walter, but Joseph was already on his own, finishing Erasmus Hall High School and preparing to enter New York University. A mere decade later, while he worked as a reporter for the Bureau of National Affairs, came entry into the big leagues: “Spatial Form in Modern Literature: An Essay in Three Parts.”[ii] His last book, Responses to Modernity, with a telling subtitle Essays in the Politics of Culture,[iii] was published just a few months before illness claimed him. In between, there are almost three hundred essays and reviews, some in French, and a monumental biography of a Russian writer whose fictional characters come alive even as they reenact the metaphysical mystery play of the modern era.

Even Frank’s stutter that he struggled with all his life (but this writer remembers with fondness) looks in retrospect like a mark of election. The affliction struck a child who was born with an extraordinary aesthetic talent and a gift for empathy. It  forced him to develop, while still in his teens, a powerful voice as a writer of critical prose. Authoritative and subtle, uncompromis­ing yet forgiving, the voice was so resonant and expressive that had Hollywood come calling, it would have taken an Orson Welles (with the strut of John Wayne) to have filled the bill. The force of this voice is already present in his  “Dedication to Thomas Mann,” published in the NYU student journal in 1937[iv]; it is undiminished in “Thinkers and Liars,”  one of his last pieces in The New Republic about Eliade, Cioran, and Ionesco,[v] and it reverberates throughout his entire Dostoevsky pentateuch, the five volumes of his unsurpassed biography of the great Russian author and prophet.

Frank’s own writer’s voice was the Aaron to his Moses, except that it was inflected with a natural aesthetic intelligence and its corollary—empathy. The world picture that this voice invoked was complex and “impure” in the same way that a poem for T.S. Eliot, as Frank once wrote assessing Eliot’s critical legacy, had to “preserve some ‘impurity’,” if it was to be humanly meaningful.”[vi] It took Joseph Frank to fish out a statement out of T.S. Eliot to highlight the poet’s genius while showing that Eliot’s politics, which Frank despised, went contrary to the poet’s own aesthetic intuition. What better illustration can there be of the Underground Man’s conviction that two and two never add up to four.

As a critic, Frank entered the fray in the mid-1930s, when the world was rent by a clash among the all-too-imperfect democracies and the perfection-mongering regimes of Communism and Fascism. Like many in his generation, he appreciated Marx and identified with the Popular Front politics, but up to a point. As Frank recalled later, a close friend of his, the son of a prominent Menshevik, provided him with unvarnished accounts of what was going on in the USSR. This was a factor in Frank’s reluctance to join the CP USA, and he stayed out even though many of his friends counted themselves among its members.[vii]

Nevertheless, when his NYU professor of English Samuel Sillen, then the book review editor for New Masses and a recent convert to communism, invited  Frank to review books for the journal, Frank did not demur and became a regular reviewer for a communist magazine, though one that was not directly controlled by the party. [viii] His first review appeared in March 1 issue of New Masses in 1938. The journal was then at the peak of its circulation and attracted some of the most prominent names in American letters (among the book reviewers were Kenneth Burke, Philip Rahv, Theodore Draper, and another of Frank’s NYU English professors, Edwin Berry Burgum). What was decisive for Frank, however, was the journal’s unequivocal anti-fascist and anti-Nazi stand, then central to the agenda of the Popular Front. In this regard and up to the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, New Masses contrasted favorably with the isolationism of much of the American press, including the left-wing The Partisan Review and The New Republic.

By the end of 1938, however, unhappy though he was with existing order of American capitalism, Frank broke with his Red book-review outlet. His last piece came out on the November 29, 1938. There may have been other factors that precipitated the break, but the change of mind was prompted, no doubt, by his studies with another of his NYU instructors, the strongly anti-communist philosopher Sidney Hook and, perhaps even more meaningful for Frank, the course he took with the American historian Henry Bumford Parkes, the author of Marxism: An Autopsy (1939). Along with them, Frank found prescriptive Marxism dead, its historical calculus—the ends justifying the means—odious, and its sacrifice of the arts on the altar of political expediency, unacceptable. Russia, the birthplace of Dostoevsky and Lenin, now ruled by Stalin, was Exhibit One on both counts, as was, of course, Nazi Germany. Parkes’ Marxism: An Autopsy, which offered both a profound critique of Marxism and a vaguely socialist statist program for humanizing capitalism, became a vehicle for Frank’s profession of a new and liberal social and philosophical creed. It offered “An Economic Basis for Liberal Values,” as Frank called his long and sympathetic review of the book. When it became clear that New York’s publishing venues were uninterested in his change of direction, Frank turned toward the South where Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate, two Southern Agrarians, lent him a sympathetic ear.

Frank’s review essay of Marxism: An Autopsy was published early in 1942, in the last issue of Southern Review to come out during the war years.[ix] By then, Frank, exempted from military service because of his severe stutter, was already busing books at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where he relocated for personal reasons. While there, he proceeded with his education, if under informal circumstances, with, among others, philosopher David Baumgardt, then a consultant for the Library of Congress, whom he befriended in the Library stacks.[x] The former holder of the Hegel Chair at the University of Berlin and an expert of Franz von Baader and Gottfried Ephraim Lessing, Baumgardt became Frank’s informal intellectual history tutor and introduced him to a  circles of other exile intellect­uals from Nazi Germany, who were then residing in Washington, D.C. The entry into this circle allowed Frank to continue his informal studies of great continental writers and thinkers. Soon he was hired—on the strength of his Southern Review publication—as a labor reporter by the Bureau of National Affairs. At the BNA, he had to turn out copy on a weekly basis, explaining in plain English the complex new regulations and statutes then being issued by the Roosevelt Administration. The work was challenging, Frank was good at it, and before long, he was promoted to editor. Remembering this almost decade-long stint at the BNA (1942-50), Frank thought of it as enormously valuable for his growth as a writer.

By the time “Spatial Form in Modern Literature, An Essay in Three Parts,” appeared in Sewanee Review in 1945,[xi] Frank’s critical stance had been fully formed: it combined the intellectual tradition of Western liberalism, including a search for social justice and thus elements of Marx, with a commitment to abiding ethical and aesthetic values, rooted in Western individualism, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and, significant for Frank, modern literature and art. As an autonomous sphere of human activity, modern art had as much to say about the human condition as religion, politics, philosophy, and economics. A historical-materialist conception of art, went the main thesis in “Spatial Form,” missed the very essence of modernism, namely the spatial remolding of human experience in time in all of its moral, aesthetic, and existential complexity.  “Spatial Form” thus echoed “The Economic Basis of Liberal Values,” providing, in a manner of speaking, a aesthetic basis for the expression of liberal, humanistic values in literary criticism. In Frank’s critical imagination, the disparate, sometimes mutually exclusive, elements of the world picture are bound together by his unstinting belief in the power of art and ideas, coupled with his instinctive humanity—appreciation for human suffering, frailty, and contingency—the very pathos of the sculpture Laocoön and his Sons, so important for “Spatial Form,” or the condensed colloquialism of “pity for man” in Dostoevsky. Lack of this “pity for man” was unforgivable. “It is unseemly,” Frank once chided an historian and a biographer whose work he admired, “even for a social psychologist to kick a man when he is down.”[xii]

Frank’s magnum opus on Dostoevsky was thus preordained, indeed over­determined. Already in college Frank was “really passionate about Dostoevsky,” as his NYU professor Sidney Hook remarked to him, then a young book review contributor of New Masses, after a class discussion.[xiii] Then came his critique of Marxism, his post-war immersion in French Existentialism, his admiration for Albert Camus, whose side he took in the famous Camus-Sartre polemic,[xiv] and the realization of the deep ideological and aesthetic kinship between one of Russia’s great writers and the most recent iteration of the clash of ideas precipitated by modernity. In 1948, Frank was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to go to France. He spent two years there, attending the Sorbonne where, among other subjects, he studied Hegel with Jean Hyppolite, but most important for him, appearing regularly at the informal Collège philosophique, founded by Jean Wahl, where he met his future wife and life-long intellectual interlocutor, the mathematician Marguerite Straus. It was there, at the Collège philosophique, an informal discussion group that included Alexandre Koyré that Marguerite introduced him to,[xv] and the cafes and caves of St. Germaine-des-Prés, that the ideas animating European politics since the dawn of modernity were once again coming alive and resonating with the early salvos of cold war.

In those days in Paris, Dostoevsky loomed ever larger: from Albert Camus’s oft-repeated debt to the great novelist[xvi] to the explosive popularity of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a self-consciously Dostoevskian indictment of Marxist dialectic, that  sold half a million copies in France in the two years since its controversial publication there in 1945.[xvii] No surprise then that the subject of Frank’s first Gauss Lecture at Princeton University in 1955 was “Existentialism and Dostoevsky.” And the association is further reinforced in his doctoral dissertation he wrote for the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, “Dostoevsky and Russian Nihilism: A Context for Notes from The Underground” (University of Chicago. 1960). 

Frank’s “Dostoevsky,” however, evolved, not just into a scholarly study of the writer’s thought or device, but after a long germination into a full-fledged critical biography. What was to be volume one of the five-volume sequence came out in 1976 after two decades of teaching as professor of comparative literature and director of the Christian Gauss Seminars Criticism at Princeton University. A genre as capacious as the novel, biography allows one to embrace historical context, ideas, psychology, along with all manner of human contingency. And just as for Dostoevsky, his novels recapitulated his own commitments and dramatized the ideological and metaphysical conflicts of his age, so for Frank, his biography of the great Russian was called forth by Frank’s own life, his own commitments, and the historical struggles of his own age. Neither author turned toward fiction and biography by accident: for both, only art (and critical biography is the novel’s closest cousin) was capable of giving these disparate elements a coherent and human form.

Reading Frank’s Dostoevsky is to hear the challenge and response of two giants, towering like sentinels, each over his own century.  No better tribute for a critic is possible.

This is how, then, to borrow a phrase from Frank’s Idea of Spatial Form, “the time world of history becomes transmuted into the timeless world of myth” or to paraphrase W.H. Auden, a great man of letters becomes his admirers. The mark that Joseph Frank’s legacy left on the study of Russian literature and culture in the larger Euro-American context is deep and indelible.

Paris. June 2013

© 2013 by Gregory Freidin

[i] Scholastic: A national magazine for high school students. 1935. See Andrei Ustinov, “Joseph Frank’s Works: A Bibliography,” Stanford Slavic Studies Vol. 4: Literature, Culture and Society in the Modern Age: In Honor of Joseph Frank. 1991-1992, in 2 parts, part 2, p. 11.

[ii] The Sewanee Review 53, nos. 2, 3, and 4 (1945): 221-40, 433-56, 643-53.

[iii] Joseph Frank, Responses to Modernity: Essays in the Politics of Culture (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).

[iv] Joseph Frank, “Thomas Mann: The Artist as Individual,” The Washington Square College Review 1.7 (May 1937):5-6, 22-23. Frank, a freshman, was on the editorial board of the journal.

[v] A version is reprinted as “Eliade, Cioran, and Ionesco: The Treason of the Intellectuals” in Frank’s Responses to Modernity.

[vi] As Joseph Frank, “T. S. Eliot’s To Criticize The Critic,Commentary 42, no. 3 (September 1, 1966): 87.

[vii] The Oral History Project: Four Interviews with Joseph Frank, conducted by Gregory Freidin and Steven Zipperstein in the spring of 2010.

[viii] Samuel Sillen (1911-73), a graduate of NYU, held a Ph.D. in English (1935, University of Wisconsin), taught composition at NYU from 1935 until he resigned in 1944, published in The Nation and The New Republic before beginning his association with New Masses, where he assumed the post of the book review editor in 1936. His literary and political views grew progressively less tolerant through the end of the 1930 and the war years; in 1948 an orthodox Stalinist and CP USA literary functionary, Sillen became the editor of New Masses successor journal Masses and Mainstream (1948-63); he left the post after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956. On him, see Allen M. Wald, The Literary Left of the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 61-68 and elsewhere.

[ix] “An Economic Basis for Liberal Values,” The Southern Review 7, nos. 1-2 (Winter 1941-42): 21-39. The essay offers an extensive discussion of Marxism: An Autopsy (Houghton Mifflin: NY, 1939) by Henry Bumford Parkes, and Anglo-American historian and one of Frank’s professors and mentors while he was an undergraduate at NYU in 1937-38.  Reviewed favorably in Time by an anonymous reviewer (Vol. 34.17[10/23/1939]:82), the book produced barely a ripple elsewhere, and Frank’s essay seems to be the only serious discussion of Parkes’ thesis. The essay refers to the outbreak of the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-1940 but does note mention the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, which suggests it had been finished and typeset in the interim.

[x] See Horizons of a Philosopher: Essays in Honor of David Baumgardt, With a pref. in German by the eds. Joseph Frank, Helmut Minkowski, and Ernest J. Sternglass. E.J. Brill: Leiden, 1963. Baumgardt’s epistolary legacy includes correspondence with Ahnnah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Leo Strauss, Isaiah Berlin, Martin Buber, John Dewy, Arnold Zweig, and Arthur Schlesinger, among others. See his archive at the Leo Baeck Institute. Access: 05.20.2013.

[xi] Sewanee Review 53, nos. 1, 2, and 4 (1945). The journal was then edited by Allen Tate.

[xii] “The Birth of ‘Russian Socialism’,” in Joseph Frank, Through the Russian Prism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 223.

[xiii] Interview with Steven Zipperstein and Gregory Freidin, Stanford, 2010.

[xiv] Joseph Frank, “Paris Letter,” The Hudson Review 5, no. 4 (Winter 1953):582-592. In private conversations, he often suggested that it was via Camus and French Existentialism that he arrived at his study of Dostoevsky..

[xv] Personal communication from Marguerite Straus Frank. GF

[xvi] Ray Davidson, Camus: The Challenge of Dostoevsky (University of Exeter Press: Exeter, UK, 1997).

[xvii] Michael Scammell, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic (New York: Random House, 2009). Kindle edition, loc. 6504 (Chapter 26: Adventures among the Existentialists).


Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
Gregory Freidin has written and taught extensively on Russian culture, literature, politics and society. His long-standing project on the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel includes a series of essays, the Norton Critical Edition of Babel's writings, letters, reminiscences and critical reception Isaac Babel's Selected Writings, W.W. Norton, 2009); a collection of essays on Babel's works and days, The Enigma of Isaac Babel, Stanford UP, 2009); his own critical biography of the writer, A Jew on Horseback: The Worlds of Isaac Babel, is forthcoming.  Freidin’s first critical biography, Coat of Many Colors (1987), a study of the life and oeuvre of the poet Osip Mandelstam, was reissued in paperback in 2010.  In 2004, Freidin organized an International Isaac Babel Conference and Workshop at Stanford, producing the U.S. premiere of Isaac Babel's play "Maria" (directed by Carl Weber) and curating an exhibition on Babel at the Hoover Libraries and Archives. These Babel-related events have received a permanent lease on life in “Babel in California,” by Elif Batuman, the events’ participant observer, who opens with it her critically acclaimed collection Possessed (FSG, 2010). Freidin's interest in contemporary Russian politics and culture found its venue in the US and Russian Press, as well as in the major conference held at Stanford University in 1998 - Russia at the End of the Twentieth Century - that brought together scholars, journalists, editors, and government officials from Russia and the US, including the Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott, with who he translated the second volume of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament (1974). The First Russian edition of The Federalist Papers came out in Freidin's translation and with his introduction in 1990. Freidin grew up in Moscow and emigrated to the US in 1971. He attended Brandeis University in 1972 and University of California at Berkeley in 1972-78 (M.A. and Ph.D.). Freidin career at Sanford spans 1985-2014. Professor Emeritus, he now resides in Berkeley, California, where he continues his writings and research. A contributor to Arcade, Freidin maintains a personal blog on culture and politics The Noise of Time.