It all started in 1954. Joseph Frank, then the Christian Gauss lecturer at Princeton University, was writing a lecture for a seminar on existentialism and modern literature. In preparation, he reread Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground—and it embarked him on his life’s work.
“I began to see connections between Dostoevsky’s work and the literary, philosophical and sociocultural situation in Russia at the time he was writing,” says Frank, who moved from Princeton to Stanford in 1985 and is now a Stanford professor emeritus of Slavic languages and literatures and of comparative literature. “Most of the critical literature I had read about him had rather neglected this aspect or had thought it wasn’t important at all. I wanted to place him in his time.”
So Frank set out to do just that. And last spring, at 83, he completed the fifth and final volume in his 2,451-page series on the Russian writer, Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871–1881 (Princeton University Press, 2002). Part biography, part literary criticism, it follows Dostoevsky from his return to Russia after a stay in Western Europe through the writing and completion of The Brothers Karamazov to his death.
Frank’s own biography has a few surprises. Though he attended both New York University and the University of Wisconsin, he never earned a bachelor’s degree because he couldn’t afford to pay for school after the death of his parents. After working as an editor in Washington, D.C., and sojourning in France on a Fulbright scholarship, Frank attended the University of Chicago in the 1950s and ultimately received his doctorate in 1960. During the mid-1950s, he also taught himself to read Russian, so he could have access to the critical literature and original texts of Dostoevsky’s works.
Mantle of the Prophet, Frank says, was the most difficult of the five volumes to write “because of Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism, which only comes to the fore in the last period of his life. I found it very hard to cope with that, but I did the best I could.” A more enjoyable challenge: “trying to write well about [Dostoevsky’s] novels.”
By all accounts, Frank has succeeded. His second volume, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859 (Princeton University Press, 1983), won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. The third, Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860–1865 (Princeton University Press, 1986), was a Pulitzer Prize nominee in 1987.
“Frank’s greatest contribution to Dostoevsky studies has been to place Dostoevsky solidly in the history of European ideas,” says Robert Belknap, professor emeritus of Slavic languages and literatures at Columbia University. “Frank taught us to see Dostoevsky’s works as responses to intellectual waves and political passions that were a part of our own past.”
—AMY KOVAC, ’99, MA ’00