Lives in Letters: The Correspondence of Professor Joseph Frank

The Manuscripts Division is pleased to announce the recent acquisition of a significant group of correspondence and related papers of the American literary scholar Joseph Frank (1918-2013). He is best known for his five-volume biography of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which he began in the early 1970s and completed in 2002. The collection consists of Frank’s personal and professional correspondence dating from the 1940s through the early 2000s, though primarily from the 1950s through the 1980s. Correspondents include Hannah Arendt, Elizabeth Bishop, Yves Bonnefoy, Pierre Bourdieu, Ralph Ellison, Carlos Fuentes, Irving Howe, James Laughlin, Richard W. B. Lewis, Mary McCarthy, Allen Tate, and many other poets, writers, artists, and academics. A small amount of family correspondence, personal documents, and printed materials, including inscribed reprints and chapbooks, are also present. The collection is the generous gift of Joseph Frank’s daughter Isabelle Frank and complements the Manuscripts Division’s extensive holdings of 20th-century literary correspondence.

Born in New York City as Joseph Nathaniel Glassman, Frank adopted his stepfather’s surname when his mother, Jennifer Garlick, remarried following his father’s early death. Although he never formally earned a bachelor’s degree, Frank studied briefly at New York University and the University of Wisconsin. Prior to beginning his Dostoyevsky biography, he published essays and criticism in literary journals, including “Spatial Form in Modern Literature,” which appeared in The Sewanee Review in 1945 and set the stage for his career as a critic and lecturer on 20th century literature. After working at the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington, D.C., in the 1940s, Frank left for Paris on a Fulbright scholarship in 1950, where he met his wife, the mathematician Marguerite Straus Frank. He earned his PhD from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago in 1960 and taught at the University of Wisconsin and Rutgers University before arriving at Princeton. Frank was named the Class of 1926 Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University, where he taught from 1966 until 1985, and he taught afterward at Stanford University until his retirement. At Princeton, Frank also served as the Director of the Gauss Seminars in Criticism, which brought many international critics, artists, poets, and scholars to the university for lectures and discussions exploring the theory and practice of criticism in the humanities and sciences.

Much of Frank’s correspondence with noted literary critics and scholars is the result of his involvement with the Gauss Seminars. He also maintained close personal friendships with several major poets and authors, as reflected by significant groups of letters from the French poet Yves Bonnefoy, the American poet Allen Tate, and others. A particularly rich group of 25 letters from the American poet Elizabeth Bishop is also present, dating to the 1950s and early 1960s when Bishop was living in Brazil with her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop discusses the intimate details of her daily life, her reading and writing habits, and her general impressions of living as an American expatriate in Brazil. A typescript of Bishop’s poem “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress” is also included as an enclosure with an October 29, 1950, letter to Frank. The letter indicates that she wrote the poem the day before, and this draft appears in the same form in which the poem was published the following year in The New Yorker on July 7, 1951.

Also notable is a three-page letter (23 November 1964) from the celebrated African American novelist Ralph Ellison, who explains the obscurity of the “pink hospital scene” in his novel Invisible Man by describing how he cut out a 225-page section from the middle of book. Incoming letters such as these indicate that Frank was a close reader and valued critic of works by contemporary authors he knew, and his correspondence with them often contains authors’ responses to Frank’s comments and questions on their work.

Researchers interested in learning more about the Joseph Frank Correspondence (C1515) should consult the finding aid. For information about using the papers, contact