Joseph Frank, a longtime professor of literature whose five-volume biography of the 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky is considered a landmark of historical and literary scholarship, died Feb. 27 at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 94.
He had pulmonary failure, according to the New York Times, which first reported his death.
Dr. Frank wrote on a wide range of literary subjects before he began to focus on Dostoevsky — the author of “Crime and Punishment,” “The Idiot” and “The Brothers Karamazov” — in the 1950s.
Dr. Frank learned Russian and immersed himself in the turbulent milieu of Dostoevsky’s life — he lived from 1821 to 1881 — to write what some scholars have called an incomparable portrait of the author’s life and times. From 1976 to 2002, Dr. Frank chronicled Dostoevsky’s dramatic life in five volumes that totaled more than 2,400 pages.
“No other scholar, in Russia or the West, comes close to Frank’s command of the literary, political and philosophical context in which the great Russian writer lived and worked,” Orlando Figes, a British historian of Russia, wrote in London’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper in 2002.
Dr. Frank came to Dostoevsky while preparing a series of lectures on existential themes in literature and never turned back.
Dostoevsky came from a land-owning family, became active in radical literary and political circles and began writing in the 1840s. He was arrested in 1849 and sentenced to death, only to be reprieved at the last minute.
He spent four years in a labor camp in Siberia and another six at a remote army outpost near the Chinese border before returning to the mainstream of Russian life in St. Petersburg. His writings about madness, murder, the downtrodden and the struggle of good against evil have influenced writers and young people for more than a century.
“Frank’s originality,” Harvard professor Donald Fanger wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2002, “lies in the way he manages to chart, at the same time, the evolution of Dostoevsky the man, of Dostoevsky the writer, of the writings themselves and — perhaps most original — of the changing times that did so much to shape all three.”
In a characteristically vivid passage from the second volume of his biography (“Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859”), Dr. Frank described a scene from Dostoevsky’s years as a prisoner:
“Almsgiving from the population reached a peak during the religious holidays; but it was continual all through the year, and sometimes took the form of money handed to the convicts as they shuffled through the streets of Omsk in a work convoy. The first time Dostoevsky received alms in this way was ‘soon after my arrival in prison.’ A ten-year-old girl — the daughter of a young soldier, who had seen Dostoevsky in the army hospital when she came to visit her dying father — passed him walking under escort and ran back to give him a coin.”
Dr. Frank condensed his five-volume biography into a single 959-page book in 2009. But as early as 1977, after only one volume had been published, critic Hilton Kramer wrote in the New York Times, “We know at once that we are in the presence of something special among the literary biographies of our time.”
Joseph Nathaniel Frank was born Oct. 6, 1918, in New York City and attended New York University in the 1930s and the University of Wisconsin in the early 1940s. He never received a bachelor’s degree.
He published stories and critical essays in the 1930s and wrote widely on literary matters early in his career. His subjects included Henry James, French writers and modern literature in general.
“I cannot remember a time when I was not writing,” he said in 1986.
From 1942 to 1950, he lived in Washington and worked as an editor at the Bureau of National Affairs, a publisher of newsletters and other information about government and business. In 1945, he published an influential three-part essay, “Spatial Form in Modern Literature,” that made him well known as a literary critic.
He studied at the University of Paris on a Fulbright fellowship in 1950-51, then went to the University of Chicago, where he received a doctorate in 1960. Dr. Frank taught at the University of Minnesota and New Jersey’s Rutgers University before joining the Princeton faculty in 1966. In 1985, he moved on to Stanford University.
Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Marguerite Straus Frank of Palo Alto; two daughters; a brother; and two grandchildren.
Dr. Frank wrote and edited several books on other literary topics, but his career became entwined with Dostoevsky’s life, and his biography was considered a model of deep research, balanced judgment and measured expression.
It was, as literary critic James Wood wrote in the New Republic in 2002, “obviously one of the great, clarifying intellectual adventures of the age.”