Joe-Answers: A Conversation with Joseph Frank


This interview with Joseph Frank—best known as the author of a five-volume biography of Dostoevsky (published 1976–2002) and of Spatial Form in Modern Literature (1945)—was conducted in 2012 at Stanford and is published here, shortly after his death at age ninety-four, as a memorial to him. The conversation highlights Frank’s representation of Dostoevsky as a critic and a satirist of the nihilist intelligentsia of nineteenth-century Russia—a portrayal that runs counter to the understanding and use of his writings and his characters by Marxists, Nietzscheans, Freudians, Surrealists, crisis theologians, and Existentialists. Frank tells the story of how his friendship in the 1950s with Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, led to Frank’s teaching himself Russian in order to read Notes from Underground and write an article on the novella that changed the face of Dostoevsky scholarship. The conversation also provides hints as to how—as director of the Christian Gauss Seminars at Princeton and as a contributor to debates about Spatial Form in Critical Inquiry—he negotiated the intellectual trends and distractions of Grand Theory, which came to dominate literary criticism in the 1970s and confirmed Frank in his counterfocus on the importance of historical context, not only in criticism but also in literary creation. Above all, the interview shows how a scholar can overcome institutional pressures and the temptations of careerism by shrugging them off and concentrating attention on scholarship alone.