Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife

  • Review
By – August 24, 2011
Francine Prose, like most read­ers, first read The Diary of a Young Girl when she her­self was a young girl. And, like most read­ers, she remem­bered Anne Frank as a teenag­er who poured her thoughts and emo­tions into her beloved diary before her arrest and death in Bergen-Belsen. Many years lat­er, now an accom­plished writer and nov­el­ist, Prose reread the book and was imme­di­ate­ly struck by the fact that Anne Frank was also a con­scious, work­ing writer. In this sub­stan­tial­ly researched and wide-rang­ing study, Prose exam­ines Anne Frank as the writer she hoped to be, not as an icon­ic vic­tim of the Holo­caust. 

In March 1944 the Dutch edu­ca­tion min­is­ter in exile broad­cast a call for Dutch cit­i­zens to save every­day doc­u­ments that record­ed their wartime expe­ri­ences. By the next morn­ing Anne had begun plan­ning the pub­li­ca­tion of a nov­el­ized ver­sion of her diary. Despite mis­giv­ings about her abil­i­ty — although none about her ambi­tions to be a writer — she began revis­ing. The book that result­ed is not a chrono­log­i­cal account of life in the annex but a care­ful­ly craft­ed rework­ing of the orig­i­nal diary. The Revised Crit­i­cal Edi­tion (Eng­lish edi­tion, Dou­ble­day, 2003), com­bin­ing all Anne’s drafts, runs to more than 800 pages. As Prose learned more about the Diary, she also became acquaint­ed with the indus­try to which it gave rise, an indus­try based on the overide­al­ized Anne of the foun­da­tion named for her. She dis­cov­ered the bit­ter, angry sto­ry behind the play, which began the sen­ti­men­tal­iza­ton of Anne, and the perky, uni­ver­sal­ized— only inci­den­tal­ly Jew­ish — Anne of the movie. She became aware, too, of the reverse side of the adu­la­tion — the ugly world of those who denied the authen­tic­i­ty of the book entire­ly. 

For gen­er­a­tions of read­ers, Anne’s life is summed up in a hope­ful mes­sage: I believe peo­ple are still good at heart.” In con­text, how­ev­er, this sen­tence is but one phrase in a thought­ful and bal­anced pas­sage on the fate of ideals in the world as Anne knew it. This prob­ing and informed book intro­duces read­ers to a far more com­plex and accom­plished young woman than the Anne we met in our ado­les­cence and, I hope, will take us back as adults to The Diary of a Young Girl to renew and enrich our read­ing of this endur­ing book. Index, notes, select­ed bibliography.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions