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Reclaiming Anne Frank’s Diary as Literature
Francine Prose is the author of fifteen books of fiction, including A Changed Man and Blue Angel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and the nonfiction New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. Her latest novel, Goldengrove, was published in September 2008. She is the president of PEN American Center. She lives in New York City.
Question: Why is Anne Frank’s diary of universal interest to readers?
Francine Prose: I wrote the book essentially because I was trying to figure that out. What is it about this book that made it explode that way in popularity and readership and the devotion of its readers? So the first thing I decided to do, or thought I was going to do, was to look at the book as a book and as a work of literature, really, because that was the thing that seemed to me really hadn’t exactly been done before. I mean it had been talked about in all different sorts of ways but not that way. So I thought having written Reading Like a Writer, which is all about close reading, I would do a kind of straight up close reading of the book; a kind of tribute to the book.
And look at the way Anne used dialogue, narration, passages of reflection, dramatized scenes, and so forth and really so many novelistic techniques work throughout the book. Also, it had occurred to me that in ten or 20 years all the survivors of that time will be gone. And here’s a book that will survive. Here are names of actual people that we’ll remember among all those millions who were killed and again it was written by a 13 to 15 year old girl. So I set out to figure out why that happened. So the first surprise, really for me, was how consciously crafted the book was.
I mean, I thought just what many people thought which was she wrote in this little checked diary and that was it. And then when she was arrested along with her family, the diary was left in the attic and it was essentially transcribed and published. Well what I discovered was that, in fact, she had gone back and rewritten the entire book. She had rewritten it from start to finish. So starting in the spring of 1944, so essentially the last few months in the attic, and very consciously set out to write something that would be published; that would be read. So it wasn’t quite the accident that most people think. I mean, she really thought of herself as a writer.
She thought of what she was writing as a work of literature. She thought, you know, her intention was to do a kind of novel; almost like a girl’s detective romance, in a way, based on her diary. So that’s what she thought she was doing.
Question: What kind of writer was Anne Frank?
Francine Prose: She was very conscious of what she was doing. I mean, for example, people think that the device of calling the diary Kitty and of framing the diary entries as letters to the unknown, unseen, imagined, imaginary friend Kitty was again some kind of spontaneous thing that she did. Well the early diary entries, for example, the first diary entry in which she decides to talk to Kitty, to call the diary Kitty, is dated June 20th, 1942 but again it was written in 1944. So that decision to call the diary Kitty, which sounds like the decision of a 13 year old, was actually the work of a 15 year old trying to imagine her way back into the persona and the mind of the 13 year old that she was. And even that, I mean that device of using Kitty, being able to write partly in the second person to a particular audience turns the reader into that audience. So it’s not as if she is writing into the ether really, she writing to a very particular person and when we read it, we become that person, that listener, that intimate friend of hers.
Question: Was Anne Frank a self-conscious writer?
Francine Prose: I mean, she sounds very innocent and open and it sounds completely unselfconscious but one of the things I thought about and discovered and thought about some more is how much craft it takes to sound unselfconscious. I mean, in fact, the unselfconscious way of writing sounds self-conscious. I mean, when most people start to write—sit down and start to write their journals and diaries, what you get is this kind of stilted, you know, and you can see it on peoples’ blogs all the time that kind of, you know, you’re looking in the mirror and writing at the same time in a certain way. So that naturalness and that kind of flowing quality of her narration was actually something worked on; something that she got right finally. I mean, of course, a lot of it came from her actual personality and her nature and she was very, very obviously really smart and aware and observant and nervy and resourceful but she worked on getting that voice on the page.
Question: What were Anne Frank’s influences?
Francine Prose: She was a huge reader and she read all the time they were in hiding. I mean, she had been reading before. And she started out really, I mean, the early diary entries, the real early diary entries on her 13th birthday, she got a lot of books along with the other presents. So she was, at the beginning, she was reading mythology. You know, the things kids read. Mythology, she was very fond of these girls. Novels, these kind of girl’s detective novels. Then when she was in hiding, she was reading Goode and Shiller and the Bible and the Old Testament and the New Testament and so forth. So she had a kind of literary sensibility already formed. So it wasn’t as if she were writing in a vacuum. She knew very well what literature was and what she was aiming at.
Question: How do you teach the diary as a work of literature?
Francine Prose: Well, you know what? I never taught it until I was working on the book. I mean, I never, it hadn’t occurred to me really to teach it. And it was – the last chapter of my book is about teaching the book at Bard College where I teach. And I assigned it to my students and one of the things that I found so amusing was that they were carrying the book around the campus and other kids were saying, I mean, they were acting really as if they were doing, you know, wearing their grade school t-shirts or something. As if it were some ironic gesture. And they were saying, well didn’t you read that in seventh grade, dude. You know, why are you reading it now? But my students got it, you know, how beautifully she wrote. Because by then, you know, I teach a closed reading class so by then I taught it late in the semester. So by then they’d been with me all semester, they knew how I wanted them to read and that’s how they read it. And they were impressed by it, technically. I mean, how much she’d accomplished. And also, one of the things that I found so moving and why I decided to end my book with a chapter about that class, was the power and the emotional connection and the intensity of the connectiveness that 20 year olds, 2007, sophisticated, hip kids still felt with this 15 year old girl in that attic in Amsterdam during the World War II. And whatever Anne had done, what her achievement was, was to make that kind of connection possible, that after all these years and such different circumstances, my students could read it and still feel as if she were talking to them.
Question: What was the most surprising thing you came across in your research?
Francine Prose: I mean, really the biggest thing for me was finding out that she had revised the diary. I mean, I really hadn’t known that. I thought what most people think which is she wrote the diary, it fell on the floor when she was arrested. They picked it up off the floor, transcribed it and published it. Not true. So that was a huge revelation. And then the ability to go back and look at her revision process and her as a writer and see what she changed and how she changed it was a real revelation. I mean, really it was – whenever you see a writer’s first drafts and second drafts and how things are crossed out and changed, it’s always incredibly interesting to see the process. So that was a huge revelation. Then, you know, all of the way through to find out that the book had been turned down by every publisher. No one wanted to publish it. So when her father – after the war, when her father came back, the only survivor of the people in the attic, and typed up the manuscript and was bringing it around to Dutch publishers, everyone was saying too boring, too domestic, too Jewish, who wants to read a girl’s diary and besides, everyone wants to forget the war.
They don’t want to be reminded of what happened. So only after an article about the book, an essay, was published in a newspaper that had formerly been the resistance newspaper by a Dutch intellectual who had been a resistance worker, leader really, there was Dutch interest in publishing the book. Then the book was almost wasn’t published in the United States until Judith Jones, the legendary editor, fished it out of the rejection pile in France where she was working at Doubleday. Then the book was published here by another odd and in this case, kind of sketchy accident, it was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times book review by Meyer Levin who was working as the book’s agent in a certain way. Trying to sell it’s the theatrical rights which is, you know, not a good idea to have a book review in the Times by its agent but in this case; it turned it into a best seller. So one thing after another. Then the play which was this unbelievably stormy, conflicted, nightmarish drama really, propelled the book’s popularity. I mean, you know, it came out in 1952 in this country. It was a best seller. Then it kind of and it never sold particularly well in Europe. Suddenly when the play started going around and then the film, it became – I mean, that’s what really made, turned it into the icon it eventually became.
Question: Was Anne Frank’s diary a diary at all?
Francine Prose: It started off as a diary and then it became a memoir in diary form. Because, you know, when we think of a diary, we think something happened and then that day or two days later, you write about the thing that happened. That is it’s more or less concurrent with what’s happening. But if you’re writing about what happened two years later and putting yourself back in the frame of mind of the person two years earlier, that’s a memoir. But the form of it, of course, is a diary. It’s written as a diary entries so that’s really what she was doing. A writer’s notebook is something quite different. A writer’s notebook, at least mine and most of the one’s I’ve seen, they’re just random jottings and observations and ideas maybe for something you might want to write or whatever but there’s no feeling that you have to have a consistent sustained narrative.
Recorded On: September 16, 2009
Author Francine Prose uncovers some unexpected things about the young diarist—most notably that her diary wasn’t a diary at all, but a heavily edited and re-written memoir.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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