Anne Frank: Tragedy and Triumph

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Anne Frank's brilliant and complex Diary of a Young Girl (1947; definitive edition 1995) has the power to engage the reader's deepest sympathy. It has been translated into more than sixty languages and has sold more than thirty million copies to adults and children around the world. As she moved towards self-awareness and maturity, Anne spontaneously and intuitively incorporated several kinds of books in her Diary. It belongs with the works of precocious writers, with the diaries of young girls, with accounts of the accelerated development of wise children, and with narratives of people hiding from oppressive authority and afirming their independent existence while threatened with death. Placing her Diary in the context of these literary genres illuminates the meaning of her book.

The works of the most precocious writers include Daisy Ashford's popular The Young Visiters (1919), which she wrote when she was only nine years old; Rudyard Kipling's journalistic sketches in the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, India, which began to appear when he was sixteen; the poems of Thomas Chatterton, William Wordsworth's "marvelous boy," who committed suicide at seventeen; the two French novels of Raymond Radiguet, who died of typhoid at nineteen; and the poems of Arthur Rimbaud, the most influential French poet of the nineteenth century, who renounced his career, at the peak of his powers, at the age of twenty. But no fifteen-year-old author in history ever wrote as well as Anne Frank.

The Portuguese Diary of a Young Girl (1942) was translated by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop as The Diary of Helena Morley (1957). Helena (1880-1970), whose real name was Alice Dayrell, was the daughter of a British mining engineer and a Brazilian mother. She grew up in the remote town of Diamantina, two hundred miles north of Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais. Helena kept her diary from 1893 to 1895 at exactly the same age--thirteen to fifteen--as Anne Frank, who kept her diary from 1942 to 1944.

The settings and circumstances of the two girls were very different. Helena, a Catholic and poor student, roamed the wilds of the Brazilian highlands. Anne, Jewish and an excellent student, was confined to a small Secret Annex. As a writer, Helena was more naive and childlike, and did not revise her work. Anne, more sophisticated and dramatic, especially when her life was in danger, made extensive revisions. Helena's Diary, alluding to her grandmother's legacy, ends positively by noting, "We shan't suffer for the lack of the necessities any longer." Anne's Diary inevitably ends with a sense of foreboding. Like Jean-Paul Sartre's assertion in No Exit (1944), "Hell is other people," Anne concludes: "if only there were no other people in the world." Helena, a grande dame, lived to be ninety; Anne, still a child, died at fifteen.

But the two young diarists also had a good deal in common. Both extrovert, clever and resourceful girls, isolated outsiders in their communities, recorded closely observed details about themselves and their constricted family life, and described their awakening consciousness and growth into maturity. According to Bishop, Helena's lively, idiomatic language was (like Anne's), "fresh, sad, funny, and eternally true." Both girls were threatened by dangerous thieves in their neighborhood. Both were show-offs and saucy to grown-ups; they loved Hollywood movie stars; and they worried about their food, tattered clothing and physical appearance. Both adored their distant grandmothers, but were bored, irritated and often enraged by their immediate families. Like Anne, Helena wrote that everyone always repeats "the same stories, all the time," that when a relative "has a toothache, she drives the whole household crazy," and, with justified self-pity, "It's my fate that everyone who loves me makes my life miserable." Neither girl, for very different reasons, wrote anything besides their diaries, and both diaries became major works in Brazilian and in Dutch literature. …