Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1008

Since its publication, The Diary of a Young Girl has touched millions of readers worldwide. Scholars praise the book as a personal and historical document. Many critics note that readers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, having just experienced the war, found the diary palatable because it contains no firsthand accounts of the horrors of Nazi genocide. Other critics, however, fault the book's popularity because it focuses on an individual in a unique situation rather than on the broader Holocaust experience. Robert Alter of New Republic comments that it is unfortunate that the diary's popularity is based on its comfortable distance from the horrors of the Holocaust. He is disappointed that, without Frank's diary, people seemingly ‘‘could not imagine concretely that there were countless young girls and boys ... with hopes and dreams for a personal future who were torn from life before they could really begin to live it.’’

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To Frank's contemporaries, her perseverance filled a need to return to optimism. Today, readers are still inspired by the indomitable spirit of the teenaged Frank. In Booklist, Kathleen Hughes calls The Diary of a Young Girl evidence of the ‘‘resilience of the human spirit, particularly the stoic bravery of a young woman existing in a nightmarish, war-torn world.'' Writing in Judaism, Henry F. Pommer remarks that Frank's diary is essentially about humanity, and that humanity is the ultimate measure of good and evil. He relates a story in which a young person reportedly asked Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, ''And how do you know that the human race is worth saving?'' Frankfurter answered, ''I have read Anne Frank's diary.''

To many, Frank became a symbol of the waste and tragedy of the Holocaust. Sander L. Gilman observes in Studies in Jewish Literature,

No single document written during the Holocaust riveted the attention of the Western reading public more than the diary kept by Anne Frank.... The Western reading public, in Germany as well as in the United States, came to measure the Holocaust through its identification with the individual fate of Anne Frank.

Similarly, Meyer Levin declared in New York Times Book Review, ‘‘Because the diary was not written in retrospect, it contains the trembling life of every moment—Anne Frank becomes the voice of six million vanished Jewish souls.’’

Although most critics praise the Definitive Edition for its honesty and thoroughness, a few critics find its additional text unnecessary. Roger Rosenblatt of Time praises the Definitive Edition because it presents a girl to whom most readers can relate, a view shared by Hughes. Similarly, Alter comments that including the previously edited passages results in ''a more believable self-representation of Anne as a sometimes sharp-edged, touchy, lively girl. The new version is less sugar, more vinegar.’’ In contrast, Carole Angier of Spectator writes that Mr. Frank left sensitive passages out for good reason. She maintains that Frank's harshest criticism of the other members of the Secret Annex and sexual passages add nothing to the overall value of the diary, noting:

The objection is not to there being sex in her diary, and lavatory arrangements, and moments of furiously hating her mother. The objection is that they were already there. Otto Frank did his editing (like everything else) extremely well, and with absolute integrity. ... His edition is, therefore, a better, tighter, but equally true book, which Anne the budding writer would have wanted.

Critics often comment on the transformation that takes place in Frank over the course of the diary. The American poet John Berryman regards Frank's diary as an excellent portrayal of maturation. He notes in The Freedom of the Poet, ''I would call the subject of Anne Frank's Diary even more mysterious and fundamental than St. Augustine's Confessions and describe it as: the conversion of a child into a person.’’ In A Tribute to Anne Frank, Annie Romein-Vershoor compares Frank to a flower taken from a moderate climate to a tropical one. In the heat and humidity, the flower blossoms beyond its previous potential. Pommer observes that any diary written by a teenager in Frank's extreme situation would be of interest to a wide readership, but ‘‘Anne had one further trait of the utmost importance for her own maturity and for what she wrote: an unusual ability for self-analysis.’’

Frank's writing ability continues to impress readers and critics. Her style is striking and lively, full of detail and emotion. Pommer writes, ‘‘Some pages read as though they had been written in the security of a Long Island suburbia; on the next page we are plunged into Nazi terror; and both passages use vivid details.’’ Where many teenagers' diaries wander aimlessly from topic to topic, Frank's passages are clear and well defined. Romein-Vershoor notes that the diary is:
written in a direct, nonliterary, and therefore often excellent style, by this child who in any case possessed the one important characteristic of a great writer: an open mind, untouched by complacency and prejudice.

Frank's writing is so compelling that, according to Rosenblatt, she has emerged as the second most memorable figure of World War II, behind Hitler. Rosenblatt points out that if nothing else, Frank's diary is a testament to the power of a book. He adds an intriguing journalistic anecdote:

So stirring has been the effect of the solemn-eyed, cheerful, moody, funny, self-critical, other-critical teenager on those who have read her story that it became a test of ethics to ask a journalist, ''If you had proof the diary was a fraud, would you expose it?’’

The point was that there are some stories the world so needs to believe that it would be profane to impair their influence.
Frank's highest aspiration was to become a writer, and the tragic irony is that she never knew that sixty years after she started her diary, it would be read by teenagers, scholars, critics, teachers, historians, and philosophers all over the world. Although the Definitive Edition of the diary has come under a degree of scrutiny, the diary itself remains a classic beloved by generations of readers.

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