American Literature Waldo Frank
Sarah Kingston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0185


Waldo David Frank (b. 1889–d. 1967) was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, and grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City. His parents were Julius J. Frank, a successful Wall Street attorney, and Helene Rosenberg Frank, musician and daughter of a Confederate blockade runner. Frank was the youngest of four siblings: two sisters, one of whom passed away during Frank’s adolescence, and one brother. His family was of Jewish heritage but did not observe Jewish ritual; his father was the son of German Jewish immigrants and his mother’s family belonged to a group of international Jewish businessmen living in Alabama. His family was politically active, as Frank’s father was a trustee for the Society for Ethical Culture, an organization invested in furthering social justice, and active in New York City reform organizations. Frank was noted for his academic prowess and was captain of his high school’s debate team, but failed to graduate upon refusing to attend senior-year English classes on the basis that he knew more about Shakespeare than his teacher. Consequently, Frank was sent to Les Chamettes Pensionnat, a private preparatory school in Switzerland, prior to attending Yale University in 1907. He graduated in 1911 upon receiving his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees concurrently. He then worked as a reporter for the New York Evening Post and the New York Times before leaving the United States to travel throughout Europe, where he studied philosophy intensively. After returning to the States in 1914, he began work on his first published novel, The Unwelcome Man. Subsequently, he continued to publish fiction and nonfiction works, including novels, short stories, essays, travel writings, and cultural studies, and he was a frequent contributor to publications such as the New Yorker and the New Republic. Notably, he was invested in studying Spanish and Latin American culture, traveling several times to Central and South America to lecture, conduct research, and serve as an unofficial agent of the US government to counter the spread of fascism. He was heavily involved with and influential in the literary community, co-editing, with James Oppenheim and Paul Rosenfeld, the short-lived literary magazine the Seven Arts in 1916, and becoming the first chairperson of the League of American Writers in 1935. He was married three times, to Margaret Naumburg, Alma Magoon, and Jean Klempner, and had five children.

General Overviews

Although Frank published dozens of novels, cultural critiques, and essays and played a major role through his editorial and critical work in shaping his contemporary literary scene, he had received a disproportionately small amount of critical attention given his scope of influence until a relatively recent resurgence of interest in his work. Historically, part of the reason for his relative lack of attention possibly stems from a view shared by many of his critics that his literary works showed significant structural flaws, including a tendency to suppress realistic plot structures and characters in order to develop philosophical themes and ideas; in essence, his characters were often created to represent ideas but fell short as realistic characters who acted in probable ways. His work is also highly experimental and structurally complex, including intricate plots, complex language, and abrupt narrative shifts. Another reason he never reached critical popularity despite his prolific work and wide range of influence might be the sheer scope of his work and the multitude of genres in which he wrote. While Frank saw all his writing as interconnected and wished for it to be viewed as such, he often found himself frustrated and disappointed in his critics’ tendencies to treat his works as though they belonged to discrete genres. Despite the recent attention to Frank, the most recent full-length book devoted solely to Frank himself remains Orgozaly 1994, but it is generally limited in its scope to coverage of Frank’s writings on Latin and Hispanic cultures. The two most significant and comprehensive books published on Frank’s literary works remain Bittner 1958 and Carter 1967. Bittner’s work, which focuses mainly on Frank’s fiction with limited attention to his cultural criticism, was published nearly a decade before Frank’s death, and, as such, does not account for the last decade of his career. Carter’s work, published the year after Frank died, is the more comprehensive of the two, covering Frank’s biography, as well as both his fiction and his cultural criticism. Munson 1923 is considered to be an important analysis of Frank’s early career, but its publication date of more than four decades before Frank’s death limits its scope substantially. Kloucek 1963 is fairly comprehensive in scope, but as a dissertation, it is not easily available.

  • Bittner, William. The Novels of Waldo Frank. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1958.

    One of few comprehensive works on Frank, this text discusses Frank’s novels in detail. It was the second book-length analysis of Frank’s work completed, the first entitled Waldo Frank: A Study by Gorham Munson having been written over thirty years prior in 1923, at the beginning of Frank’s career. This text, written with Frank’s cooperation, provides some information on Frank’s biography and work in cultural studies, but mainly focuses on analyzing Frank’s novels and their creation.

  • Carter, Paul J. Waldo Frank. New York: Twayne, 1967.

    Published shortly after Frank’s death, Carter’s study intermingles criticism of Frank’s work with biographical information. It provides both a detailed timeline of Frank’s life and a selected bibliography of his work and reference sources. The book covers both Frank’s fictional and nonfiction works, illustrating their development in tandem with Frank’s evolving political and spiritual views. It provides detailed analysis of many of his major works in biographical context.

  • Kloucek, Jerome W. Waldo Frank: The Ground of His Mind and Art. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 1963.

    Kloucek’s dissertation analyzes Frank’s life and art in great detail. In this study, Kloucek analyzes the origins and principles of Frank’s worldview, including his perspectives on religion, art, psychology, and philosophy. It also includes a comprehensive list of over one hundred different sources of criticism and comments written about Frank during his lifetime.

  • Munson, Gorham. Waldo Frank: A Study. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923.

    Written less than a decade after Frank’s first book-length publication (The Unwelcome Man, 1917) and nearly forty years before his last full-length publication (Cuba: Prophetic Island, 1961), this book provides analysis of Frank’s early novels. It presents his work in a favorable light with interesting insights into his writing.

  • Orgozaly, Michael. Waldo Frank: Prophet of Hispanic Regeneration. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1994.

    This book examines Frank as a figure who connected North and South American cultures, hoping for a synthesis between the two. Frank was especially attracted to the spiritual underpinnings of Spanish-speaking societies. It begins by examining the origins of Frank’s philosophy, then analyzes Frank’s works on Spanish culture, moving chronologically from Virgin Spain to Cuba: Prophetic Island. It also discusses Frank’s popularity among Latin American cultural elites.

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