I’m currently reading Francine Prose’s Anne Frank: the book, the life, the afterlife. It’s about the process by which Anne Frank wrote and then rewrote her diary, with an eye to its ultimate publication, and how her father edited her two versions into a third, the one the world ended up knowing. Then Broadway and Hollywood got into the act, as well as writers such as Philip Roth, until the diary and its message had morphed quite a bit from the original (or, more properly, originals).
Most of us have read Anne Frank’s diary, or at least parts of it, in some form or other, and even those of us who did not are probably familiar with at least a few of its quotes, the most famous of which may be Anne’s observation: “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
It’s instructive to look at the quote once again, embedded in its original context. When we do, we find it to be far more complex and dark than it appears when as a single famous sentence standing alone, just as Anne Frank’s achievements as a writer and thinker are far more complex than the simplifications popular culture have worked on her diary. Remember as you read the following that she was only fifteen years old when she wrote it [emphasis mine]:
Anyone who claims that the older ones have a more difficult time here certainly doesn’t realize to what extent our problems weigh down on us, problems for which we are probably much too young, but which thrust themselves upon us continually, until, after a long time, we think we’ve found a solution, but the solution doesn’t seem able to resist the facts which reduce it to nothing again. That’s the difficulty in these times: ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered.
It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually turning into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too. I can feel the sufferings of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.
Anne Frank seems to take the long view. Hers is a consciously willed optimism that takes into account some of the greatest horrors the world has ever known, and includes her own untimely death, which she correctly foresees. Whether the peace and tranquility she ultimately envisions are temporary or permanent, and whether they are of this earth or beyond it, her message has nothing of the innocence or simplicity of a trusting child, although it has often been portrayed that way.