Obituary: Frank MacShane

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FRANK MACSHANE was a critic who took seriously writers other critics in the main tended to be sniffy about, arguing that because a novel hits a public nerve and becomes a roaring bestseller it does not necessarily follow that that novel is worthless, its author beyond redemption. In Into Eternity (1985), he championed the work of the novelist James Jones whose From Here To Eternity was generally held to be merely a piece of glossy pulp, and successfully argued, in The Life of John O'Hara (1980), that there was far more to O'Hara than the "Pal Joey" sketches which, thanks to Broadway and later Hollywood, made their creator a small fortune and academics grind their teeth.

He was also a strong advocate of the talents of the novelist Raymond Chandler.

MacShane was not the first to recognise Chandler's merits. British film critics in the 1940s such as Dilys Powell and C.A. Lejeune used their columns to praise his books when movies he had scripted or co-scripted (Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia, Strangers on a Train) were released. Philip Durham, in 1963, published a notable and groundbreaking study of Chandler's place in the mainstream of American literature in Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go; and Herbert Ruhm, in his essay in the seminal Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties (1968, edited by David Madden), crucially pointed out that in his later books Chandler was beginning to construct mystery stories along the lines of the novel of manners.

MacShane, however, broadened the debate, treating his subject, in The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976), as a major literary stylist, whose sojourns in Bloomsbury as a young man, writing poetry, and precious essays for The Academy and the Westminster Gazette, had given him an incontrovertible edge over his hardboiled peers such as Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Horace McCoy, James M. Cain (a writer Chandler despised anyway - "Everything he touches smells like a billy-goat"), George Harmon Coxe.

Because of his unusual education (Dulwich College) and "literary" background, Chandler wrote modern morality plays, not only utilising the American demotic in original ways but creating his own sprightly vernacular to such an effect that it seemed, as the critic Graham McInnes pointed out, he could "make the English language jump through hoops".

Frank MacShane was born in 1927 in Pittsburgh, the only son of a newspaperman who later became publisher of William Randolph Hearst's flagship the New York Journal-American (the newspaper at the heart of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane). MacShane graduated from Harvard in 1949, received a master's degree from Yale in 1951, and an Oxford doctorate in 1955.

He was a dedicated teacher, at one time or another having posts at Vassar, the Hotchkiss School, the University of California at Berkeley, and Williams College. In 1967 he founded the graduate writing division in the School of the Arts at Columbia University, which was to remain his base for the rest of his academic career.

He was fascinated by Latin America, translating a number of works by the Chilean writer Miguel Serrano, and editing Impressions of Latin America (1963), an anthology of 500 years of travel-writing of the region by both English and North American writers. At Columbia he founded a "translation centre", producing an academic journal called Translation Magazine, from which he compiled (with Lori M. Carlson) a volume of selections. He also co-edited the influential Borges On Writing (1973).

He was a busy writer and editor outside of his academic career, producing three books about Ford Madox Ford (a well-received biography as well as two volumes of Ford's own critical writings), and The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (1981), proving that Chandler was one of the great letter-writers of the century, and the fascinating Notebooks of Raymond Chandler (1977), which printed much rare and fugitive material, including the "lost" novella English Summer: a Gothic romance.

In the end, although his academic and teaching careers were long and fruitful, Frank MacShane will be remembered as a pioneer critic who saw in certain novelists a kind of artistic integrity ignored by his academic peers, and as a powerful and vigorous champion of those writers, like Chandler, who were, as he once put it, "not automatically accepted into the highest literary rank".

Jack Adrian

Frank Sutherland MacShane, writer and teacher: born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 19 October 1927; married (one son); died Gloucester, Massachusetts 15 November 1999.