To his English students, Northrop Frye, the brilliant literary critic, was an intellectual god and a master lecturer. One-on-one, though, he could be difficult to read
When Francesca Valente decided to come to Toronto from her native Italy in 1977 to do a master’s degree in Canadian literature, her friends from university thought she’d lost her good sense, opting to voyage into what they thought of as a cultural wasteland. But Valente and her friends were in for a surprise: while at U of T, she got the chance to study under the globally renowned literary critic and theorist Northrop Frye, one of the 20th century’s most quoted, most lionized thinkers.
Valente calls Frye “the Maestro” to this day, 21 years after his death. She says he inspired her to make culture – and especially literature – the centre of her varied post–U of T career. Over the years, she has arranged literary readings, art exhibits and academic conferences – and translated several of Frye’s works into Italian. The latter endeavour she undertook purely out of love for his writing, she says, since for translation, “you get paid enough to buy a pair of stockings.”
Valente was not alone in being inspired by Frye. He was one of those teachers who often altered the direction of individual students’ lives. The longtime English professor (one of U of T’s longest serving) overcame his natural shyness sufficiently to give Margaret Atwood some personal advice when she earned her BA in 1961 – “deflecting” her, she said recently, from her “bohemian plans” to run away to Europe. “He knew of my writerly ambitions, and gave it as his opinion that I would probably get more writing done at Harvard than by drudging away as a waitress in Paris or London, while drinking absinthe and smoking myself to death.”
The advice gives a sense of how deeply Frye valued what the academy had to offer: discipline for the mind and fodder for the creative soul.
Certainly, he himself always flourished in academe – both as a student at U of T and at Oxford University during the Depression, and then as a professor. While teaching at U of T’s Victoria College from 1939 to near his death in 1991, he published many books and scholarly articles about the literary greats, modern and antique, parsing the likes of Shakespeare, James Joyce, Emily Dickinson, Baldassare Castiglione, T.S. Eliot and William Blake. He didn’t limit himself to a particular period, national literature or genre – he grandly took the whole of literature as his subject.
As if wrestling with the giants wasn’t enough, he also sought to reform the whole project of literary criticism, wanting to turn it into a quasi-scientific discipline. For this, he was called – sometimes reverently, sometimes not – the Einstein of criticism. His 1957 work, Anatomy of Criticism, sought to show how every story ever told could be fit into four essential moulds. Further, the book analyzed literature in light of psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s work with archetypes, arguing that certain common symbols and figures populate all of literature, from folktales and ancient myths to contemporary novels.
It sounds, perhaps, to the general-interest reader like difficult stuff – and it is – but Frye’s writing is at least not opaque. He made a religion of clarity and turned out lucid, stylish sentence after lucid, stylish sentence. The complexity was always in the thought, not the prose. “In a way that some academics are not, Frye was a writer,” says University Professor Emeritus Edward Chamberlin, a former grad student of Frye’s. Valente agrees: “I had to try to live up to his beautiful sentences when I was translating them.”
Perhaps partly on the strength of its eminently readable style, Anatomy sold well immediately, and for two decades became an inescapable text for English students, assigned by professors at universities around the world. Frye’s influence reached its height in 1978, when only Plato, Marx, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Lenin, Freud and Roland Barthes were more frequently cited by fellow academics. They even used an adjective – “Frygian” – to describe arguments inspired by him or young scholars following his lead.
During the postmodernist wave that began to wash over North America in the 1980s, though, Anatomy fell out of style, and many hip, young literature profs took it off their reading lists. But, by then, the never-still Frye had moved on to the project that would absorb his last decade: showing how the Bible was the bedrock on which all Western literature sits.
While his international reputation rose and fell, his standing on campus remained relatively constant. For most of the last four decades (of the five) he taught at U of T, he was considered an intellectual beacon for the university – one of the profs (with his contemporary Marshall McLuhan) who’d put U of T on the global radar.
By all accounts, he wasn’t a dramatic lecturer, but he could pack a lot of thought efficiently into a short time. “He’d leave the room, and there’d be a stunned hush, and then everyone would burst out chattering, bowled over at how much was covered,” recalls former student Jean O’Grady (BA 1964 Victoria, PhD 1978). She’s spent much of the last two decades as the associate editor of The Collected Works of Northrop Frye – the last of the 30 volumes is being released, appropriately enough, this year, the centenary of his birth.
The director of U of T’s Centre for Comparative Literature, Professor Neil ten Kortenaar, is also a former student – and one of those organizing a conference at U of T this fall to mark Frye’s centenary. He remembers taking a course on the Bible with Frye in the 1980s: “He’d just sit up there lecturing away, not looking much at his notes: totally, effortlessly coherent. Meanwhile, we’d be flipping madly through our Bibles, as he jumped all over. When I thought about becoming a professor, it was never with the thought that I could become him. He was just way beyond.”
Frye’s biographer John Ayre writes of how groups of students regaled each other with Frye anecdotes at Murray’s, a cheap-and-cheerful student hangout of the 1950s. “What did God say today?” was a common question.
“Some of his students may have called him God,” Chamberlin says. “I never did, though. He was a vast person, yes, but he was still very much a person.”
His divinity also wasn’t evident to his schoolmates in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and then Moncton, New Brunswick – where his family moved after the failure of his father’s hardware business. Some of his classmates bullied the weedy, piano-playing youngster, with his easily damaged, wire-rimmed spectacles and his thatch of unruly blond hair reaching for the sky. (His vertical hair would become, in due course, something of a campus landmark.)
Later, the adult Frye would remember his boyish self, envying the physique that the giant Samson showed off in the illustrated Bible stories his staunchly Methodist mother read him. In addition to the failure of the family business, the tragedy that overshadowed Frye’s upbringing was the death in the First World War of his much older brother, Howard. His mother often made it clear to the living boy that he was not, would never be, a patch on the dearly departed. (And, toward the end of her life, when her mind went, she’d address him by her dead son’s name.)
Still, despite her occasional belittling, the boy Northrop had grand dreams for himself: a composer, a novelist – writing a cycle of books to set beside the leather-bound Sir Walter Scotts on the shelf. His prescient high school nickname: Professor.
Frye’s ticket out of Moncton – and toward that nickname – came, oddly enough, through his prodigious ability to type. With his piano-strengthened fingers, he shone in a typing class at Moncton’s Success Business College (where he went after high school). The college sent him to Toronto, twice, to compete in one of the Jazz Age rages, a typing competition – held each time in Massey Hall. Before the second trip, he secured admission to Victoria College. Frye competed desultorily in the type-a-thon, and then stayed to begin his life’s work. He won whatever scholarships were necessary to take him through Vic (undergrad nickname: Buttercup, due to his hair colour), and then went on to Oxford, where the writer C.S. Lewis was, once, his examiner.
It was at Vic that he met his wife-to-be, Helen Kemp, another arts student. He was doing the lighting on a student production of The Gondoliers, and she was offstage giving line prompts. She was an artist’s daughter, and as such had an entree into the Toronto cultural scene that Frye wanted desperately to join. She was also a great devotee of the piano – and could play every bit as well as he. Their letters when they were separated for long periods – when he studied literature at Oxford, or she art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London – reveal a relationship that was equal parts heart and mind. In one impassioned note, Frye wrote: “Every time I think of seeing you again my stomach feels as if it had electric wires in it.”
He’d later dedicate his magnum opus – 1957’s Anatomy of Criticism – to her (in Latin: HELENAE UXORI) and once commented, after her death, that he hoped to make his next book one worthy of “Helen and God” – in that order. After reviewing their warm and witty correspondence, one of the country’s leading Frye enthusiasts, journalist Robert Fulford wrote: “Frye was that rare creature, a prodigy whose promise was entirely fulfilled. … This came about through the love of a woman both good and wise, as in many old-fashioned tales.”
Still, they shared a regret: they never bore any children together. She conceived once, but it was before they were married and settled, and they decided to arrange an abortion. She likely become pregnant a second time, but it is not clear what happened – only that she didn’t have the child.
The outward facts of Frye’s life, his interactions with others, however painful or pleasant, can ultimately explain but little about him. His friends, former students and colleagues, report that there was always something fugitive – something untouched and untouchable – about the man. “There was a part of him that was entirely his own, that was fundamentally solitary,” says Robert Denham, a Frye scholar and professor emeritus of English at Roanoke College in Virginia and the editor of several volumes of Frye’s Collected Works. What, then, of the life of his beautiful, cloistered mind?
Like many great and clear thinkers, Frye was fond of walking – he couldn’t drive, instead taking the subway to work at U of T. Once (as a student) he walked the whole of Bloor Street in a day; after he was married and living uptown, he’d often pace, with Helen or not, up and down St. Clair Ave.
The thoughts travelled in two basic streams on his early walks – followed by a third in later ones. First, he engaged his intellect with the Western tradition’s most challenging, canonical writers, especially those with a religious bent. His career really began with the book that put him on the literary criticism map: Fearful Symmetry, an analysis of William Blake’s difficult prophetic poems, published in 1947 by Princeton University Press. The American publishing house’s acceptance was a coup for a then-obscure young academic from Canada. Books on Milton and Eliot would follow, and he’d produce dozens more in the course of his life. Essentially, Frye saw literature as soluble: with enough hard work, you could figure out what it meant – or a range of plausible meanings.
Second, he ambitiously developed a system for categorizing every story ever written or told, from cowboy westerns to whodunits, from futuristic sci-fi back to the myths of primitive societies, from comedies of manners to the bloodiest war fiction. “He wasn’t someone who only paid attention to high literature,” Chamberlin says. “He’d love to take a break to read a detective novel over a beer in a pub. If you mentioned one you’d read, he’d soon have bought it and read through it.” He also liked crosswords, often polishing off one from The Times during a quiet half hour in Vic’s senior common room.
In the keynote address at last year’s Frye Festival in Moncton, Atwood adeptly, and somewhat jokily, described the basic schema set out in Anatomy of Criticism: “[There are] four main types of story: the romance, in which the hero journeys on a quest, kills dragons and rescues maidens; the comedy, in which the hero and the maiden can’t get together due to interference by censorious old fogies, but which, after complication, ends with marriage; the tragedy, in which the protagonist falls from a height and ends up dead or in exile; and irony, in which old fogies sit round a winter fire in a frozen world and tell tales.”
Frye’s schema, and his discussion of Jungian archetypes, bowled over the academic and general reading world upon Anatomy’s release in 1957. Many felt, as essayist Angus Fletcher had suggested, that Frye’s work had done what Baron Haussmann’s redesign of Paris had: opened up large boulevards through old, formerly clogged neighborhoods. For two decades, the book held sway and by the time Valente arrived at U of T from Italy in the late 1970s, Frye was considered by many the world’s foremost literary scholar.
Then, in the 1980s, came the postmodern deluge – the first wave of deconstructionists, semioticians and post-structuralists. For the latter, Frye’s structure was exactly what they were seeking to put behind them. Frye’s carefully worked out categories, and subcategories, were increasingly derided as the “pigeonholes” of an overly anal mind; in the identity politics era, his engagement with the canon, the writings of all those dead white males, appeared retrograde. The miscellaneous thinkers lumped together under the banner of postmodernism dismissed Frye’s belief that literature’s meaning could be ascertained with some certainty – to them, words on the page were blank “signifiers” with absolutely no connection to the “signified” (the meaning).
Although Frye made some salty comments in his ever-present notebooks about the onslaught of deconstructionists (“[there is] a sentence from Julia Kristeva [that] I can no more understand than I could eat a lobster with its shell on”), he didn’t express many public worries about his falling stock. Instead, he continued to shift gears, working on what would become his third intellectual contribution: showing how the Bible’s stories underlay all of Western literature. He produced 1982’s The Great Code – which made an original contribution both to biblical and literary scholarship. His notebooks also reveal a genuine interest in Buddhism and Islam – he had particular time for religions where God takes on human form. Most of the books and articles he turned out in the ’80s tended to work this same religion-meets-literature vein.
This then was the third and final stream of his thought – one he undertook while his beloved and once pin-sharp Helen fell prey to the too-slow goodbye of Alzheimer’s, passing away at last in 1986. He married again two years later, and worked until his death in 1991. In a sense, this scripture-centered work returned him full circle to those beautifully illustrated Bible stories his mother read to him when he was little. He hadn’t become a physical Samson in the interim, but his mental powers were formidable.
A tall, symmetrical stone house – the quintessential Upper Canadian farmhouse – sits near Christie Lake in West Flamborough, a rustic village not far from Hamilton, Ontario. Its occupant Alvin Lee was a longtime English professor at McMaster and then its president. Over the last two decades, Lee has shepherded – with Jean O’Grady’s able assistance – the posthumous publication of Frye’s Collected Works in 30 volumes.
“Frye was never one to sit in his university roost,” Lee says, over coffee. “He got involved in secondary education – working on high school texts. He sat on the CRTC. He spoke to school groups, did interviews. He was engaged politically.” Indeed, he (and Helen) actively supported abortion rights and championed the precursor to the NDP. Unlike many literary bookworms, he had a nose and enthusiasm for politics – and a dislike of anti-democratic extremes. He disagreed hotly with those in his circle who expressed either fascist or communist sympathies in the Depression-polarized 1930s.
Frye was an early promoter of Canadian literature, dutifully doing a roundup of each year’s poetry offerings in the 1950s, when it was still popular to disdain or ignore all local writing. As a poetry reviewer, he once got himself in trouble by declaring: “One can get as tired of buttocks in [Irving] Layton as of buttercups in the Canadian Poetry Magazine.” This provoked the irrepressible Montreal poet to conduct a long public campaign against Frye.
In the decade or so before he died, Frye had the satisfaction of seeing CanLit grow from a field occupied by aesthetically minded amateurs to one filled with professional writers, most notably his former student Atwood. In his quiet, detached way, he was something of a patriot – and several times turned down lucrative job offers from leading American universities.
Frye once wrote: “I have unconsciously arranged my life so that nothing has ever happened to me, and no biographer could possibly take the smallest interest in me.” It is, to a certain extent, true. A scholar’s life is notoriously hard to mark with clear external signposts. But in amongst the umpteen reverie-filled walks, there were certain high moments.
In the 1974-75 school year, Frye landed one of the academic world’s bulliest pulpits, the Norton Professorship at Harvard University – other recipients have included Robert Frost, Leonard Bernstein, Jorge Luis Borges and e.e. cummings. He is reported to have impressed his audiences over the course of several packed lectures and overstuffed classes – they applauded at his first lecture when he drew his then-famous diagram of literature on the blackboard. A student newspaper joked: “His was the first oversubscribed Bible course since the 7th century.”
There were, of course, the honorary doctorates – 38 in total. And the shy man must have been secretly pleased by the rowdy pageantry that greeted his appointment as principal of Victoria College in 1959, with students exuberantly throwing toilet-paper rolls around an all-college meeting in celebration, and one carrying a placard saying, “The Truth Shall Make You Frye” – altering the words carved on Old Vic.
Frye once said a critic’s role was to play John the Baptist to the extraordinary writer’s Jesus. To herald the greatness of another – it is a role with some dignity to it, but it also requires some selflessness.
Although he was generally humble before the works he identified as great or worthy of notice, he was not, in the end, unduly modest about his critical abilities. One day, when Denham was going through Frye’s files, he came across a single piece of paper. On it was typed: “Statement for the Day of My Death.” Below, it read: “The twentieth century saw an amazing development of scholarship and criticism in the humanities, carried out by people who were more intelligent, better trained, had more languages, had a better sense of proportion, and were infinitely more accurate scholars…than I. I had genius. No one else in the field known to me had quite that.”
Will the centenary of his birth help return Frye to his once central role in literary criticism? Will posterity agree that he had genius? Chamberlin hopes so. “Reputations go up and down – that’s what they do. But I think it will rest over the long haul on his writing about texts – the extraordinary, enlivening insights he has on the books he turns to. He was first and last a reader.”
At the end of her Canadian adventure, following several years as director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto, Valente gave everyone in her professional circle a bookmark to remember her by. On it she had printed some words from Frye – ones she says she’s lived by. The bookmark read: “The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.”
Alec Scott (LLB 1994) splits his time between Toronto and San Francisco. He writes frequently about the arts and travel.
Watch an interview with Northrop Frye, from 1973