Monthly Archives: August 2009

Synergistic Plugs and Shameless Self-Promotion


I was in Bryan Prince Books today where I got talking with Tracey, one of the helpful and knowledgable staff, who had just read Alice Munro‘s Lives of Girls and Women and loved it.  (Munro’s latest, Too Much Happiness is now out and available at Bryan Prince Books — that’s Bryan Prince Books, located in the heart of Westdale Village, Hamilton.)  I confessed that I actively prosyletize for three people: Shakespeare, Frye, and Munro.  Tracey said that she’d been meaning to read Frye, and I of course told her about us — at which point the man standing behind us piped up, “It’s a good blog.”  This gracious young man, whom I’ll call “Matthew” (in fact his real name), assured me that he’d been reading the blog since it first appeared two weeks ago, and that he knows others who are reading it too.  (He’s also a Munro fan: coincidence?)  I can’t pretend I wasn’t delighted by this chance meeting–and, of course, a high end cultural establishment like Bryan Prince Books offers the best chance of such a meeting.  I’m also going to assume that this single encounter is representative of the thousands if not millions of anonymous readers out there who visit us daily.  Bless you all.  Godspeed.  May the road rise to meet you.

However, let me ask you what I asked “Matthew”: Why not come out from the shadows?  We’d love to hear from you.  Submit a Comment or send us a post via email on any marginally Frye-related topic.  We’ll gladly put it up.

Frye’s Epiphanies


In his account of the thematic modes in Anatomy of Criticism Frye says that the general theme in the ironic mode is the pure, timeless moment of vision, and the examples of such vision he gives are “Rimbaud’s illumination, Joyce’s epiphany, the Augenblick of modern German thought, and the kind of nondidactic revelation implied in such terms as symbolisme and imagism.”  Frye himself had several of these moments of vision.  The earliest, reported in John Ayre’s biography, was during his early high school years in Moncton when he suddenly realized that he could shed without consequence the moral and religious dogmas of the fundamentalist envelope in which he had been raised.  Frye did not recall what triggered the revelation: he simply realized on a walk to school one day that the albatross of fundamentalist teaching “just dropped off into the sewers and stayed there.” 

There were other epiphanies: one in Edmonton (1932), one (perhaps two) with Blake (1933), another in Seattle (1951), and still another on St. Clair Avenue in Toronto (early 1950s).  The “Third Book” Notebooks contain a hint of a fifth epiphany––in 1944 on a walk down Bathurst Street in Toronto.  A final epiphany may have occurred in Yugoslavia only four months before Frye’s death: he speaks of “that loud flash I got in Zagreb: the ideal of spontaneity, where the moment of composition and the moment of performance are the same” (The Late Notebooks of Northrop Frye 1:415).

Frye refers to these moments variously as intuitions, epiphanies, illuminations, and enlightenments.  Most of them were experiences of unity––experiences, as he says, “of things fitting together” in a momentary flash of insight (Northrop Frye in Conversation 48).  Although Frye did speak about the Blake and Edmonton epiphanies in several interviews, he never mentioned them in his books and essays.  But in his notebooks there are more than thirty references to one or another of these experiences, the most important of which seem to have been what he calls his Seattle and St. Clair illuminations.  I have found Frye’s accounts of these experiences to be as endlessly fascinating as they are enigmatic.  The references are often quite cryptic.  In Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary I took a stab at analyzing the Seattle and St. Clair epiphanies (90–6), but the different kinds of recognition that came to Frye on these occasions remain something of a riddle.  Perhaps some blogger out there would be interested in sifting through the various notebook entries with the aim of providing illumination of these illuminations.  What follows are the relevant passages.  The references at the end of each entry are to the volumes in the Collected Works of Northrop Frye.  Page breaks and other editorial insertions are within square brackets. Continue reading

Today in the Frye Diaries, 31 August


1942: Frye reveals that he’s a man of his time when it comes to women in wartime. He was clearly not yet familiar with this iconic figure, Rosie the Riveter, pictured above.

[90] Speaking of war, I sometimes feel that women are bad for morale: they go in for catastrophe, funerals & oracles. They’re the sex of Cassandra, and they’re extremely short on humor. They hate obscenity, an essential part of humor, and the female magazines never go in for it. Cartoons, jokes, breezy comic stories, have little place in the Ladies Home Journal. It isn’t just mediocrity: the male magazines for mediocrities always have humor: but what the average woman wants is something maudlin to attach her complex of self-pity and I-get-left-at-home and my-work-is-never-done and nobody-appreciates-it-anyway to. There’s something morbid about the domestic mind which weeps at weddings and gets ecstatic over calamities. During the war they keep making woo-woo noises prophesying large drafts & taxes with no we’ll-get-along-somehow reserve. Partly of course because they’re not in it. If people only believed in immortality & a world of spiritual values! But it might only make the war more ferocious.

1950: Frye’s account of the “Frye is God” lore that was then popular.

[585]… There was also a letter from Irving attached to his new essay for the Americans [it is not clear which paper Frye is referring to here]. A story in it about a freshman coming to Victoria to take an R.K. course from Professor Frye. When he begins he believes in God: when he gets to Christmas he believes in Frye’s God: when he comes to the end of the year he believes Frye is God. As a matter of fact I’ve known for some time that undergraduates used to refer to me casaually as “God” in their conversations. It’s a strain to live up to that, & doubtless of some theological interest to know that God gets a hell of a dose of hay fever every year at this time: maybe that’s why so many wars start in August & September.

Coming Soon: Epiphanies


Bob Denham has prepared a remarkable collection of Frye’s epiphanies from a number of sources, including his notebooks, diaries, and various interviews.  It is bracing reading.  We’ll be posting it in its entirety tomorrow.  My guess is that this will preoccupy the thoughts of many who read it.  We genuinely hope to receive your observations, in whatever form they come.  This is undoubtedly a motherlode.

Today in the Frye Diaries, 30 August


1942: The draft comes close to home, worrying Frye’s brother-in-law, Roy Kemp:

[89] Out to Fulton Ave., finding Roy [Kemp] very gloomy about the draft. The draft is getting rather horrible, with this hypocritical pretence that they’re only calling “single” men, including all men married since 1940 who now have businesses & small children coming along. Our three noisy female neighbors are getting it: one husband in the army, one in the air force, one category E with a game knee expecting to be examined and shoved in.

1950: One last day tour with Helen and Ruth Jenking as the summer comes to an end:

[584] We drove around Portland, which is a largish town about Lowell’s size & evidently attempts to dedicate itself to Longfellow, but looks tough. We make a half-hearted attempt to find the local museum — Ruth is very conscientious about such things but we had no desire whatever to be instructed by Portland. So we said goodbye to Ruth in a very hole-in-the-corner sort of way, as she was wriggling out of the wrong end of a one-way street. We have had some wonderful times with Ruth this summer, & hated to see them end. Helen has a theory that groups of three don’t work out properly, but Ruth has destroyed that theory.

Tomorrow: women during wartime; “Frye is God”

“100 Great Books”

great books

In 1973 Frye was asked by The Franklin Mint to become a member of the advisory panel that would select one hundred great books.  In a telegram from the Franklin Mint 2 October 1973, one of several urgent messages imploring Frye to join the project, he was told that Willard Thorp of Princeton (who had recommended Frye to the advisory board), Alan Heimert of Harvard, Albert Guerard of Stanford, Frank Kermode of Cambridge, and Richard Ellmann of Oxford had already signed on.  The Mint even sent a representative, Darby Perry, to visit Frye in his office at Victoria College.  He eventually consented and was sent a checklist with certain titles already on the list and with instructions that it was possible to add alternate titles.  Along with nine others, Frye duly constructed his list.  He was paid $1000 for agreeing to participate in the venture.  Shortly after the Franklin Mint made its list of titles available, Frye began receiving mail, criticizing him for lending his name to such a cheap commercial enterprise and noting that the gimmicky advertising brochure of the Franklin Mint did not indicate the titles selected or the editions used.

Frye responded to one of his critics by saying, “My connection with the Franklin Library scheme was confined to agreeing to serve as an ‘advisor’ for their list of titles.  They sent their list of titles to me; I sent them back my own notion of what a hundred ‘great books’ might be, and they went ahead with their original selection.  In other words, consulting me was pure ritual.  If you were to say that I should have known in advance that this was the case, you would doubtless be right.”  To another he wrote, “You were quite right about the participation: I should never have lent myself to such a business, and much regret having done so.  I am not at my most perceptive on the end of a long distance telephone, and the proposal to ask for my advice in selecting a list of books, accompanied with various distinguished names who are friends of mine, looked at the time more innocent than it is, and than I should have known it would be.”

Nevertheless, Frye did take his assignment seriously and his list of recommendations was accompanied by this note of 23 October 1973 to Ron Wallace of the Franklin Mint: “I am sending with this the form sent me, marked up according to instructions.  As I considered the list, however, I found myself drafting a more analytical table of what I would consider the hundred essential books of Western culture, following your own categories closely.  I hope it will be more helpful than confusing.”

Continue reading

Today in the Frye Diaries, 29 August



[88] Read Oscar Levant’s Smattering of Ignorance. Gossipy and malicious: quite good on Hollywood’s bag-of-tricks approach to sound tracks. If a producer gets less than tutti he feels gypped. Conventional “sweep” for opening: i.e. harp glissando, ascending-scale violin passages & woodwinds, ff [fortissimo], then cymbals crash on first beat, then grandiose tuttis.

1950: A banner day: Frye has a big breakthrough on the paper that will eventually be published as “A Conspectus of  Dramatic Genres,” in The Kenyon Review 13 (Winter 1951).  This paper — along with “The Archetypes of Literature” also written during this same summer — is one of the foundations of what would later emerge as Anatomy of Criticism (1957).

[581] Today I was still very groggy & still didn’t feel I could go in swimming. One good thing is that my Kenyon Review paper has suddenly started to clear up. It’s clearing up so damn fast I can hardly keep up with it. Part One has boiled down perfectly out of what I had & Part Two came along beautifully this afternoon: it meant cutting out a lot of stuff, but the net result is one of the most concentrated & best integrated articles I’ve ever produced. No splutter, no gargle, no leers, no attempt to fasten pedantic teeth in the arse of somebody else. Nothing but dry fact and obvious truth, expressed with overwhelming concentration and great simplicity. In short, an article to rank with the Argument of Comedy and the Forms of Prose Fiction, only on an even bigger subject.

Tomorrow: the wartime draft blows close to home; “A Conspectus of Dramatic Genres” all but complete, an end of summer tour

Helen Kemp: “Frygian”


A note from Margaret Burgess may resolve the issue of the adjectival form of “Frye”:

 I don’t know how much Frye would care about which variant is used, but it is perhaps worth noting for the record that the term appears in the Correspondence, where Helen, writing from London on 12 October 1934, quips: “I have quite a stock of Frygian witticisms up my sleeve to chuckle over at odd moments on the ‘bus and walking down streets, and even in lectures when they’re dull” (NFHK, 1:344). Although there is obviously no way of knowing, one might speculate as to whether she thought up the term on her own, or whether it might possibly have been coined at some earlier time by Frye himself.

Frijeeyin? Frigeeyin? Fryin?


Several years back Glen R. Gill, author of Northorp Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth, emailed me (and I think others) to ask if I had an opinion on the proper adjectival form of “Frye.”  For some reason this struck my funny‑bone, and so I dropped my pedantic inquiry into what Frye meant by “chess‑in‑bardo” or whatever I was doing to pen this bit of doggerel:


So what’s the adjective for “Frye”?
Do you pronounce your “g” as hard?
Do you, like Gill, just wonder why
The “g” is sometimes soft as lard?

At other times it disappears,
With triplet vowels aligned in row.
The folks must surely have tin ears
Who say the “g” has gotta go.

For precedent consider “Styx”:
Its adjective requires a “g.”
For even Appalachian hicks
“Norwegian” works phonetically.

But why restrict phonetic rule
To followers of Norrie Frye?
Does not the pedant, simple fool,
Induce, then universify?

Thus, “Frygean” applies to texts,
To arguments and archetypes,
To all the Spirit/Word contexts.
The lightest and the darkest types.

But I will quiz the linguist Kris
(My daughter): she may know the rule
To cure our ignorance of bliss
And send us back to suffix school.

Meanwhile, methinks that Glen R. Gill
Should forego adjectives for Jung
And Freud and Frye, and just fulfill
What Norrie craved—a simple tongue. Continue reading