Today in the Frye Diaries, 19-20 August


Frye occasionally quipped that some undertakings are as short-lived as a new year’s resolution. He may have had his own diaries in mind. Frye started seven separate diaries between 1942 and 1955.  Five of them dutifully commence in January and, of those, only one makes it to September; one lasts till March, one till April, and one till May. Another doesn’t make it past January 13th. His diary for the entire year of 1953 consists of four entries in March. His first diary, begun in the summer of 1942, he manages to maintain till mid-November, making it the latest month of any year that Frye records to any significant extent. Which is to say that drawing on anniversary occasions from the diaries is a haphazard endeavor at best. Still, while we find our footing here and build our readership and contributor base, this kind of exercise promises nutritious tidbits. What Frye says in a throwaway observation often reveals more than many people manage with their best shot. We’ll make this first entry a two-fer, covering both the 19th and the 20th of August.

1942: On the 19th, Frye reflects mostly on the war, which was then not going well for the allies.  He also makes some prescient observations about China, and goes on to make some biting and equally prescient remarks about Western historiography. (All quotes are from volume 8 of the Collected Works, edited by Bob Denham.)

[63] Today the news was all about the Dieppe raid, & the Russian front also got a front-page splash.  The fact that the Chinese stormed & captured Wenchow, a city of 100,000 on the coast, was recorded in a tiny box in the second section. I simply cannot understand this assumption that the Chinese front is of no importance or interest. It’s all the sillier when one realizes that the current of world history is now going through Asia & that Europe has ceased to be of any historical significance. China will probably have the next century pretty well to itself as far as culture, & perhaps even civilization, are concerned. 

[64] Western historical dialectic gives me a pain anyway. God thought of us. He started us back in Nile slime & Euphrates mud, then the Greeks added reason, the Hebrews God, the Romans law and the British fair play, until here we are. Asia is irrelevant: it has no real history because it didn’t contribute anything to our great Western omelette. Phooey. In Sept. 1939 the New Yorker wrote a stentorous leader about a world of peace being plunged into war. Two hundred million people, if that, go to war in Western Europe and that’s a world at war. Half a billion people have been fighting for years in Asia and that’s peace. I expected something better from the New Yorker.

 After recording some positive comments about crime writer Edgar Wallace whom he has just read for the first time, Frye concludes with a sardonic review of the latest Katherine Hepburn film.

[66] Was told by someone that Woman of the Year with Katherine Hepburn was good, & went down to see it.  It was with a quite good propaganda film, Confirm or Deny. Our propaganda films are surprisingly adult. The other show was about a quasi-Dorothy Thompson, who gave up a brilliant public career for the man she really luhved. She could speak every language in Europe but she couldn’t cook, & all the housewives in the audience gurgled. There was one good line, the moral of the picture, that women should be illiterate and clean, like canaries. All foreigners are funny. For small-town Midwestern isolationist consumption.

On the 20th, Frye makes some observations on reading Samuel Pepys — “I find him more baffling and elusive than anyone” — and then elaborates on the idiosyncratic art of diary writing:

[68] Pepys knew perfectly well what he was doing: he wrote a book which he well knew was an art-form. His motive in doing so is not obvious, because his genre, the diary, is not a branch of autobiography, as [John] Evelyn’s is. He was a supreme observer, making himself a visionary, se faire voyant, as much as Blake or Rimbaud. And he knew perfectly how effective & oracular the random is: his camera keeps on clicking after he gets in bed with his wife because he knows better than to shut it off. A real & artistic passion for observation in itself with no attempt at creative follow-through is rare, but it exists. And there’s a riddling, gnomic quality in the photograph absent from the painting. When I try to visualize Pepys I visualize clothes & a cultured life-force. I have a much clearer vision of the man who annoyed Hotspur or Juliet’s Nurse’s husand. I feel that Pepys makes the dead eerie and transplanetary, not our kind of species at all. He does not observe character either: I can’t visualize his wife or my Lord. Even music he talks about as though it were simply a part of his retiring for physic.

1950 is the only other year with diary entries for August and cover his stay in Cambridge, Massachusetts on a Guggenheim Fellowship .  On the 19th he records a tour of the Yale campus:

[558] …We saw the buildings, but I’ll have to get a map if I’m to get any notion of it in my mind. The most attractive of the colleges was…Pearson [sic], a lovely Georgian quadrangle. Yale is a mixture of Georgian & Gothic. The library is a rather affected Gothic: a long nave leading up to the main desk as a sort of high altar, & dimly lit transepts leading to the reading room apses. We didn’t go into the stacks, but did see where the rare book collection was, & peeped into [Professor Chauncey] Tinker’s office.  He has everything critical on Blake except me.

On the 20th, Frye recounts a weekend trip to Cornwall, Mass. — “a breathtakingly beautiful drive” — where he and Helen hike an old trail “running from New Hampshire to Viriginia.” Afterwards, while Helen naps, he reads T. S. Eliot’s newly published The Cocktail Party, which he calls “a competent but by no means impressive play.”

Tomorrow: Western scholars and Buddhism; an introduction to Mark van Doren; an unpleasant conversation with a Blake-hating “mural painter”; a drunken enounter with James Thurber.

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