Frye’s “Inductive Survey” and the English Curriculum


Some observations in a time of transition (and at the start of a new academic year).

 Frye’s claim that literary criticism was a science was quite controversial when the Anatomy of Criticism first appeared.  One of the things that Frye meant by this claim was that criticism should be more inductive than deductive.  Instead of applying a preconceived model from another discipline (his usual examples are Marxist, Freudian, and neo-Thomist criticism), the literary scholar should derive his or her conceptual framework “from an inductive survey of the literary field” (Anatomy of Criticism; Collected Works 22:9).  The implications of this for the teaching of literature are obvious.  From undergraduate curricula and required texts to PhD course requirements and comprehensive examination reading lists, the aim should be to survey as wide a range of the literary field as is possible.

 In terms of literary value, Frye of course famously opposed the idea that literary judgments could be demonstrated, but he was equally sure that some texts were more rewarding to study than others.  The frequency with which he refers to Shakespeare and Milton would suggest that they should figure prominently in any programme of English-language literary education.

 How do Frye’s ideas relate to the state of literary studies today?  For one thing, as he observed through the decade before his death, some of the deterministic forms of criticism of his youth have returned, along with new but analogous models.  At the same time, and as a result of some of these theoretical positions, the idea that there is a distinct literary field with certain established “monuments” has become much more problematic (there are a few exceptions such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and possibly Henry James).

 In my own field of Victorian studies, I would like to make a modest defence of the idea that the aspiring scholar should make a fairly extensive inductive survey as part of his or her professional training.  One useful barometer of the state of Victorian studies is the conversation on the VICTORIA listserv (which is archived here).  It would be invidious to single out examples, especially since graduate students are often required to post questions on the list as part of a course requirement.  But speaking generally, the questions that are posted sometimes reveal that students are able to reach the stage of independent research for their PhD in a state of apparent ignorance of what I would regard as key texts of relevance to their work.  One well-known scholar lamented on the VICTORIA list a couple of years ago that courses require fewer and fewer texts, and those that are assigned tend to be shorter, so that Hard Times generally represents Dickens, to the exclusion of the longer and more characteristic works, while Thackeray is gradually disappearing from view altogether.  Another Victorianist, elsewhere, notes sadly the fact the Oxford World’s Classics series no longer includes all of George Eliot’s novels.  At the same time, the sensation novel has become far more prominent, so that Lady Audley’s Secret, once a vague rumour even to most PhD students, is now among the most frequently taught of all Victorian texts.

 Obviously I have opened up larger questions about the changing nature of reading and education, which I will not develop here.  Nor do I want to deplore in neoconservative manner all the recent developments in my field, some of which I have in fact contributed to.  I am simply arguing that those of us who teach and who determine syllabuses and reading lists should consider our responsibility to promote the reading of a wide variety of Victorian texts, including novels such as Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, Bleak House, or the longer novels of George Eliot.  Or, thinking of Frye’s own fascination with the Victorian sages, it would be nice if students were exposed to Carlyle, Ruskin, Mill, Arnold, and Newman more frequently than now tends to be the case. There is nothing wrong with studying Lady Audley’s Secret, whether as a Victorian scholar or in an undergraduate classroom, but Vanity Fair remains for me a more significant literary experience; just as, in Frye’s words, “The critic will find soon, and constantly, that Milton is a more rewarding and suggestive poet to work with than Blackmore” (CW 22:26).  (Lest any of my fellow-Victorianists feel that I am chiding them for their choice of research topics or class texts, I admit to publishing on Dinah Maria Mulock and Charlotte Mary Yonge, and to teaching John Halifax Gentleman and Tom Brown’s Schooldays!)  A last quotation from the Anatomy: “A critic may spend a thesis, a book, or even a life work on something that he candidly admits to be third-rate, simply because it is connected with something else he thinks sufficiently important for his pains” (CW 21:29).

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One thought on “Frye’s “Inductive Survey” and the English Curriculum

  1. Michael Sinding

    Russell Perkins’ question “How do Frye’s ideas relate to the state of literary studies today?” is an excellent one, and deserves some airing out.

    One’s initial impression of the answer may be, “not at all.” But Bob Denham has done plenty of work to show how Frye’s ideas continue to inform research and teaching in all kinds of ways. So why do we get that impression?

    What I find striking is that when you look at the history of specific topics and questions in literary studies, it’s not unusual to find that Frye has made a major and permanent contribution. As a fr’instance, I’ve been going through studies of satire. In a recent anthology, Ruben Quintero’s Companion to Satire (Blackwell, 2007), Frye is still pretty prominent, though not so prominent as Bakhtin. Paul Simpson’s On the Discourse of Satire (John Benjamins, 2003) says that Frye’s study shaped much criticism, and that his definition of satire seems to be more widely referenced than any other. And Frye makes a respectable showing in John Frow’s Genre (Routledge, 2006), along with Aristotle, Bakhtin, Derrida, Todorov. These are pretty different kinds of books, too. The Companion is fairly introductory, Simpson’s is mainly a linguistic study, Frow is more poststructuralist, esp. Foucauldian (it’s in the New Critical Idiom series). I think you’d find this is true with many other topics, though no doubt some (genre, structure & form generally) more than others.

    And yet for all of our interest, there is not (yet?) a strong momentum continuing to develop his ideas, as there is with, say, Bakhtin. Something about Frye’s assumptions and style seems uncongenial to the sea-changes literary studies underwent with post-structuralism and afterwards. So even though Hayden White and Fredric Jameson greatly admired Frye, their followers don’t seem to share the interest, and you don’t see Frye talked about much in e.g. PMLA. Perhaps it’s that he never did engage much with those sea-changes. He continued to work with his own assumptions and system, despite occasional references to Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, et al. Bakhtin didn’t engage with them at all, of course, but his ideas were simply better suited to poststructuralism’s impulses and directions.

    But I don’t think we want a defensive / defiant celebration of Frye’s supposed old-fashioned-ness, or unfashionable-ness. In short, Frye’s connections with current literary studies seem peripheral, not central, or in the background rather than the foreground.

    I’d like to see Frye have more of the kind of continuing reconsideration that Bakhtin does: putting his main ideas into play with current movements, themes, and questions, and tested and developed accordingly. Think of how much he has to say about culture, including popular culture, worldview and ideology, the social contexts of literature and criticism, as well as all the brilliant structural studies … . There’s a lot that is untapped.


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