Daily Archives: October 15, 2009

“Small World”


Responding to Bob Denham’s earlier post:

Bob, A quibble about Frye and David Lodge (whom I have been working on recently). Lodge’s Small World is self-consciously “An Academic Romance,” and Lodge used Frye’s writings on romance to help him think about the genre. But I don’t think that his Professor Kingfisher has much in common with Frye. Kingfisher, “a man whose life is a concise history of modern criticism,” is born in Vienna, and has links to Prague structuralism before coming to the USA to become a leading figure in New Criticism. All of that makes him resemble Rene Wellek, who of course wrote a history of criticism. (In other ways, the character does not correspond to Wellek.) I remember that Lodge once commented in an interview that his deconstructionist friends, who in their theorizing denied any connexion between literature and any non-linguistic reality, were the ones who were most adamant in their questions about who various characters in Small World “really” were! From an archetypal point of view, the name Kingfisher signals that the character originates in Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance via T. S. Eliot, so the idea for the character was perhaps inspired by Frye’s theorizing of romance.

Don Harron: My Frye, His Blake

Don Harron

Some years ago one of Frye’s former students, Don Harron, sent me a copy of My Frye, His Blake, saying that it had been rejected by a university press because it was not academic enough.   Harron’s summary of Frye’s Fearful Symmetry, however, was intended not for an academic audience but for the common reader.  Harron calls his 279‑page summary a down‑sizing of Frye’s complicated and sometime difficult exposition of Blake’s prophecies.  My Frye, His Blake is an abridgement of Fearful Symmetry.  It is not so much an effort to simplify Frye as to make him more accessible to the nonspecialist by presenting, in Pound’s phrase, the “gists and piths” of Frye’s book––a concentrated form of its argument, combining his own summaries with Frye’s words.  I’m hopeful that it might yet find a publisher.

Here’s Harron’s preface:


To deal first with that somewhat presumptuous and proprietary title: I am one of Northrop Frye’s former students, but can lay no special claim to him.  Like James Hilton’s fictional “Mr. Chips,” he and his wife Helen remained childless throughout their lives, but bred thousands of devoted, surrogate progeny like myself, who considered them both as role models during that green island in our lives we call college days.

I was heartened by the announcement that all of Frye’s literary output is to be re-issued in a thirty‑volume collection.  At the same time I worried that his legacy might be confined to academic circles, and miss the larger public he freely sought during his lifetime.  This attempt of mine to summarize the first of his many books may be construed by some as a kind of Blake for Dummies, but that is not my intention.

The origin of My Frye, His Blake stems from the first essay I ever wrote for the great man back in 1946.  I forget the subject of my paper, but I will never forget the mark he gave me.  It was a C‑minus.  He added the words: “This is mostly B.S. , but you do have a gift for making complex ideas simple.”  The latter half of that cryptic statement is the reason for this book.

I was a freshman at Victoria College, University of Toronto, in 1942, but since I was enrolled in a course known as Sock and Fill (Social and Philosophical studies), I didn’t have any lectures with Northrop Frye that first year.  It was months before I got to hear him in a public lecture on “Satire: Theory and Practice.”  I sat beside two nuns from St. Michael’s College who rocked back and forth with delight as Frye quoted Pope and Swift and Dr. Johnson and added more than a few ripostes of his own.  They nearly rolled in the aisle when he quoted Dante reaching the dead center of evil and passing through the arse of the Devil to the shores of Purgatory.

When I returned to Vic in 1945 after two years’ undistinguished service in the RCAF, it was general campus knowledge that the book Northrop Frye had been thinking about and writing for more than ten years was on the English poet and engraver William Blake (1757–1827).  Fearful Symmetry is considered by many to be the most complex of Frye’s writings.  It was his second book, the Anatomy of Criticism written ten years later, that gave him his international reputation as a literary critic.  When I took courses with him in Spenser and Milton during my undergraduate years 1945–48, he was in the throes of preparing the Anatomy, and a good deal of that book came out in his lectures to us.

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Thanks to Clayton Chrusch


Fearful Symmetry was the very last of Frye’s major works that I read, and by the time I  first read it, I had re-read just about everything else a few times over. I don’t know why I put it off for so long. I rationalized that it is a youthful work (even though it is clearly not that), a mere precursor to Anatomy where the “real work” begins, and a study narrowly focused on a still somewhat obscure poet. So, predictably enough, when I finally came to read it, it blew open all the doors and sent my carefully arranged mental furniture flying. It’s a book that still haunts me. Fearful Symmetry possesses all of Frye’s runic power to summon up the fearsome but benign authority of the Magus/prophet: not, as he says elsewhere, the oppressive mystery that conceals, but the liberating mystery that reveals.

I am therefore very grateful that Clayton Chrusch has undertaken to provide us with a weekly summary, chapter by chapter. By the time I reach the end of each installment, I’m a little breathless with excitement. Such is the power of the book that Clayton’s lucid exposition effortlessly taps into it. I look forward to his next.

Making Literature Out of Frye


Frye appears in "The Pajusnaya Consignment" (above, July 1984) in Marvel's New Defenders series

In addition to Amis’s The Rachel Papers Frye has made his way into a number of poems, plays, novels, and discursive texts.  An earlier post catalogued his appearance in contemporary poems.  As for the other genres, one of the central characters of David Lodge’s Changing Places (1974) refers humorously to the perpetual motion of an elevator, “a profoundly poetic machine,” as symbolizing Frye’s theory of modes in Anatomy of Criticism (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1975; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 212–13.  Professor Kingfisher in Lodge’s Small World (1985), a sequel to Changing Places, is a fictionalized version of Frye.  In Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water Dr. Joseph Hovaugh is modeled on Frye.  Here are further examples:

•  The following bit of dialogue occurs in Frederic Raphael’s play, Oxbridge Blues, from Oxbridge Blues and Other Plays for Television (London: BBC, 1984).  Victor is a serious writer.  Wendy is his wife:

Victor:  I didn’t think you felt like discussing it.

Wendy:   I don’t even know what “it” is.  What is it?  I know you’re ridiculously jealous of Pip and you can’t even bring yourself to accept his generosity without looking as though you’d much sooner be reading the collected works of — of — of — oh — Northrop Frye.

Victor:  I would.  Much. The Anatomy of Criticism, though flawed, was a seminal work in some ways.  Why did you happen to choose that name?

Wendy:  I wanted someone with a silly name.

Victor: I don’t find Northrop particular silly.

Wendy:  Well I do. I find it very silly indeed.  Not as silly as you’re being, but still very silly.

•  From Gail Godwin’s The Odd Woman (New York:  Knopf, 1974), 257–8:

Was Gabriel’s project quixotic?  For almost two years, she had vacillated between thinking him a nearsighted fool and a farsighted genius.  How could she tell?  Surely there must be a way to measure it, but how?  After the fact, it became a bit simpler.  For instance, in the field of literature, of literary criticism, she knew Northrop Frye was a genius—even though some respectable scholars like Sonia Mark’s husband detested Northrop Frye.  Frye’s ideas made sense; they rested on valuable hypotheses; they lit up the entire realm of literature for you.  After you had read Frye, you thought of your favorite books as parts of a large family.  You not only saw them as you had before, but you saw behind them and in front of them. It was like meeting someone, forming an opinion about this person, then being privileged to meet the person’s parents and grandparents, as well; and then being privileged to meet the person’s children, and grandchildren!  Of course, someone like Max Covington would say, The person himself, alone, should be judged.  What do parents have to do with it?  What do his children have to do with it?  They only confuse and diffuse you from the proper study of the object, which is:  the object itself.

She had tried to lift her assurance about Frye—as one might gingerly try to lift an anchovy from its tin and place it, undamaged, on a plate—and transfer it toward her wavering confidence in Gabriel.  Surely, during the forties and fifties when Frye was painstakingly filling his wife’s shoe boxes with notecards for Anatomy of Criticism, Mrs. Frye had had an occasional qualm.  Or had she? After all, Frye had done Fearful Symmetry first.  She had that to build on.  She knew that her first closetful of shoeboxes had come to something.  Whereas, with Gabriel, there was only the queer, eccentric little monograph, published half a lifetime ago!

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