Frye as Teacher


In the course of editing Frye’s Diaries––more than a decade ago now––I sought to identify the more than 1,200 people whose names crop up in the diary entries.  I corresponded with a number of these people, most of whom were his students at Victoria College in the 1940s and 1950s.  To take one year as an example, I wrote to seventy‑eight people who made an appearance in the 1949 diary: fifty‑nine responded.  I would ordinarily inquire of all those I wrote whether they remembered the occasion mentioned by Frye, and I would usually invite them to provide some biographical information about themselves and to share their memories of Frye as a person and teacher.  I often requested the correspondents to help identify others mentioned in the diaries.  I was interested in learning specific details in order to annotate the Diaries, but my invitation to the correspondents to reflect on their experiences with Frye and on the Victoria College scene at the time would help me, I hoped, to reconstruct the social landscape on campus during the seven years covered in the Diaries.  The correspondents were generous in their responses.  The more than one hundred replies I received, many quite extensive, provide a rather remarkable body of reminiscence.

One leitmotif that runs throughout the letters I received is the power and generous presence that Frye had as a teacher.  Here is a sampler of the correspondents’ tributes:

• Northrop Frye was the greatest single influence in my life. (Phyllis Thompson)

• My own memories of Frye are filled with respect and gratitude.  What incredible luck to have been “brought up” by him!  I remember the excitement of his first lecture every fall. There was a ping of the mind, like a finger snapped against cut glass.  You came back from your grungy summer job and then there it was, the whole intellectual world snapped into life again, the current flowing. (Eleanor Morgan)

• I still cannot believe my good fortune in having been taught so many stimulating courses by a person of such brilliance and compassion.  His ideas were electrifying, encyclopedic, and revolutionary. . . . Each year when I returned to the university, the hinges of my mind sprang open, and my brain pulsed with the excitement of Frye’s thinking, his eloquence, and his wit.  But what keeps his influence on my life vivid and profound to this day is that he enabled us to translate the leaps of intellect we experienced in his lectures into the emotional underpinnings of a way to look at the world and one’s place in it––in short, to be in the world, yet not of it. (Beth Lerbinger)

• Frye would lecture without notes, yet the class rarely turned haphazard.  He asked questions constantly that required a knowledge not only of the Bible and classical mythology, but also of the major works in English and American literature.  No one could keep pace with all the references, but still the effect was to illuminate and give a structure to a rich and fascinating verbal universe.  And then, as an added bonus, just when you thought he had reached the conclusion his investigation was leading to, he would use that “conclusion” as the opening position in a new line of investigation. (Ed Kleiman)

• In short, the Frye course [Religious Knowledge] in one way made for a lot of fun at home.  In another way it changed our lives forever. (M.L. Knight)

• In 1950 while at library school there was no need for me to run hard at either studying or football so I and a classmate would range the campus auditing lectures and we found Frye had the largest, most intent crowds and the most graduate students.  Even now I take up my lecture notes, particularly on Job and Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, and find him stimulating. (Douglas Fisher)

• My memories of Northrop Frye are fond and precious.  I still have the essays I wrote for him, with his comments on them.  I have a collection of almost all of his published books. . . .  I wrote to him a few times.  I recall that one letter, probably the one that occasioned his notation in his diary, was to thank him for what he had taught to me, because of the perspectives he gave me about life. (Jodine Boos)

• His shyness and genuine modesty, coupled with a witty self-deprecation, made him the quintessential Canadian.  Underneath all that, of course, was the finest literary mind in the Western world. (Don Harron)

• I really did not know Norrie as a teacher.  I was never in one of his classes, but in our interviews he taught me much & indeed he knocked a lot of fuzziness out of my head.  He could not make me into a scholar, but he did encourage me as a poet; I owe him a great deal, & I always felt friendly towards him. (George Johnston)

• I was in Philosophy & English and we had marvellous, thrilling courses with Frye on the Elizabethan period, Spenser & Milton, 19th Century Thought, The English Bible . . . They filled my thoughts for three years!  Frye was university for me.  Nothing else counted.  I couldn’t just take notes on his lectures, I had to try to write down every single word he said. . . . I got so spoiled listening to Frye that I couldn’t stand other lecturers. (Gloria Vizinczey)

• I expect a lot of people, when they heard he had died, said to themselves, “I may as well lay down my pen since there is no one in the world for whom I can now write, no one whose good assessment I crave.” (Catharine Hay)

• Frye’s teachings were the main influence in my life and thought. . . . My friends and I always left his classes feeling elated.  We felt we were extremely privileged.  In later years we knew we had been. (Gloria Dent)

• Frye was the most stimulating of all our professors.  The mind expansion was incredible. (Barbara Beardsley)

• I remember that on one of those weekend trips to Toronto, Norrie suggested I stay with him and Helen.  It was very pleasant.  I was fond of both of them.  They invited in several Vic grads for dinner on Friday.  It was delightful on Saturday morning to waken to the strains of Scarlatti.  Norrie was a most accomplished pianist.  A little later, when he learned that I had been unable to find an edition of Scarlatti in Ottawa, he, without having mentioned it to me, sent me a good two‑volume collection of Scarlatti sonatas.  This was typical of Norrie.  He was one of the best‑hearted, most generous men I knew.  (A.M. Beattie)

• He was the finest teacher I ever had; my two post-Frye years at Cambridge offered no one within miles of him.  He was demanding, very, brilliant in his lecturing, very, gave no student an easy grade, ever (not me, anyhow); he tugged at and stirred undergraduates’ minds every class, if your mind wandered a half-minute you were lost, hardly anybody wandered.  He was witty and very funny too. (Don Coles)

• I had asked permission to attend a lecture with a good friend of mine who was doing graduate studies and had chosen a series being given by Professor Frye.  This lecture was on a winter afternoon, on the top story of the great old stone building, at the end of a brilliant sunny day with a golden sunset.  That light, coming through the immense west windows, turned our lecturer’s thick fair hair into an angel’s head.  His language, however, was precise, and his presentation was concise––truly brilliant but also modest.  We saw and heard a very sharp, intelligent, clever (but modest) angel. (Jessie Adams)

• As Frye often said later, the class of 4T8 was the first that he came to know so thoroughly and we were certainly devoted to him.  A group of us would appear at any outside lecture by him whenever we became aware of it. (Richard Stingle)

• I had taken a first year Religious Knowledge, and a second year English, with Professor Frye.  When I was choosing third year courses, his English and the History class I wanted conflicted for one of the two hours a week.  When I approached Professor Frye and told him that, he asked if I had a class at 10 o’clock, and as I said I did not, he told me he would repeat the conflicting lecture in the following hour, each day necessary.  I accepted without argument; I remember being in wonderment at such generosity, but did not even consider further discussion.  I went to his study each time, and sat quietly if he were not yet there.  I would look around at his book shelves, not brave enough to go near or touch.  He gave his lecture, and I took notes, rarely questioning him, and so it did not require a full hour of his time.  I doubt that it was rewarding for him, but it has been a treasured memory for me over the years. (Belva Walker)

• My course from Northrop Frye was Religious Knowledge.  It was a first year pass arts elective. . . . he was a brilliant lecturer with a vast command of his subject and the course made a deep impression on me that lasted all my life. (Don Weinert)

• No one could forget the “Paradise Lost” lectures by “the Great God Frye,” as he was known even then.  The students from U.C. and Trinity who used to crash our classes were jostled to the back of the room.  After all, he was “ours.”  To comment on the brilliance of his lectures seems to me to be redundant.  When I think of Northrop Frye, I remember late one afternoon when a few of us gathered in the music room of the old Wymilwood on Avenue Road and listened to him play the piano and chat about 16th‑century music.  Because our course was small we were able to meet our professors more informally than perhaps they do today. (Judy Bowler)

• I think, in retrospect, I would have been more moved if Frye at the end of the course had delivered himself of Prospero’s epilogue.  I think, looking back, that I wanted on some level to release him and ourselves from the sheer spell of his brilliance that at the time had swallowed me whole and even Blake whole.  But, you will rightly conclude, I was very immature.  I had found a monumental father figure and thought of myself as one of those only‑begotten sons who could do nothing more or better than sacrifice himself.  Frye would have been horrified at that kind of response, indeed, was horrified by it whenever he confronted anything like it. (Ross Woodman)

• Apart from his brilliant mind, the most amazing aspect of Frye was his complete humility.  Needless to say, as undergraduates we felt that writing an essay for Frye was like writing an essay for God, but he never failed to give thoughtful specific evaluations of our work in a positive encouraging way.  We loved him as a sympathetic friend, admired him as a brilliant scholar, and were very proud of his loyalty to his own University, even though he enjoyed teaching in the great universities of the world. (Marie Gardner)

• Norrie was a brilliant teacher from the start, breath‑taking in his insights, dazzling in his clarity and inspiring in his challenge to the life of the mind.  He was above us but still he was one of us. (Newton Rowell Bowles)

• As a teacher, he gave the impression of having read everything (and I mean everything, not just the text or author or period under discussion) just the day before, and seeing all of it in an intellectual context where everything made sense or could make sense.  At the same time, his lectures were delivered, never read nor dependent on notes, and appeared to be the thoughts of someone thinking through the subject right before one’s eyes. . . . Norrie . . . was the epitome of self-confidence or self-assuredness in the classroom, devoted to clarity of expression appropriate to the level of his audience and to challenging it by seeming to be saying things that were just above its present reach.  The effect was that of having one’s head literally lift off one’s body several times a week.  He was simply the best lecturer––inspiring, stimulating, coherent, incisive, and truly knowledgeable––I have encountered or heard. . . . quite simply the best embodiment of thinking and learning and teaching I have ever known.  (John B. Vickery)

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