Daily Archives: October 30, 2009

Before the Revolution: Frye and the History of Literary Studies (II)


When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s there was a pioneering women’s studies course on campus.  It was interdisciplinary, and I believe it was team taught.  The course was discussed among students – with the exception of those who were self-proclaimed feminists, a tiny minority – in much the same way that a Communist cell might have been discussed during the early years of the cold war.  A rumour circulated that “there is a guy taking the course.”  When I started a tenure-track job in the late 1980s, female faculty comprised about one-quarter of my department, and gender issues came up frequently, and sometimes contentiously, in discussion about the curriculum, hirings, and occasionally about the conduct of meetings.  With the sudden rise to prominence of feminist criticism and the institutional and societal concern with equity in the workplace, it was clear that a revolution was in progress.  Things have changed so much since those days that it is hard to realize that they were only twenty years ago.  In the last five years, my department (of nineteen full-time members) has hired ten new tenure-track faculty.  That is in itself a remarkable fact, but it is also noteworthy that the gender ratio of those appointments is 3 men to 7 women.  This was not the result of any conscious policy, but rather is a reflection of the feminization of English studies.  As another example of this, I noticed that at several sessions at this year’s Congress that the graduate students and junior faculty in the room were almost entirely female.

This personal reminiscing is by way of a historical preamble to a passage from Northrop Frye’s Selected Letters which provides an excellent illustration of the way things were before the feminist revolution.  Frye is writing to Robert Heilman, chair of English at the University of Washington in 1951:

Dear Robert,

Thanks very much for your letter.  If there weren’t a catch, I could recommend the best teacher of Middle English that you or any other English department is ever likely to get.  She’s a wonderful girl named Margaret Stobie, now at Winnipeg, Manitoba, Ph.D., author of a Middle English grammar and of several articles ranging from scholarly notes in PMLA to studies in the metre of Hopkins.  Excellent teacher.  It’s no doubt irrelevant to add that she’s a great pleasure to look at.  The catch is her husband Bill, a most agreeable and likeable chap, will get along in any society, probably do a good teaching job with elementary composition classes, but no scholarship and little promise of any.  The conventions of modern society don’t permit the woman to do the job and the man to wash the dishes, which is what’s appropriate here: Bill would make an excellent faculty wife.  They’ve had a lot of jobs because people hire Bill to get Peg, and then a new administration comes in that fires all married women, which is why she’s unemployed now.

Margaret Roseborough Stobie, who was a friend of Frye from graduate school days, died in 1990.  Those who want to see more details about her academic career can find information here on the University of Manitoba Archives website; it is interesting to note that she was “the first woman appointed to the academic panel of the Canada Council.”  In Frye’s comments to Heilman he clearly recognizes that the “conventions of modern society” are at odds with what is obviously appropriate and desirable, which is that Margaret Stobie should be hired for her own merit.  Superficially, by today’s standards, his letter might be considered a bit condescendingly sexist, but in the context of the time and the situation, I think it reveals his essential liberalism.

Two additional comments: 1. An anecdote in John Ayre’s biography of Frye indicates that Stobie was skeptical of Frye’s archetypal method of criticism.  2. William Stobie died in 2007, leaving the couple’s fortune of $7 million to the University of Manitoba, where they finished their teaching careers.  The money, the largest bequest ever received by the university, is specifically designated for the purchase of books in the literary humanities.  An article in the National Post observes that “The Stobies donated the money without asking that their name be placed on any building on campus – a rare move for anyone giving a multimillion-dollar gift.”

Coming Soon: Frye’s Religious Knowledge Lectures


Bob Denham has made a remarkable discovery: a full set of notes of Frye’s undergraduate course on Religious Knowledge.  Bob describes them as follows:

Course notes for twenty‑four lectures (September 1947 to March 1948)  compiled by Margaret Gayfer from her class notes, incorporating some notes by Richard Stingle.  They also include some of Frye’s answers to questions, and his review of the previous week’s lecture.

Margaret Gayfer and Richard Stingle were members of what Frye said was the “most brilliant” class he ever taught (1947–48).  Gayfer became an editor for the International Council for Adult Education.  She is the author of The Multi-grade Classroom––Myth and Reality: A Canadian Study (1991), An Overview of Canadian Education (1991), and numerous other publications on adult education.  Richard Stingle, who did his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, taught English at the University of Western Ontario.

We don’t have to belabor how exciting a find this is.  We will start posting them over the weekend, one lecture per day over the next three weeks.

Kerygma, Cont’d


Following up on Michael Happy’s question about kerygma, here’s an adaptation of a little study of the word I did for Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World:

In The Great Code Frye adopts the word “kerygma” to indicate that while the Bible has obvious poetic features, it is more than literary because it contains a rhetoric of proclamation.  “Kerygma,” the form of proclamation made familiar by Bultmann, thus designates the existentially concerned aspect of the Bible, as opposed to its purely metaphoric features.  Bultmann sought to “demythologize” the New Testament narrative as an initial stage in interpretation: the assumptions of the old mythologies, such as demonic possession and the three-storied universe, had to be purged before the genuine kerygma could be “saved,” to use his word.  Frye, of course, has exactly the opposite view of myth: “myth is the linguistic vehicle of kerygma” (Great Code, 30).

But having made his point about kerygma Frye drops the word altogether from the rest of The Great Code, except for a passing reference toward the very end of the book (231).  In Words with Power the word “kerygma” is completely absent from Frye’s analysis in the “sequence and mode” (or “language”) chapter; we have to wait until chapter 4, where we learn that the excluded initiative––what lies hidden in the background of the poetic––is what leads to kerygma, even though Frye does not initially put it in these terms.  He begins by saying, “Our survey of verbal modes put rhetoric between the conceptual and the poetic, a placing that should help us to understand why from the beginning there have been two aspects of rhetoric, a moral and a tropological [figurative] aspect, one persuasive and the other ornamental.  Similarly, we have put the poetic between the rhetorical and the kerygmatic, implying that it partakes of the characteristics of both” (Words with Power 111).  Frye then begins to expand the meaning of kerygma far beyond what it had meant in The Great Code.  It now becomes synonymous with the prophetic utterance, the metaliterary perception that extends one’s vision, the Longinian ecstatic response to any text, sacred or secular, that “revolutionizes our consciousness” (Words with Power 111–14).  Kerygma takes metaphorical identification “a step further and says: ‘you are what you identify with’” (ibid., 116).  We enter the kerygmatic realm when the separation of “active speech and reception of speech” merges into a unity (ibid., 118).

This leads to an absorbing account of the “spiritual” as it is embedded in the descriptive, conceptual, and rhetorical “factors of the poetic,” and the “spiritual” as extending the body into another dimension so that it reaches “the highest intensity of consciousness” (ibid., 119–21, 128).  Then, some twenty pages after Frye began his exploration of kerygma, he arrives finally at the excluded initiative of the poetic.  He does not say what we might expect, that the excluded initiative is kerygma.  What he says, in a statement that appears to be something of an anticlimax after all the elevated probing of Spirit, is that the excluded initiative of the poetic “is the principle of the reality of what is created in the production and response to literature” (ibid., 128).  This teasing understatement has been anticipated by the declaration about the unity of “active speech and reception of speech” just quoted.  Or as Frye puts it in Notebook 53 in less pedestrian terms, kerygma is “the answering voice from God to the human construct” (Late Notebooks, 2:615).

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