Throughout the 1990s, I regularly taught an intermediate course in the Theory of Criticism. At various intervals in the course, I would give students a brief essay providing an overview of the unit we were studying. I used the Hazard Adams anthology Critical Theory Since Plato, and always assigned the selection from Frye (the second essay from the Anatomy). What follows is the last version of my notes on Northrop Frye, from the fall of 2000. After that semester, I stopped teaching the theory course in order to make room in my schedule for a new course I had developed on the Bible and Literature.
My notes may be of some slight historical interest to readers of this blog; if I were teaching the course again, I would change a few emphases, but I was struck on rereading the essay by how little I would change of the substance. I’m not sure to what extent the prophecy of my last sentence has been fulfilled; Frye does not seem to me especially influential on the liberal studies and great books programmes that claim to be in the humanist tradition, though I may be generalizing here from inadequate knowledge. Furthermore, reflecting on these comments at the beginning of 2010, my impression is that there has been something of an accommodation between literary and cultural studies in recent years. (Joe and Michael may well disagree with this as an overly sanguine opinion.) I expected to see an increasing polarization between the two approaches, but that does not seem to me to have happened. I think that PMLA is a more genuinely diverse publication than it seemed in the 1990s, and the graduate students I meet are often eclectic and flexible in their thinking, even if they are also realistic about what they have to do to get an academic job. Frye’s place in the contemporary scene is something that I am sure we will continue to discuss and argue about.
In one section of the theory class, during the mid-90s, I had an excellent student – let’s call her Antonia – who was the only person ever to choose R. P. Blackmur as an essay subject in all the times that I taught the course. A colleague told me that she had mentioned Frye in her Canadian literature class, to which Antonia responded, “I love Northrop Frye!”
Here are the notes: