Notes on Frye, from Ten Years Ago


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:

EGL 324.1  Northrop Frye: An Introduction  [5 October 2000]

Northrop Frye (1912-91), though one of the most frequently cited of literary theorists in the middle part of the twentieth century, tends to be somewhat neglected at the moment in discussions of literary theory, partly because he pursued his own highly individual critical path, so that he cannot easily be accommodated to any other school of modern criticism; partly because he insisted that literature was an autonomous realm, separate from that of ideology, a view which does not sit well with the prevailing critical orthodoxy.  Literary study has, for the last fifteen years or so, been dominated by political and ideological criticism, criticism that seeks to explicate the literary work in terms of its cultural and social context.  Often, especially as the discipline crosses over into “cultural studies” (see Brantlinger), the distinction between literature and other forms of discourse, always a problem for literary theory, is either abolished altogether, or regarded as the arbitrary privileging of certain texts that preserve particular social relations and values.  Frye rarely engaged with other contemporary critics directly, but he implicitly challenged this turn to social criticism in a number of places towards the end of his life, notably in his books Myth and Metaphor and Words with Power.  As his unpublished notebooks appear in the University of Toronto Press edition of Frye’s collected works, they will shed additional light on his view of recent literary theory.

Another reason for the neglect may be simply that Frye was so influential through the middle part of this century that critics have wanted to define new problems and new ways of reading by diverging from that influence.

Frye spent his teaching career at the University of Toronto, and he achieved an intellectual and social influence that went well beyond the discipline of literary criticism.  He was a dedicated teacher who was much loved by generations of students.  A convenient summary of and introduction to the main themes of Frye’s work is the series of interviews with David Cayley that were recorded for the CBC late in his life and published as Northrop Frye in Conversation.  I have relied heavily on these interviews to produce this introductory note on Frye.  Those who want to explore his thought in more depth could also look at the lectures collected in another late work, The Double Vision (1991).

Frye’s first major work was his study of Blake, Fearful Symmetry (1947), while his most important work is undoubtedly Anatomy of Criticism (1957), in which he sought to establish the basis for an autonomous discipline of criticism, that is, to describe a method of studying literature on its own terms, rather than in the terms of other disciplines or systems of thought.  In this respect, Frye has affinities with the New Critics.  Decades after the book appeared, he commented that Freudian and Marxist criticism were two of the deterministic varieties of criticism against which he reacts in the Anatomy (Cayley 72).  The chief products of the latter part of his life are his two volumes on the Bible and literature, The Great Code (1981) and Words with Power (1990).

In common with the structuralist critics, and in opposition to New Criticism, Frye is more concerned with literature as a system than with the individual work, and his books thus are not so much models of how to read particular texts as studies of the nature of this system.  Frye regarded literature as composed of what he called “archetypes”—in other words “myths and units within myths” (Cayley 76).  All literature is thus displaced myth,* endlessly recycled versions of basic stories which take the various forms that are analyzed in the Anatomy of Criticism.

More and more in the latter part of his career Frye talked about myths of primary and secondary concern.  Mythology grows out of concern.  Primary concern is based on the most basic human needs: the desire to survive, the sexual instinct, the desire for freedom.  Secondary concerns are things like loyalty to one’s nation or religious beliefs, to one’s social position, “and in short to everything that comes under the general heading of ideology” (Frye, Myth 21).  To Frye, most of human history is the story of the way that primary concerns are subjugated to secondary concerns.  Any human conflict—for instance, the civil war in the former Yugoslavia—will provide many sad examples.  No work of literature, or “imagination” as Frye puts it, is purely primary or secondary, because mythology is about primary concern, but it has to find its concrete form in a social structure, in a particular group or class, “Yet the two aspects are still two: primary mythology is anthropocentric; secondary mythology is ethnocentric.  Much of the critical process revolves around the effort of distinguishing them” (Myth 23).  Frye uses the example of Henry V to illustrate this distinction.  The play appeals to the patriotic prejudices of the English and their dislike of the French.  However, it also illustrates the brutality and futility of war:

This does not mean that the play is a palimpsest with a perfunctory patriotic message on top and an ironic one underneath to be discovered by cleverer students.  It means that as we progress in understanding, the play’s expression of primary concern, as a metaphorical vision of life, begins to become distinguishable from an ideology of patriotism which is also there.  (Myth 23)

Defending his work against attacks from the left, Frye makes a distinction between literature and ideology.  Some myths are ideologically instituted, like those of official religions.  The following explanation is worth quoting at length, and worth considering in relation to the more skeptical view of the majority of more recent criticism:

most of my critics do not know that there is such a thing as a poetic language, which not only is different from ideological language but puts up a constant fight against it to liberalize and individualize it.  There is no such thing as a pure myth. . . .  Myth exists only in incarnations.  But it’s the ones that are incarnated in works of literature that I’m primarily interested in, and what they create is a cultural counter-environment to the ones that are—I won’t say perverted—but at any rate twisted or skewed into ideological patterns of authority.  (Cayley 90)

Because of his view that literature does not argue, Frye sees the task of the critic as being aware of language, “particularly of literary language and what it’s trying to do” (Cayley 94).  This is further explained in a later conversation, when he comments that “I think I am a critic who thinks as poets think—in terms of metaphors.  If you like, that’s what makes me distinctive as a critic” (Cayley 145).

In an address to the Victoria University alumni he defined the purpose, as he saw it, of studying the humanities:

The basis of my own approach, as a teacher of the humanities, has always been that we participate in society by means of our imagination or the quality of our social vision, and that training the imagination and clarifying the social vision are the only ways of developing citizens capable of taking part in a society as complicated as ours.  (Myth 69)

Frye’s defence of humanistic education is one that seems to me still worth making, and he is further worth our attention as one of the greatest intellectuals that this country has ever produced.  This is not to say that his work should be read uncritically.  For example, a careful reading of his writing shows a strong masculine bias, evident in the metaphors he uses and the way that he represents the creative process in gendered terms that make it a masculine act.  A characteristic example occurs in Myth and Metaphor, where he discusses the relationship between the poet and “his” muse: “I would certainly not want to leave the impression that all Muses are soft cuddly nudes: some of them are ravening harpies who swoop and snatch and carry off, who destroy a poet’s peace of mind, his position in society, even his sanity” (83).  Elsewhere Frye criticized attempts to make the English language more gender-inclusive as exemplifying a “distrust of metaphorical thinking” (Double Vision 87n.), but here he seems limited by the terms of his own metaphor of the Muses.  Similarly, Frye’s work on the Bible and literature assumes a highly personal reading of the Bible, and was carried on in isolation from the dominant schools of biblical interpretation this century.

I hope that this introduction to Frye’s thought will encourage you to read further for yourself.  No matter where one begins in his work, one is always led to explore its recurrent themes and concerns; he is a writer who works by developing simple aphoristic statements into larger and larger structures, and any essay provides a point of access to those structures.  Frye is also a critic one can read for pleasure, simply as an outstanding stylist.  The following list offers some suggestions for further reading.

In the years following his death, Frye’s personal papers were catalogued and made available to scholars, and they have now begun to be used to interpret his work.  It is possible that this will stimulate a renewed interest in his work, as the contributors to the collection Rereading Frye, edited by Boyd and Salusinszky, argue that it should.  There are certainly a number of scholars actively working on Frye, and it is possible that his work will provide an alternative approach for those who want to continue a humanist approach to literary studies.

* “A myth is a story—the Greek word mythos.  It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, whereas life doesn’t” (Cayley 76).

Works Cited and Further Reading

Adamson, Joseph.  Northrop Frye: A Visionary Life.  Toronto: ECW, 1993.

Ayre, John.  Northrop Frye: A Biography.  Toronto: Random, 1989.

Boyd, David and Imre Salusinszky, eds.  Rereading Frye: The Published and Unpublished Works.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Brantlinger, Patrick.  Crusoe’s Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America.  New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cayley, David. Northrop Frye in Conversation.  Toronto: Anansi, 1992.

Denham, Robert D.  Northrop Frye: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1987.

Frye, Northrop.  Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

—.  The Critical Path: An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism.  Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1971.

—.  The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991.

—.  Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1947.

—.  The Great Code: The Bible and Literature.  Toronto: Academic P, c.1981.

—.  Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays, 1974-1988.  Ed. Robert D. Denham.  Charlottesville and London: UP of Virginia, 1990.

—.  The Well-Tempered Critic.  Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1963.

—.  Words with Power: Being a Second Study of “The Bible and Literature.”  Toronto: Penguin, 1990.

Hamilton, A. C.  Northrop Frye: Anatomy of His Criticism.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990.

Lee, Alvin A. and Robert D. Denham, eds.   The Legacy of Northrop Frye.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1995.

A special issue of the journal English Studies in Canada, 19.2 (June 1993), was devoted to Northrop Frye.  His Collected Works are now being published by the University of Toronto Press.  One volume contains his undergraduate essays!

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