Daily Archives: January 24, 2010

Bob Rodgers: Getting to Know Northrop Frye


Bob Rodgers is a documentary filmmaker, TV producer, and writer, currently developing a web-based series titled “The Bible and Literature with Northrop Frye.”

I am fresh from the West when I join Northrop Frye’s graduate class at the University of Toronto in 1959. I know his reputation: Fearful Symmetry is twelve years old, Anatomy of Criticism barely two. Frye is already approaching canonization in the world of literary criticism and celebrity status at the University of Toronto. What comes as a shock is his appearance. He enters the room so unobtrusively it is as though he simply materializes from behind the podium, one eye eagle sharp as it surveys the room, the other with a slightly drooping eyelid as if out of shyness. Or is it irony? Setting Blake’s Collected Works, his only prop, on the podium and gazing at us through glasses that seem to be the wrong prescription, he falls short of the glamorous figure I had anticipated.

Then moments after he begins speaking I forget where I am. I am hearing things as if in a foreign language, yet I seem to understand. As one startling idea follows another I am dazzled by the reach of his mind. At the end of class I haltingly approach him and am granted an interview to discuss my proposal for a term paper. I’m nervous. It is one thing to sit in the relative anonymity of a classroom, quite another to sit across from him face to face.

The doorway between the marble hallway and the hardwood floor of his office in old Emmanuel College has a slightly raised sill I fail to notice. I catch my toe on it and trip. In an effort to regain my balance, I lunge forward, stopping just before crashing into his desk. He looks up in alarm, rising half from his chair as if to fend off a tackle. It is an unpropitious beginning for my proposed topic: William Blake and the Dynamics of Energy and Order.

The imposing yet aloof man I met that day (once he settled back in his chair) was nothing like the man I am coming to know all these years later as I read away at U of T Press’s mammoth publishing enterprise, The Collected Works of Northrop Frye. I am especially interested in the diaries and letters and notebooks that bring out his personal side, and not just one side but many—the self-confessed physical coward, the self-confessed genius, the frustrated novelist and unfulfilled composer, the reluctant introvert and what many would call the dangerous heretic. Most of all I was surprised by his liberal use of what he playfully called dirty words, which would have shocked his orthodox Methodist family and no doubt did shock some of his Victoria College contemporaries. I remember when I was young feeling the same surprise when I learned that Roosevelt had a mistress.

The published works seem certain to establish Frye’s reputation as one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest humanists. The voice is distinctive but impersonal. Only in the previously unpublished writing do we come into contact with the inner man, by way of an unceasing self evaluation in which nothing personal is censored. How many writers would hazard a remark like this that so notoriously troubled Harold Bloom:

Statement for the Day of my Death. The twentieth century saw an amazing development of scholarship and criticism in the humanities, carried out by people who were more intelligent, better trained, had more languages, had a better sense of proportion, and were infinitely more accurate scholars and professional men than I. I had genius. No one else in the field known to me had quite that.

Could these be the words of a braggart? Given what I remember as a student and what I’m learning of the man today as I go through the notebooks, all I can do is applaud him for acknowledging his gift and having the courage to declare it. Nietzsche was right. It is impossible to be a genius and not know it.

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New Generation of Critics vs. the Philistines


Responding to Merv Nicholson’s earlier post

Merv, from my secondary school vantage point, you can rest assured there is a new generation of Frye critics. The Educated Imagination is being taught in more high schools than ever; not only by DeepFrye’s like myself, but students.  In one school a student ON HER OWN ACCORD read EI and then pushed for a presentation before the school’s English department to have all the teachers teach Frye.  Like the classics, Frye’s work refuses to go away — no matter what the School of Resentment says.

If Frye is dead, refuted, parodied, caricatured, it is merely the myth of Goliath: new Professor Davids making a reputation slinging (mostly dirt) at the Goliath Frye. But they are the true Philistines. If you caught the exchanges between David Richter and others on this site, you will see what I mean.

I do teach my Grade 12 students other schools of critical thought, but Frye gives them the most freedom to be creative. Their essays are mostly bereft of secondary sources, as they engage the text directly, doing their own archetype spotting, not to mention ideologue spotting too. (I mean, how will a Marxist criticism of say Oedipus Rex go???)

What is most intimidating of Frye’s technique in the academy is that it exposes the gatekeepers for what they are: power hungry ideologues smashing whatever is in their way, including literature and literary criticism. In fact, Frye’s latest taxonomy of modes in Words with Power (descriptive, dialectical, ideologial, mythical, metaliteray) can also be used to chart all the schools of criticism, most of which fall under “dialectical/ideological”.

Mervyn Nicholson: On the Death of Northrop Frye


I remember where I was when Norrie died.  My wife cried out something or other, and told me she had just heard on the CBC the news, that “Northrop Frye is dead.”  It was definitely a shock.  He was, I was going to say, so young.  By today’s standards, he wasn’t that old.  But he was gone, and that wonderful voice of wisdom and of unparalleled scholarship was gone, too.  The conference planned to celebrate his 80th birthday became a conference of retrospection on his career.

But Northrop Frye had already been dead for some time.

Not dead physically, of course, but dead in terms of his reputation, in terms of influence, in terms of his place in the intellectual world.  And nowhere was his reputation more collapsed than in the country of his birth and that earlier had been proud to claim him as his own, Canada.

Frye, as Bob Denham has reminded us, was for a time one of the most cited thinkers.  For a period he had remarkable influence in the academy—and not just in the academy, but in society more generally, especially Canadian society.  After all, nobody had more influence on the formation of Canadian literature as a discipline, and Canadian studies more generally, than he did.  He was a “public intellectual,” consulted by the Trudeau government, appearing on television, even consulted in the development of Expo 67 in Montreal.  But Frye’s influence vanished astonishingly rapidly.

Outside of Blake studies, his influence was intense but brief, beginning more or less with the publication of Anatomy of Criticism, and abruptly ending in the mid 70s in the centres of academic power, where it counts.  Bloom’s A Map of Misreading, basically a repudiation of Frye, is the indicator that the academic establishment would no longer tolerate Northrop Frye.  He was out.  Derrida was in.

Viewed more closely, Frye was always more popular with students than with academics.  For academics, there was always something uncomfortable and even unacceptable about Frye, and that explains, in part, why his reputation dwindled and disappeared as rapidly as it did.  Now, if you cite Frye favourably in a conference paper or an article or in some other academic setting, the likely reaction of your audience will be disbelief, if not open ridicule.  Canadianists have long since repudiated his ideas about Canada, and the once-famous Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada is now treated as colonialist bric-a-brac.  I hope I am exaggerating.

Yes, Frye is dead, in more than one sense.  True, there is a group of what Professor Denham calls “keepers of the flame,” but apart from a rather small (older) group, interest is feeble.

Last spring, at Carleton University, I met with Joseph Adamson and Michael Happy at the annual Social Sciences / Humanities Congress.   We wanted to find a way to stimulate interest in Frye, to bring back a focus on his work that would actually do justice to this vital thinker.  For years I’ve been wanting to start a journal on Frye-related concerns.  I wanted to get young people interested in Frye—really, to acquaint a new generation with this powerful and interesting thinker.  I wondered if a society should be formed.  Joe and Michael had similar ideas and wishes, and Michael had the brilliant idea of starting a blog, which you see here, and which has thrived mightily under the direction of Michael and Joe.

What I wanted, and what I believe they wanted, too, was not just a memorializing-biographical-bibliographical approach to Frye, but a forum which would stimulate interest in the sort of ideas that Frye worked with, that would develop and apply, and explicate in a fair and creative way, what Frye did, what Frye thought.  Frye has been so misrepresented, so caricatured and distorted, that the actual content of his ideas has rarely been discussed or given a real hearing.  In my own work, as his last Ph.D. student, I have always intended to follow his lead in developing the sort of ideas he pioneered, and my books Male Envy and 13 Ways of Looking at Images, though superficially very different from Frye, are yet, in my view, in the direct line of his thought.

To me, the extraordinary defacement of Frye’s thought is in itself a subject of deep interest.  Why is Frye not accorded the proper attention that a thinker of his depth and originality deserves?  I have always believed that there is something actually threatening about Frye, especially in the academy.

I wonder if others share this view.  And I wonder what we can do about it.  Bring on the new generation!