Peter Webb: “Northrop Frye, Paul Fussell, and the Anatomy of Canadian War Literature”


We have just posted Peter Webb’s “Northrop Frye, Paul Fussell, and the Anatomy of Canadian War Literature”.  You can read it in the journal here.

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2 thoughts on “Peter Webb: “Northrop Frye, Paul Fussell, and the Anatomy of Canadian War Literature”

  1. Robert D. Denham

    Although there are number of passages in Frye’s 1942 diary that reveal his anxieties about war, I wonder if his decision to become an Odyssey critic rather than and Iliad one is not tied in part at least to the war casualties in his immediate family.

    Howard Frye, Frye’s older brother (thirteen years his senior), was killed by a German bomb at age nineteen in Amiens, France, in World War I, 18 August 1918. When Frye visited Amiens in January 1939, he wrote to his wife Helen, “This is the town my brother was killed in: only I don’t know whether he’s buried near here or in the Canadian cemetery at Vimy. Or rather, I don’t know where his cross is: I suppose the bomb that hit him did the burying.”

    In World War II, Harold Kemp, Helen’s brilliant and talented younger brother, who dropped out of Victoria College to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, was shot down in a raid over Schweinfurt in February 1944.

    The diaries also reveal that Frye and Peter Fisher occasionally discussed war over their noon time beers. About his brilliant student, who drowned in a boating accident in 1959, Frye wrote that “he had a keen interest in the theory of strategy, wrote papers on the campaigns of Alexander the Great, and was ready to discuss any aspect of military theory from Sun-Tzu Wu to Clausewitz.”

  2. Peter Webb

    Robert, your comment explains so much–especially to a Frye novice like myself (war literature is more my zone of experience)! I inferred what I perceived as Frye’s aversion to discussing war from reading his books, but your references to the diaries and his personal life add some real insight into the matter.

    I have long pondered the question of why the Harrisons, McDougalls, and Prewetts became so obscure after their initial glint of recognition in the 20s-30s/ 50s. When Can Lit was undergoing its major canonization process in the sixties in seventies (thanks to Frye, Woodcock, Klinck, New, Malcolm Ross’s NCL, etc), most of the war writers were excluded. Connor’s exclusion is easy enough to explain–his novels were often laughably bad–but Harrison and McDougall much less so (I’ve taught Generals Die in Bed and Execution several times each, and countless students are moved by their visceral power). MacLennan was an exception to the big sweep, but his novels played to the national imaginary much better than the so-called trench novels. Findley was much newer, c. 1977, hence baggage-free.

    Your comments on Frye support my sense that generation of critics (Harold Innis–another war-wracked figure) had had enough of war and were not interested in perpetuating its legacy. How can one blame them?

    Younger critics like myself enjoy the immense privilege of living in safety and relative peace–obviously war goes on, but I mean my *family* is not dying–and I suppose it makes it possible to re-engage with war literature on emotionally safer terms.



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