Frye and The New Yorker


The first biographical nugget about Frye I ever knew about was probably his status as a youthful typing champion — maybe not all that surprising for a brilliant young scholar-to-be who also played the piano.  But the first biographical detail that ever caught my attention was his love of The New Yorker.  It must be because I’d discovered the magazine for myself and had already developed a sort of suburban-teen / older-woman crush on it.  It’s true that The New Yorker was not then the titan it had once been and has probably only diminished in influence since.  (Although it continues to have a natural affinity for Canadian-based intellect and talent: Alice Munro has published in the magazine for more than 30 years, and Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik have become stars in their own right under bylines there.)  I continue to treasure this somewhat incongruous biographical factoid because there are days that I look at the blog and hope — however modestly, however faintly — that we at least strive to approximate the mood and tone of The New Yorker at its best: intelligent, well-read, engaged in the world as it is found while aspiring to improve it, and to do so with a knowing humor that is always pertinent to everything else we intend to do.

John Ayre’s biography has a few mentions of Frye’s affection for the magazine in his younger years, and observes of Frye’s impatience to receive back issues by mail during his 1936 stay at Oxford:

Given Frye’s seemingly bottomless taste for estoteric works, this voracious desire for copies of America’s quintessential upper-middle-class weekly with its cartoons and satire by Thurber and White appeared mysterious.  But within the context of his misery at Oxford, it represented a life-line to an urbane North American perspective which Frye desperately needed. (133)

During a subsequent trip to Italy with Helen and Mike Joseph referred to in a previous post by Bob Denham, Frye likewise retreats at one point to “bury himself in the ten copies of The New Yorker he brought along” (153).

To be surprised by this is perhaps like being surprised by (as Joe Adamson, Borat-like, cleverly puts it) “sexy Frye”.  It is always gratifying to be reassured that Frye was not a plaster saint, that he was fully aware of the world and the way it unfurls and rolls up its passing fancies.  Frye’s occasional and fleeting references to phenomena like the punk rock of the late 70s and early 80s retain the freshness of their immediate context that many contemporary cultural critics cannot adequately capture.  Those references don’t date; they responsibly characterize the temper of the time in a way only a real understanding of them could.  That is, not too much emphasis, but rendered with a casualness that appreciates both that it is happening and that it too is part of a much larger pattern we are always struggling to become aware of — like (to refer to an analogy Frye uses on at least a couple of occasions) coral suddenly endowed with a vision of the reef of which they are a part.  It’s as though Frye’s love of music always rendered him pitch perfect when it comes to what might otherwise be regarded as cultural ephemera.  As individuals — and even as organized masses — we leave little of anything behind, however much urgency we invest in it.  But that little seems to be more than enough if we are willing to see the world in a grain of sand.

And so Frye’s youthful love of The New Yorker contradicts any assumption that he was an abstracted intellectual interested only in ideal forms.  One of my first profs gave props to Frye as a genius while suggesting that he cannot deal with the unique work of literature that is actually there for us to read.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Frye never retreats from this world; like the literature he loved so much, he engages the world to confront it, to stir us into awareness that it is a terrible place but that it never need be, to remind us that the worst — like the best — returns to laughter.

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4 thoughts on “Frye and The New Yorker

  1. Matthew Griffin

    Michael, I’m re-reading Lewis Hyde’s _Trickster Makes the World_ and came across a paragraph last night that I couldn’t read but in light of the last paragraph of your piece:
    Actual individuals are always more complicated than the archetype, and more complicated than its local version, too. Ralph Ellison once wrote a peeved response to a friend’s attempt to fit _Invisible Man_ into the pattern suggested by West African tricksters and their American progeny such as Brer Rabbit. “Archetypes, like taxes,” Ellison wrote, “seem doomed to be with us always, and so with literature, one hopes; but between the two there must needs be the living human being in a specific texture of time, place, and circumstance…. Archetypes are timeless, novels are time-haunted.” Such is the voice of the specific (the ectype) complaining about the general, the mottled evidence talking back to the refined theory. “Don’t dip my novel in that vat of archetype acid.” (14)

    I wonder if, perhaps, Hyde’s quoting of Ellison & comment on it go some way to explain the resistance to seeing the real value of paying close attention to archetypes?

    1. Joseph Adamson

      Anyone familiar with Ellison’s work (I just spent two weeks on it in my American lit class) will recognize how disingenuous his disclaimer is: the “trickster” archetype is central in Invisible Man, and Ellison was very conscious of using it; specific allusions in the novel make that clear.

      Invisible Man is also an excellent example of picaresque satire, and much light can be thrown on it by attending to its conformity to the conventions of that particular form of the novel. Ellison, like many writers, likes to put the emphasis on the efficient, not the formal cause of his work, and shows–to use an analogy of Frye’s–the same sensitivity as parents have about their babies: they want to think of them as unique and original, not as something that fits with an already existing model. But if it didn’t fit with a pre-existing model it wouldn’t be recognizable as literature and we wouldn’t be interested in reading it.

      The parent/child analogy is from Frye’s essay Nature and Homer, where he addresses the sort of objection Ellison is making:

      ” . . . no matter how we think of the poetic process, its end is to produce a new member of a class of things called poems or novels or plays which is already in existence. The parents of a new baby are proud of its novelty; they may even speak of it as unique; but the source of their pride is the fact that it is a recognizable human being, and conforms to a prescribed convention. The same principle holds when a new work of art is called ‘original.'”

      Fortunately, writers, when they are at their most creative, are, consciously or unconsciously, much more attuned to the formal than the efficient causes of their work, whatever deceptions or half-truths they come up with afterwards.

  2. Clayton Chrusch

    I wonder how Frye would respond to this criticism. I suppose he might bring up the distinction between similarity and identity. Archetypes conceived of us as generalizations are indeed an impoverishment of literature. Archetypes seen as metaphors crossing the boundaries of individual works of literature are an enrichment of literature. But this doesn’t seem to be enough of a response. A proper response would have to acknowledge and accept the importance of “the living human being in a specific texture of time, place, and circumstance” and the attempt of novels to represent that. In other words, archetypes identify one thing with a different, possibly very remote, thing, but one of the most powerful forms of identity is in fact the most common and obvious–the identity of a person with herself and with what is close and familiar and peculiar to herself.


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