Aberdeen High School, where Frye graduated in 1928, is now Centre Culturel Aberdeen, a place where the francophone community has come together to share in the creation, performance, and exhibition of Acadian art. It’s a nice irony that what was all English in Moncton in the 1920s is now mostly French. In Frye’s time there was no French language high school in Moncton, and the French were thrown into the English system. Several francophones who were students at the time of Frye remember his helping them with their English essays. “He was an uncommonly soft touch,” John Ayre says (p. 43), “for anyone who genuinely wanted help with assignments. […] This was a central character trait quite directly connected with his Methodist background: if someone deserving asked for help, he gave it. It was both a strength and a bedevilment all through his later life.”
The back and forth, the up and down, the ‘creative tension’, between francophone and anglophone communities is what mainly sets Moncton apart. When Frye returned to Moncton in November, 1990, a few months before his death, to give a talk at L’Université de Moncton, he was so pleased to see that Moncton was now home to an institution of higher education of such quality. The auditorium at Edifice Jeanne-de-Valois was completely packed with people thrilled to see the great man’s return. When someone in the audience, hoping to create some linguistic tension of his own, asked Frye if he understood French, Frye replied that he had trouble understanding any language his hearing was so bad. Thus he sidestepped the language issue, which was an issue, perhaps, for just this one person.
Because Moncton is a bilingual city, it’s natural that the Frye Festival, set in Moncton, is bilingual. From the beginning the festival has made every effort to bridge the gap between the language communities. It’s an ever-narrowing gap, with more and more Anglophones learning French and respecting the French fact and most Francophones, while fighting threats to language and culture, perfectly at ease speaking English. Interpenetration has been built into our festival from the beginning. We live and breathe Frye at that level, and practice his approach to conflict.
The bilingual nature of the Frye Festival sparked the interest of Jo-Anne Elder, editor of ellipse: texts litteraire canadien en traduction / Canadian writing in translation. The Frye Festival is one of the reasons, she says, that ellipse was brought east and is now published in New Brunswick. Jo-Anne Elder is an acclaimed translator, twice nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation. She has taken part in many of our festivals, giving workshops in translation, moderating roundtables, and serving as a panelist herself on other roundtables. Because of people like Jo-Anne, freely offering time, energy, and enthusiasm, the festival continues to thrive.
On her own initiative Jo-Anne devoted Issue 69 (Spring / Printemps, 2003) of ellipse completely to the Frye Festival. She collected many poems, stories, and essays by festival authors, with many of the poems translated into another language, French into English, English into French, English into German, French into Italian. She featured an excerpt from Nella Cotrupi’s lecture “Process and Possibility: The Spiritual Vision of Northrop Frye.” And she somehow collected and reprinted comments of 3 panelists at a gathering called “Remembering Frye,” an event that took place inside the Aberdeen Cultural Centre, in a café that at the time was called Café Terra Nova.
In his remarks at this informal roundtable Alvin Lee began by talking about his first meeting with Frye in 1949, as a first year university student. Attending Frye’s weekly lecture on “The English Bible” was the start of a “consciousness of consciousness” for Alvin as for many others. “Initially, completely intimidated by this brilliant man, I kept resolutely quiet, until well on in my graduate work, by which time I had done some real reading and thinking.” The last time Alvin saw Frye was in October, 1990, three months before Frye’s death. Frye was chairing a meeting of the Chancellor’s Council. “At intermission he stayed seated at the front of the room and I went up to chat. We’d not seen each other for quite a long time. He congratulated me for having at last shaken off administrative duties. (I had retired from the McMaster presidency at the end of June that year.) I inquired about his health, which I’d heard was not good. He brushed that off and we went on to have a good talk about Words with Power, which was new, and I had just read.”
In the 1990s Alvin became General Editor of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye, somewhat reluctantly because “I did not have what seemed like a sufficient knowledge of Frye’s life and works (Jean O’Grady, my accomplished associate editor, and I joke that when volume 31 is complete, we’ll know enough to start the project).” Alvin concluded his remarks at the roundtable by describing a few events that revealed Frye, the man, including “his vivid, earthy reaction when I asked him what he thought about the review, in the University of Toronto Quarterly, of Anatomy of Criticism.”
The second panelist that day was Serge Morin, a retired philosophy professor at Université de Moncton. In January, 1990 Serge had success (after several years of previous attempts) inviting Frye to return to Moncton to deliver the Pascal Poirier Lecture at the university. Frye and his wife Elizabeth arrived in Moncton Wednesday, November 14, a little before noon on a dark, rainy day. After resting at their hotel “notre couple d’honneur” were received at Moncton City Hall where the entire council and the mayor welcomed them, and Frye was given “le titre de citoyen honoraire.” At a reception after council meeting Frye was shown a photo of his 1928 graduating class. He recognized many of his classmates. But, in Serge’s words, “Ce n’est pas tout … une surprise l’attend! Sept jolies dames de cette même classe l’attendent! ‘Norrie! Norrie!’ lui lancent-elles en l’embrassant.” One of the seven, Madame Aurore Bourque, reminded ‘Norrie’ that he had corrected essays of Acadian students, “peu familières avec la langue de Shakespeare.”
The next day, a Thursday, was a day to visit places of his youth, including his home at 24 Pine Street and Magnetic Hill, where he would often go by bicycle to get out of town and into nature – in the days before it became a tourist attraction! In the evening he gave his public talk at the university, “sa dernière de ce genre,” in Serge’s words. “La sale est comble: on l’attend dupuis des années. Il aimait surtout l’ironie d’une université francophone portant le nom de Moncton, et ce en Acadie.”
On his last day in Moncton, Friday, November 16, Northrop and Elizabeth visited his mother’s gravesite, and when he saw that “rien n’indique la présence de sa mère,” he turned to Elizabeth and said, “We must get mother a tombstone,” words that motivated the Frye Festival, 14 years later, to do what we could to fulfill his wish. Frye capped his visit to Moncton with a visit to Moncton High School (built in 1933, leaving his old School, Aberdeen, to fulfill other needs over the years) where the whole school waited for him in the gymnasium and gave him a hero’s welcome. “They were two of the best days of my life,” Frye was heard to say, in the car to the airport later that day. In Serge’s words: “Il est heureux et surtout satisfait d’avoir bouclé un long trajet.”
The third panelist that day in April, 2002, at the Cafè Terra Nova, was Francesca Valente, who had made heroic efforts to get to Moncton in the midst of a very busy transitional time in her personal and professional life. Francesca remembered first meeting Frye during the academic year 1976-77. She had been awarded a fellowship by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Canada Council towards an M.A. in Canadian literature, after having co-translated Fearful Symmetry for Longanesi Publishing House. “I thought I owed it to myself to meet the author of that book,” she said. But instead of meeting a “theoretician living secluded in an ivory tower,” as she had thought she might, “Instead I found myself in front of a witty, warm-hearted teacher who firmly believed in the didactic effort and in the social implications of liberal education.” She quoted what she called a key passage from the closing essay of Divisions on a Ground, including this sentence: “I think all my books are teaching books rather than scholarly books: I keep reformulating the same central questions, trying to put them into a form into which some reader or student will respond: Yes, now I get it.”
“I don’t remember Frye as a detached scholar, but rather as a true teacher, believing in a vital interaction with his students,” Francesca said, and she went on to praise Frye as “one of the greatest educator-humanists of our time whose main vocation was to lead his students to a global understanding of life, based on the supremacy of the educated imagination.” “Starting in 1937, he dedicated his whole life to the militant job of teaching.” Francesca, by the way, along with her husband Branko Gorjup, remained close friends with Frye the rest of his life. She organized Frye’s trip to Italy in 1979. As John Ayre puts it: “He was asked by a flamboyant Vicenza native, Francesca Valente, a co-translator of the Italian Fearful Symmetry, who was then based at the nearby Italian Cultural Institute to come to Italy to lecture in the major universities. While the idea was not new to Frye – who had suspected Amleto Lorenzini of concocting a similar scheme before – he surprised Valente by agreeing immediately.” Branko, for his part, brought Frye to the old Yugoslavia, and to Zagreb in particular, in 1990, just a month or two before his Moncton visit.
At the western entrance to the Aberdeen Cultural Centre the visitor can find a sculpture in the form of a plaque that was installed in the 1990s, a creation of the Acadian artist Guy Dugay, who has since died from AIDS. The plaque is in three parts, with a depiction of Frye as a young man on the left (very similar to the famous “Me, God save us” photo), a depiction of the mature Frye on the right, and in the middle the quotation in English and in French: “Between imagination and belief there is a constant traffic in both directions. / Entre imaginaire et croyance il existe une circulation constante dans les deux directions.”
Recently, we’ve heard that the provincial and federal governments have promised 2.4 million dollars for the renovation and upgrading of the Centre Culturel Aberdeen, most of the money going for a necessary sprinkler system, an elevator, a new furnace, and the redesign of certain galleries and offices. So it’s good news that Frye’s old high school will live and thrive well into its second century.
The festival will continue, whenever possible, to hold certain of our events inside Aberdeen. On March 17, in Café Aberdeen (the former Café Terra Nova), the festival will host the next phase of an experiment, new this year, that we call “The Frye Academy” modeled to some extent on the CBC’s “Canada Reads” series. Alberto Manguel suggested the idea to us when he was here in 2008. It’s working very well and could serve as a template for similar events across the country. I’ll copy the description from the festival website:
This year, the Frye Festival is hosting its first edition of the Frye Academy Award, an event intended to promote language duality through reading.
High school students from various schools in the region were chosen as members of the jury for this young reader’s prize. From October to March, jury members read the 4 books on the short list: The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland, Tarmac by Nicholas Dickner, Hadassa by Myriam Beaudoin and the graphic novel George Sprott by Seth. These books were chosen by a committee of young adults for teen readers.
Finally, a book will be chosen as the Young Readers’ Prize winner, and the author’s name will be announced at the Frye Festival. The author will be invited to receive his or her prize as part of a special evening event with the jury members!
Upcoming Public Events:
December 8th, 2009 – First Meeting
4:00 pm, Café Aberdeen, 140 Botsford St, Moncton
January 26th, 2010 – First Battle of the Books Debate
6:30 pm, Café Aberdeen, 140 Botsford St, Moncton
Books discussed: Hadassa by Myriam Beaudoin and The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland
March 17th, 2010 – Second Battle of the Books Debate
6:30 pm, Café Aberdeen, 140 Botsford St, Moncton
Books discussed: Tarmac by Nicholas Dickner and George Sprott: 1894-1975 by Seth
April 24th, 2010 – Frye Academy Award Winner is Announced!
Time and location TBA