Frye Alert: “The Modern Construction of Myth”


Andrew Von Hendy’s The Modern Construction of Myth (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2003) includes an interesting section on Frye (you can read it here). Hendy has an impressive knowledge of modern theories of myth, and he certainly sees real strengths in Frye’s approach. His treatment, however, is restricted to the Anatomy and, perhaps because of this, he is dissatisfied with Frye’s understanding of the social context of literature. His position is that Frye’s view of the transformational power of literature is ultimately “romantic”–a purely personal projection that exalts the individual self over society. (This is neither a fair construction of Frye or, for that matter, of romantic writers like Shelley and Blake.) Thus Frye’s emphasis on the hypothetical and disinterested condition of literature is understood as a failure to address myth’s relationship to immediate social concerns and the concrete reality of history.

This is a typical criticism of Frye’s work. As he himself recognized, one of the unfortunate outcomes of the Anatomy’s enormous celebrity and influence is that it overshadowed Frye’s later elaborations and refinements of the myriad concepts it introduced, in particular his dynamic understanding of the role of both literature and literary criticism in society. Bad faith and vested interests being what they are, the crude assessment of Frye as an aloof and disengaged formalist is now a shibboleth for many, most of whom have never read the Anatomy.

Hendy is not one of them; he is in good faith and has certainly read the Anatomy carefully. His treatment is far from dismissive. His analysis is worth reading.

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2 thoughts on “Frye Alert: “The Modern Construction of Myth”

  1. Robert D. Denham

    Isn’t this a warmed over version of Von Hendy’s “A Poetics for Demogorgon: Northrop Frye and Contemporary Criticism,” Criticism 8 (Fall 1966): 318-35? That essay–more than forty years old now, is all about Frye’s romantic assumptions.


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