Northrop Frye was not much attached to the term “comparative literature,” and it would be a mistake to gather, from a controversy at the University of Toronto about the merger into a larger entity of that university’s Centre for Comparative Literature, which he founded, that his legacy is embodied in any academic institution.
Rather, Professor Frye left us his books, especially three of them.
Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947) is a strange book for a scholar starting out in his career; as has often been said, it is hard to tell whether one is reading views that Prof. Frye attributes to Blake, or Prof. Frye’s own; the reserved intellectual seems to have become fused with the prophetic poet.
The Great Code (1982) may have gone as far as anyone could in wrestling with the relationship between literature and the collection of Jewish and Christian writings often called “the Bible” – but the fact that its second part, Words with Power, took eight more years to appear (almost his last book) may have disclosed the unwieldiness of the premise of “the Bible as literature.”
Paradoxically, it is a book with an even more ambitious scope that is his best work. Anatomy of Criticism (1957) is a comprehensive account of literature as a whole. It might be accused – falsely – of being an arid, rigid classification system, but an English critic, Frank Kermode, was right when he wrote that this work of literary criticism had turned into literature.
That was an understatement. The intense shape that rules Anatomy of Criticism makes it a work of art, one with an overstrained hypothesis that is compelling and fruitful, a book of vision – it does not compare one national literature with another, though examples are drawn from far and wide.
Instead, Prof. Frye tried, as he put it, to “postulate a self-contained literary universe,” but toward the end of the Anatomy he took a new turn, finding that some prose writings which were intended to persuade, but were somehow literary – such as Milton’s Areopagitica and the Gettysburg Address – went beyond any such independent realm, so that the literary cosmos “expanded into a verbal universe,” in which literature is analogous to mathematics.
These are daring conceptions. Someone who has read Anatomy of Criticism cannot read any literary book in quite the same way thereafter. It is a great Canadian book – more of a heritage than any centre or department.
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