Frye on McLuhan, McLuhan on Frye

I heard B.W. Powe’s paper on Frye and McLuhan at this year’s Frye Festival in Moncton. It covered a lot of ground and was powerfully rendered. On a couple of occasions Powe seemed to suggest that Frye was in some way envious of and threatened by McLuhan. He cited this anecdote from George Steiner:

Many years ago, one evening in Massey College, I sat with Robertson Davies, Norrie Frye, Kathleen Coburn (the world’s greatest Coleridge scholar), when there walked in a very much younger Marshall McLuhan. Astounded, and without thinking, I turned to Professor Frye, and said, “There’s Marshall McLuhan.” I cannot hope to reproduce the air of sardonic melancholy which immediately invaded Norrie’s features. He had a long look, and said, “So the man alleges.”

If I understood Powe’s point in citing this passage, a display of envy does not seem to be the best interpretation of it. Frye’s references to McLuhan in the Collected Works are evidence of his consistently frank and even-handed appraisal of McLuhan. I think his often repeated concern that McLuhan’s celebrity compromised his full potential as a scholar offers a better read on what Steiner describes as Frye’s “sardonic melancholy.” Frye’s response, “So the man alleges,” similarly recalls his frequent dismissal of the “McLuhan cult” (or as he more pungently puts it at one point, “the McLuhan rumour”) in order to maintain at least some distinction between the scholar and the media guru.

Thanks to the nearly twenty thousand words related to McLuhan that Frye committed to paper, we can see that Frye confidently read him, confidently saw beyond the misguided “nitwit McLuhanism” he inspired, and confidently disagreed with him for reasons he was always willing to articulate in detail. Frye often cites and lucidly critiques McLuhan’s characterization of the “global village” and his distinction between “linear” and “simultaneous” perception. At the same time, he is also characteristically generous wherever McLuhan might be effectively cited (and, again, there are scores of such citations amounting to thousands of words), even if he remained vigilant wherever he thought McLuhan might be reasonably challenged. Throughout it all, Frye regards McLuhan as a scholar first. He in fact observes a number of times that McLuhan was celebrated for the wrong reasons in the 1960s and then ignored for the wrong reasons in the 1970s. Perhaps most tellingly, there is no indication of any sustained personal hostility toward McLuhan himself, whatever their professional differences. In an interview after McLuhan’s death, Frye refers to him as “my beloved colleague.”

If there is any manifest expression of resentment, and even paranoia, in this relationship, it appears to have come from McLuhan’s side. According to Philip Marchand‘s biography, Marshall McLuhan: the Medium and the Messenger, he had a long held belief that he had been targeted by a worldwide Masonic conspiracy. Frye was at least peripherally implicated:

McLuhan had sense enough not to express these views in public, and by the 1960s he pretty well kept quiet about the Masons even with friends and colleagues at St. Michael’s, although, appalled by the post-Vatican II changes in the church, he occasionally voiced the suspicion that some prelates of the church, including Toronto Archbishop Philip Pocock, were secretly Masons. He seems never really to have abandoned his thesis about a Masonic conspiracy and even wondered occasionally whether some of his own employees at the Centre for Culture and Technology (established at the University of Toronto in 1963) might be Masons.

He certainly never abandoned his belief that his great rival in the English department at the University of Toronto, Northrop Frye, was a Mason at heart, if not in fact. (114)

McLuhan seems to have possessed an aggressive personal animosity toward Frye. According to Marchand, McLuhan considered him an “enemy” early in their careers together in the English department at the University of Toronto, and then in later life Frye is referred to as his “old enemy.” McLuhan’s enmity was evidently a longstanding one. The other references to Frye in Marchand’s book do not vary much from this theme.

As already promised, I will be writing a longer paper in which I will provide a more extended and detailed account of Frye’s reading of McLuhan.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

11 thoughts on “Frye on McLuhan, McLuhan on Frye

  1. J. Allan

    In a way, these seems to me to be an all too typical University of Toronto story. I have heard this story told from two different perspectives, and what seems to be true at U of T is that there is usually only room for one major academic/scholar.

  2. Michael Happy Post author

    I’m not sure that’s the case, Jonathan. When Frye was first a student and then a young lecturer at Victoria College, he was dealing with formidable figures like E.J. Pratt and Pelham Edgar. They were always generously supportive rather than competitive. Frye credited them with being mentors who made his career possible. Another formidable figure of the time over at University College was A.S.P. Woodhouse, with whom Frye also had collegial relations. So I don’t think the relationship between Frye and McLuhan has much if anything to do with U of T’s institutional culture.

    I do think, however, that the relationship is a matter of obvious biographical interest and, because this year is McLuhan’s centenary and next year is Frye’s, perhaps it’s time to go back to get the best possible reading of it from the available record, if only because, as you suggest “this story has been told from two different perspectives.”

    I only stumbled upon this as an issue. When I heard Powe’s compelling lecture on Frye and McLuhan, I was piqued by his suggestion that Frye was somehow envious of McLuhan. I couldn’t think of any other instance in which that might be said to be true. While I was putting together the Frye-on-McLuhan compilation for the McLuhan centenary, it gradually became apparent to me that I could not find any evidence of that envy: at worst were some cranky observations in his private notebooks (none of which were personal, by the way); otherwise the vast majority of the 20,000 words that make up Frye’s commentary constitute sober, reflective, responsible criticism. Frye is also nothing but gracious when citing McLuhan in every public context, including publications, speeches, and interviews. As you’ll see in Bob Denham’s post tomorrow, this is also true of the correspondence.

    When I just glanced at the other side, however, I was surprised to encounter what appeared to be a powerful and longstanding hostility from McLuhan toward Frye. The Masonic conspiracy theory is the most outlandish expression of it, but it’s not the only one.

    I admit that my reading of Steiner’s remarks does not really clarify the issue much: it’s an alternative interpretation of hearsay evidence that is itself largely subjective. However, given that Powe had already cited the anecdote, I felt that it was a good place to provide some context for the relationship from Frye’s end of things.

    I think I will post again on this issue to provide more detail, a kind of notes toward a biography of their relationship. Again, with the close proximity of centenaries, there may be no better time to do it.

  3. J. Allan

    I look forward to reading about this work on McLuhan and Frye. One thing of which I am certain is that Frye was always very generous of fellow critics (at least in public writings). This was the case in my research on Bloom and Frye. One of the more interesting sides of Frye scholarship, I think, at this point in time, is that we are now able to look at Frye and fellow critics, Bloom, McLuhan, Jameson, Todorov, Ricoeur, and many, many others.

  4. Alex Kuskis

    Michael, I have to ask – what is the purpose of this kind of ad hominem criticism of McLuhan? I can appreciate your being a Frye enthusiast, which is a good thing. He was a great scholar and educator – no question. But I see no value in comments like your suggestion that McLuhan had an “aggressive personal animosity toward Frye”. My colleague Bruce Powe was a student of both of them and I know he wouldn’t agree with that characterization. The accounts that I’m aware of characterize McLuhan as a “gentleman of the old school”. The fact is that McLuhan had the capacity to stir things up in the tweedy atmosphere of U of T’s English Department of the 50s and 60s. When he arrived at U of T, he was the only expert there on modernist writers like Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Wyndham, as well as being the only proponent of the Cambridge School of Practical Criticism. In trying to move literary studies into the modern age, he rubbed some faculty the wrong way and developed many enemies. I was a grad student at U of T in the early 70s and I was well aware that students were admonished by some of their profs not to enroll in McLuhan’s courses. So, if McLuhan developed a sense of paranoia, it was justified. No doubt he saw Northrop Frye as part of the academic cabal that was organized against him. Academic politics, like politics in general, is a blood sport. It’s more than nasty! Unfortunately, I was never a student of either of them, since I was a grad student at the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama. But I was also a Junior Fellow at Massey College, where Northrop Frye held court as a Senior Fellow. He was enormously influential and was deferred to be most academics. I don’t believe that McLuhan’s animosity towards him was without some basis in perceived or real injury. And by the way, McLuhan’s colleague Ted Carpenter, the anthropologist, also held a negative opinion of Frye and together they used the code name “Hugo” to refer to him. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s their ideas that matter, not whether they liked each other or not……Alex

    1. Michael Happy Post author

      Alex, what I cite are the incidents I found in Marchand’s well-documented biography. Bob Denham provides more examples from that biography in a post today. This is a matter of record and has been for some time. All I have done is to open an inquiry on the issue from Frye’s notebook and diary entries, published articles, speeches, and interviews.

      The relationship between Frye and McLuhan is undeniably of biographical interest. I did not expect to find what I did. But what I found is authoritatively reported. The fact that, as you point out, Ted Carpenter shared with McLuhan an intense dislike of Frye (also reported in Marchand’s biography) is to confirm what is already known. A complete and reliable account of the relationship between Frye and McLuhan is required, and one that is based upon the best available evidence on both sides. It is not enough to rely upon gossip and rumors that may have circulated and been embellished for decades. If McLuhan really believed, as you suggest, that there was a cabal in the university against him that involved Frye, then there needs to be evidence of it, and to date there is none. What the evidence does indicate, however, is that McLuhan thought he was the target of an international Masonic conspiracy and he associated Frye with it. As there is no evidence of that either, the biographical interest is not that Frye was actually involved in such a conspiracy, but that McLuhan believed he was.

  5. John Ayre

    With the publication of The Mechanicial Bride in 1951, McLuhan was well on his way to becoming the figure we would come to know as media guru Marshall McLuhan. While The Mechanical Bride was an astonishing pioneering work in media analysis, his best book I think, it wasn`t the kind of thing an English professor should be doing to promote his career. There was an effort the same year, 1951, to move McLuhan closer to the centre. It was Northrop Frye who invited McLuhan down to the English Institute to give a paper McLuhan called “The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry.” You can figure out the dynamics. Although they were only a year apart in age, Frye was already becoming the white haired boy of academic criticism and McLuhan with a very skimpy publications`record was beholden to Frye to make him look academically presentable. McLuhan did present his paper but didn`t go for the bait. He progressively drifted from orthodox academic studies and it is true that graduate students were warned to stay well away from him.

  6. Joe Adamson

    This is not just a matter of “university politics.” There appears to be something genuinely distressing about McLuhan’s attitude to Frye.

    Alex, if you read what you have said here, it boils down to the following: because Frye was influential, he must have been behind an English department conspiracy against McLuhan. If McLuhan developed a sense of paranoia, it must have been justified because his animosity, his sense of injury, could only have existed if there were a real basis for it. All the more so, you claim, because Ted Carpenter was also hostile to Frye. And yet, not only is there no evidence of such a conspiracy on Frye’s part, McLuhan’s further belief in an international Masonic conspiracy against him and Frye’s possible involvement in that conspiracy too, suggests unrestrained paranoia, which would be a more reasonable and responsible interpretation of his animosity toward Frye. I repeat: international Masonic conspiracy against McLuhan implicating Frye. Do we really need to debate what this says about McLuhan rather than Frye?

  7. J. Allan

    Michael writes: “A complete and reliable account of the relationship between Frye and McLuhan is required, and one that is based upon the best available evidence on both sides.”

    In many regards this is precisely what we are now in a position to do with the Collected Works of Northrop Frye. These volumes speak about Frye and his relation to many critics. It is perhaps only from this moment and with these resources that we can begin the work of Frye and his readers/critics.

  8. Bob Denham

    It might be that some of the evidence is in Frye’s annotations to _The Gutenberg Galaxy_ and _Understanding Media_in the Frye Library at Victoria University. Frye also annotated Innis’s _The Bias of Communication_, to which McLuhan wrote the “Introduction”: perhaps Frye annotated the “Introduction.” If I weren’t 700 miles away, I’d check these volumes.

  9. J. Allan

    Frye’s annotations are wonderful. It would definitely be worth looking at the annotations to see what he might have to say about those works. I have spent many hours at the Pratt Library reading Frye’s annotations.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ERROR: si-captcha.php plugin: GD image support not detected in PHP!

Contact your web host and ask them to enable GD image support for PHP.

ERROR: si-captcha.php plugin: imagepng function not detected in PHP!

Contact your web host and ask them to enable imagepng for PHP.