Monthly Archives: June 2012

Frye in the Public Square, in the News and Elsewhere

A bronze sculpture of Frye is to be unveiled in Moncton on July 13. You can find an article about the unveiling at the CBC news site, here.

Also, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, the CBC is presenting its Ideas classic about Northrop Frye produced by David Cayley. If you haven’t heard the series, it is a must. Go here.

Finally, the following notice, courtesy of Bob Denham, is just one more instance of Frye’s reach as a public intellectual. The announcement, by  Rev. Lesley Fox, is from a church in Winnipeg:

St. Andrew’s River Heights United Church welcomes you to a service celebrating the centenary of Northrop Frye’s birth, July 15, 10:30 a.m. Calling all U. of T. grads and admirers of Northrop Frye. We will share readings and reflections by Frye, Canada’s greatest philosopher and biblical literary critic.

What’s a Meta For?

The Reynolds Lecture for 2012, presented at Emory & Henry College, reflects on Frye’s view of metaphor only toward the end,  I’ve often felt that theories of metaphor–at least those I’m familiar with–turn out to be founded on principles of similarity, comparison, analogy, or likeness.  Frye’s theory is unique in that it’s founded on sameness or identity.  I try to consider some of the implications of that view in the conclusion of the lecture.

What’s a Meta For?

Reynolds Lecture, Emory & Henry College, 28 March 2012

Robert D. Denham

It goes without saying, a phrase we use to mean that we should say at once, how honored I am to be the Reynolds Lecturer for 2012 and on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the founding of Emory & Henry College, where I worked and played for some twenty‑three years.  Early on in my tenure here the dean of the college, Dan Leidig, assigned me to chair the Reynolds Lecture Committee, and so I had the good fortune of helping bring to campus such eminent humanists as Helen Vendler, James Redfield, John Simon, Wayne Booth, and Northrop Frye, among others.  I never dreamed, of course, that I would be joining their ranks as a Reynolds Lecturer, and I naturally feel that this is an instance of the ridiculous linking up with the sublime.  At the same time, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, which is both humbling and elevating.   The first Reynolds lecturer at Emory & Henry––in 1963––was Norman Cousins, peace activist and long‑time editor of the Saturday Review.  Two years later the president of the college, William Finch, whose son Tyree has joined us tonight, introduced the second Reynolds lecturers (there were two that year, on successive nights), both distinguished poets and critics, John Crowe Ransom and Reed Whittemore.  The shoulders of giants, indeed.

I’ve called my lecture tonight “What’s a Meta For?”––a title stolen from a quip by Marshall McLuhan: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a metaphor?”  McLuhan, too, was a thief: he was twisting the end of a line from Browning, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”  That is, the notion of an ideal world, which we may never attain, nevertheless motivates us to seek something better than what we’ve now got: it may elude our grasp but in our Utopianism we still reach for it.  I think metaphor in its most radical forms may have something to do with our linguistic reach exceeding our grasp, which is a notion I’ll come back to.  Rather than trying to define tonight what metaphor is, I’ll be reflecting on some of the contexts in which we encounter metaphor.

Metaphor is, of course, along with myth, one of the basic building blocks of literature.  John Keats’s masterful Ode on a Grecian Urn begins with three metaphors.  Keats is speaking to the urn: he addresses it by saying, “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, / Sylvan historian.”  In these nouns of direct address Keats, who was in his early twenties when he wrote the poem, is identifying the urn with a bride, a child, and a historian.  The suggestions that issue from the three metaphors are fairly complex.  Of course everyone knows that an urn is not a bride, and yet Keats is saying that it is a bride and not just that: she’s a bride who’s still chaste.  Furthermore, she’s married to quietness.  And she is also a child, or rather a foster‑child, who has been nourished by her adoptive parents, silence and slow time.  We could spend the rest of the evening investigating the magical language of Keats’s poem––its metaphors, paradoxes, and puns.  The point I want to make is that the extraordinary uses to which Keats puts figurative language is commonplace among poets.  Here’s another, the opening lines of one of Jeff Daniel Marion’s old Chinese poet poems: “Over the river this quarter moon / tilts in its dark well, / a gleaming dipper / spilling October.”  Here the moon is a gleaming dipper, and the heavens are a dark well.  This is the way poets talk.

Metaphor, however, is an aspect of language that belongs not just to poets and novelists and playwrights.  In a story in a recent issue of a college student newspaper I read about the soccer team’s “dream season, the “noise” that it took to wake the team up from its dream, about a “sudden death” period, about the opposing team’s drawing “first blood.”  And I read in a college catalogue, a most unpoetic document, about “cultivating students’ sensitivity,” students being, in this metaphor, something you run a plow through, like dirt.  In one of her “Messages from the President” in the alumni journal Emory & Henry’s Rosalind Reichard quotes George Peery, class of 1894, who forty years later became the governor of Virginia, as saying that the ideals “cultivated” at Emory & Henry deeply influenced his life.  That’s the plowing metaphor again.  The Indo‑European root for “cultivate” means to revolve or move around, which is what the plow does to the field.  In the most recent alumni journal President Reichard moves from the garden to the sea, speaking about the “tides of influence” that have rippled forth from Emory & Henry.  Perhaps this metaphor comes from her inaugural address, where she quoted an alumnus as saying that Emory & Henry continues to send “out tides of influence that touch the whole hungry soul of man.”  Because the alumnus begins with a watery metaphor, he would doubtless have been better served, at least to those not given to mixed metaphors, to have said “the whole thirsty soul of man.”  A final example from President Reichard comes in her message in the recent annual report.  “Emory & Henry,” she says, “is a beacon of hope envisioned by her founders.”  And then she extends the metaphor saying that the college is a glowing light in the heart of many of us that will shine brightly for many decades.  So here we have an administrator and a mathematician, Rosalind Reichard, using one of the key elements of the language of poetry.

But back to more mundane texts, like college catalogues.  I pick one up and read about the holder of a degree, about the fortifying of students’ minds, about launching on a voyage of discovery, about the important voice the students have in shaping programs (two metaphors there), about higher education being a marketplace of ideas, about instructional tools, about a semester spanning the summer months, about the library as an electronic gateway, about instructional software and flexible seating, about developing a strategy for accomplishing goals, and so on.  So even in the most unpoetic and leaden prose, we find metaphor.  (“Leaden” in that sentence is of course also a metaphor, one that derives from metallurgy.)

Or one can turn to the daily press, which wouldn’t on the face of it seem to be a particularly fertile field for metaphor.  (Note “fertile field.”)  In the headlines of the Roanoke Times I read that the GOP leader will step down, that a mountain is hiding a quiet threat, that the media are too soft on the president, that three-year college degrees are a fast track, that a basketball player has come to the end of the road, that loyalists slam Cuban defectors.  Here are two from a David Brooks editorial:  (1) Mitt Romney is a corporate vulture and (2) when people read Ron Paul the scales fall from their eyes.  This last one comes from the account of the conversion of Ron Paul’s namesake, St. Paul, a.k.a Saul, on the road to Damascus.  In Acts we’re told that “something like scales fell from his eyes” and he could see again.  That’s simile, not metaphor.  But the simile has become a metaphor in common parlance, referring to a person who has come to a sudden realization.  “Road to Damascus experience” is a metaphor growing out of the same story.  Here are a few more from the headlines in the New York Times of 17 January 2012: “Romney Opponents’ Main Target in G.O.P. Debate,” “For Romney’s Rivals Time Is Running Out,” “Romney Keeps Eye on Obama,” “The Invisible Hand behind Wall Street Bonuses,” “Iran Face‑Off” (that one’s from hockey), “Wikipedia To Go Dark,” “Israelis Facing a Seismic Rift Over Role of Women,” and “Bang for the Buck.”

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Frye Alert: Book Shredder, Two New Books, and that Marxist Goof

Frye as book Nazi, here.

Two new books on Frye, Northrop Frye in Context by Diane Dubois (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2012), here, and The Illustrated Frye by Garden Uthark, at Smashwords, here.

Terry Eagleton–“that Marxist goof from Linacre College”–pontificates on Frye and others, here, in The Daily Beast. Does Eagleton have any idea of the meaning of the word ‘authoritarian’? And how can we trust someone who describes Frederic Jameson as “a magnificent stylist”? Nonetheless, Frye made the list of his five favorite works of criticism. Actually six, since he slips in Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending in the preamble.

Van Gogh at the National Gallery: Frye on Van Gogh

Tree Trunks in the Grass, 1890

If you’re in the Ottawa area, or feel like a trip to the nation’s capital, catch the Van Gogh at the National Gallery. Running there until Sept. 3, it is a remarkable display of his landscape and Nature paintings. Viewing it is a moving and exhilarating experience. It is most certainly worth the trip. Gazing on one painting after another, it is hard not to feel that Van Gogh’s art simply towers over that of his many great contemporaries. It is the prophetic quality that makes the difference. Like that of the equally visionary film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky, Van Gogh’s relationship to Nature  is emotional and hallucinatory. It ccnfronts us with what our mind-forged manacles prevent us from ever seeing. What George Eliot says in Middlemarch–of  what it would be like to have a completely unfiltered empathy for other human life–might equally be applied to Van Gogh’s perception of Nature: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

You can find the gallery’s description of the exhibition here, and a CBC review here:

Here are some excerpts from Frye on Van Gogh:

What’s transcendental in Blake is not the statically geometrical, but the sense of arrested energy: the wriggling vines & snakes, flames & the like.  This is what I meant earlier in talking of his Van Gogh classicism.  It’s an expression of the belief that every object is an event. (CW 9, 14)


The word “reality” should not mean statically a certain form of what is perceived, but dynamically a quantum, a certain charge or energy of perception–in practice, I suppose, the minimum consistent with consciousness. Any change of perception over that contains an element which is unreal in some contexts and a greater reality in others. As unreal, it’s generally called subjective, or perhaps emotional, or sometimes imaginary; as more real, it’s imaginative or creative.

This is pure Blake–I’ll never get out of that framework, I suppose–also Shelley’s doctrine of poetry as the overcoming of the inertia of habit.  (Whether Wiener’s formula that communication overcomes entropy is anything more than a vulgarization of this I don’t know.)  Anyway.  I got this, as usual, through the back door: remembering that very unpleasant book,  The Story of O, it seemed to me that no actual woman’s body could bear that charge of fetishism: it’s only in fantasy that all that flogging & branding & chaining could exist as an experience with its own kind of reality.

Creatively, of course, the surcharge of reality takes the hallucinatory form of Van Gogh’s sunflowers.  That kind of excess is acceptable as  potentially real; but the question remains unsolved: to what extent, & in what sense, is it actually there?  Probably if I knew that I’d know too much to want to write books.  However, the objective world is only “material”: it’s there, but it could be there in a great many different forms and aspects.   I suppose even here there [are] still possibilities: it can’t be just anything.  But perhaps extracting a finite schema from the variety of mythologies, literatures, or religions might contribute something to the understanding of what some of these possibilities could be.  The individual can’t create his own world, except in art or fantasy: society can only create a myth of concern.  What fun if one could get just a peep at what some of the other worlds are that a new humanity could create–no, live in.   (CW 9: 287-288)


The fact that creative powers come from an area of the mind that seems to be independent of the conscious will, and often emerge with a good deal of emotional disturbance in their wake, provides the chief analogy between prophecy and the arts. The creative people that we most instinctively call or think of as prophetic, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Blake, Van Gogh, Dostoevsky, Strindberg, show the analogy very clearly. Some people pursue wholeness and integration, others get smashed up, and fragments are rescued from the smash of an intensity that the wholeness and integration people do not reach.  (CW 18: 164)


Realism is often associated with, and often rationalized as, a scientific view of the world, but the impetus behind realistic art, good or bad, is of social and not scientific origin. There is a curious law of art, seen in Van Gogh and in some of the Surrealists, that even the attempt to reproduce the act of seeing, when carried out with sufficient energy, tends to lose its realism and take on the unnatural glittering intensity of hallucination. (CW 27 “Design as a Principle in the Arts” 232)

Science Fiction as Romance

As a follow-up to the previous post, for a very Frygian take on Bradbury as a writer of romance, a teller of tales, read Margaret Atwood’s article in The Guardian. Interestingly, she identifies him with the Gothic tradition in American literature, with Poe and Hawthorne, two writers and a tradition central in Frye’s writings on romance.

Atwood plays down Bradbury’s identity as a writer of science fiction and reminds us of his credentials as a writer of tales of horror and weird adventure.  She herself has avoided the categorization, preferring the term speculative fiction for her own The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake. In spite of his reputation as the master builder of  literary pigeon cotes, Frye would have strongly agreed. Science fiction, fantasy fiction, speculative fiction, tales of adventure and wonder, all of these are forms of romance, and have the most congenial and promiscuous relations. As Michael Dolzani writes in his fine introduction to Frye’s Notebooks on Romance,

Frye is not terribly interested in the definition of literary genres or categories, because definitions imply an essentialist view of literture that he does not share. “Romance” is not an essence or exactly deliminted area but  a context: that is, a set of expectations for the imagination of either the writer or the reader. Some of the fun and creativity of any literary form comes from the possibility of playing either with or against the expectations of the context; it can be even more creative to play with and against the conventions at the same time. Thus, the title of the second chapter of The Secular Scripture is “The Context of Romance.” (xxii-iii)

As Frye himself put it, the context provided by such definitions is “something like a magnetic field, not a farmer’s field with a fence around it” (Myth and Metaphor 81).

The context of Frye’s own interest in fantasy fiction and science fiction is his life-long study and exploration of romance. Here is a sample from Notes 56a:

When Tolkien first came out a lot of people would say “I can’t read fantasy,” with an air of conscious virtue. But when he became popular it became evident that a tradition was behind him. The basis of this tradition was George MacDonald and William Morris, and while my enthusiasm for Tolkien himself was never white-hot, Morris was the man after Blake who most interested me, just as Spenser was the man before. But  gradually it became clear that the whole tradition of what I call sentimental romance, Scott, Wilkie Collins, Sheridan LeFanu, even Rider Haggard, was involved. Now there’s a flourishing industry in reprinting works of “adult fantasy,” of which I’m availing myself. It’s also clear that the whole development of science fiction, and the kind of writing on the periphery of that (e.g. [Kurt] Vonnegut) attaches itself to sentimental romance, not to realism, and makes the tradition of the former important to grasp. (CW 15: 191)

In a note to his discussion of science fiction in his introduction, Dolzani provides a glimpse into the extent of Frye’s reading in this particular area:

The NFL [Northrop Frye Library: the books in Frye’s personal library, now in the Victoria University Library]  includes at least one work by the following twentieth-century science fiction and fantasy writers; an asterisk after the name means that one or more volumes by the author is annotated: Richard Adams,* Piers Anthony,* Isaac Asimov,* Margaret Atwood, Alfred Bester, James Blish,* Hannes Bok,* Ray Bradbury,* James Branch Cabell,* Robert W. Chambers,* John Christopher, Arthur C. Clarke,* Mark Clifton,* Samuel R. Delany,* Lord Dunsany,* E.R. Eddison,* H. Rider Haggard,* Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert,* William Hope Hodgson,* Fred Hoyle,* M.R. James,* R.A. Lafferty,* Ursula LeGuin,* Stanislaw Lem,* C.S. Lewis,* David Lindsay,* Arthur Machen,* Walter M. Miller, Mervyn Peake,* Olaf Stapledon,* J.R.R. Tolkien,* H.G. Wells, T.H. White,* Charles Williams,* Colin Wilson,* John Wyndham,* Roger Zelazny.* He also owned a number of anthologies and books of criticism of science fiction and fantasy, including Alexei and Cory Panshin,  The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence (New Ycrk: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989), for which he wrote a publisher’s blurb. (CW 15: 379)

This affinity is most evident in The Secular Scripture, but it is already apparent in Anatomy of Criticism (1957) where Frye defines science fiction in terms of romance:

What we have said about the return of irony to myth in tragic  modes thus holds equally well for comic ones. Even popular literature appears to be slowly shifting its center of gravity from murder stories to science fiction or at any rate a rapid growth of science fiction is certainly a fact about contemporary popular literature. Science fiction frequently tries to imagine what life would be like on a plane as far above us as we are above savagery; its setting is often of a kind that appears to us as technologically miraculous. It is thus a mode of romance with a strong inherent tendency to myth.

In the  preface to the Italian translation of The Secular Scripture Frye notes that the references in his study of sentimental romance “are mainly to Spenser, Scott, William Morris, and contemporary science fiction.”

Here are some excerpts:

When the novel developed, romance continued along with it in the “Gothic” stories of “Monk” Lewis and his Victorian successors. William Morris is to me the most interesting figure in this tradition for many reasons, one of them being his encyclopedic approach to romance, his ambition to collect every major story in literature and retell or translate it. In the twentieth century romance got a new lease of fashion after the mid-1950s, with the success of Tolkien and the rise of what is generally called science fiction.

No genre stands alone, and in dealing with romance I have to allude to every other aspect of literature as well. Still, the conventions of prose romance show little change over the course of centuries, and conservatism of this kind is the mark of a stable genre. In the Greek romances we find stories of mysterious birth, oracular prophecies about the future contortions of the plot, foster parents, adventures which involve capture by pirates, narrow escapes from death, recognition of the true identity of the hero and his eventual marriage with the heroine. We open, let us say, [Sir Walter Scott’s] Guy Mannering, written fifteen centuries later, and we find that, although there are slight changes in the setting, the kind of story being told, a story of mysterious birth, oracular prophecies, capture by pirates, and the like, is very much the same. In Greek romance the characters are Levantine, the setting is the Mediterranean world, and the normal means of transportation is by shipwreck. In science fiction the characters may be earthlings, the setting the intergalactic spaces, and what gets wrecked in hostile territory a spaceship, but the tactics of the storyteller generally conform to much the same outlines. (CW 18: 6)


If we define popular literature as what ignorant and vicious people read, the prejudice implied will make it impossible to understand what is going on in literature. Similarly, if we define the primitive only as the chronologically early, we create an illusion of literature gradually improving itself from naked savagery to the decent clothing of accepted cultural values. But actually the primitive is a quality in literature which emerges recurrently as an aspect of the popular, and as indicating also that certain conventions have been exhausted. The Greek romancers, for all their coyness, are more primitive in this sense than Homer or Aeschylus; the Gothic romancers, like many of the poets contemporary with them, are primitive in a way that Pope and Swift are not, and so are the folk singers and and science fiction writers of our own day as compared with Eliot or Joyce. (24)


The prevailing conception of serious fiction is enshrined41 in the title of F.R. Leavis’s book The Great Tradition, a study of George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad which assumes that these writers are central in a hierarchy of realistic novelists extending roughly from Defoe to D.H. Lawrence. The assumption seems reasonable, yet when empires start building walls around themselves it is a sign that their power is declining, and the very appearance of such a title indicates a coming change of fashion on the part of both writers and readers. As soon as a defensive wall is in place, the movements of the barbarians on the frontiers, in this case the readers of romance, Westerns, murder mysteries, and science fiction, begin to take on greater historical importance. These movements assumed a more definite shape after the appearance of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the mid-1950s. On the T.S. Eliot principle that every writer creates his own tradition, the success of Tolkien’s book helped to show that the tradition behind it, of George MacDonald and Lewis Carroll and William Morris, was, if not “the great” tradition, a tradition nonetheless. It is a tradition which interests me rather more than Tolkien himself ever did, but for a long time I was in a minority in my tastes. Over twenty years ago, in the remotest corner of a secondhand bookshop, I picked up a cheap reprint of William Morris’s The Roots of the Mountains. The bookseller remarked that the two little green volumes had been sitting on his shelves since the day he opened his shop in 1913. Fortunately he had some other stock that moved faster, but if the shop is still there it is probably featuring paperback reprints of William Morris romances in a series which, though still cautiously labelled “adult fantasy,” seems to be finding its public. (30-31)


A study of mirror worlds in romance might range from the Chinese novel best known in the West by the title The Dream of the Red Chamber to some remarkable treatments of the theme in science fiction, such as Arthur Clarke’s The City and the Stars and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. (72)


Doubles in time are, of course, much more complicated than doubles in space: the great pioneer work here is Henry James’s unfinished The Sense of the Past, and the doubles produced by some kind of “time machine” have been extensively explored in science fiction. (78)


Technology, for capitalism and still more for Communism, seemed at one time to promise the kind of human ascendancy over nature that would accompany the final recovery of myth, but the poets have dragged their feet in its celebration. Blake, D.H. Lawrence, Morris, Yeats, Pound, are only a few of those who have shown marked hostility to technology and have refused to believe that its peaceful and destructive aspects can be separated. The poets see nothing imaginative in a domination of nature which expresses no love for it, in an activity founded on will, which always overreacts, in a way of life marked by a constant increase in speed, which means also an increase in introversion and the breaking down of genuine personal relationships. The great exception, the literary movement that was expected to seize on technology as its central theme, was assumed to be science fiction. But the way in which science fiction, as it has developed from hardware fantasy into software philosophical romance, has fallen into precisely the conventions of romance as outlined here is so extraordinary that I wish I had the time and the erudition to give it a separate treatment. Visions of utopias, or properly running communities, belong in its general area; but, in modern science fiction, anti-utopias, visions of regression or the nightmarish insect states of imaginative death, must outnumber the positive utopias by at least fifty to one. (118)

Frye and Ray Bradbury

Oskar Werner and Cyril Cusack in Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury died this Tuesday. Frye mentions Bradbury in the entry on “Satire” in the Harper Handbook:

 Perhaps the most concentrated form of fantasy is the presentation of the imaginary ideal state known as the UTOPIA, where all activity is ritualized and where every individual fits perfectly into the social mould. And perhaps the most concentrated form of satire is what is now called the DYSTOPIA, the Utopian parody of a world turned by malice or cunning into a nightmarish hell, as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Yevgeny Zamyatyn’s We, or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ape and Essence. A good deal of SCIENCE FICTION is based on dystopian allegories (for example Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz), where the relation to the social pitfalls in contemporary technology is close enough for frightening plausibility in the fantasy. (CW 18, 384)

Bob Denham has directed me to two other references, from the volume he edited, Northrop Frye: Selected Letters, 1934–1991. Here is the first, a letter to Ray Bradbury in Los Angeles,  dated 31 March 1969.

Frye and Bradbury had been seated together at some unidentified faculty dinner.  Bradbury asked Frye for two of his books, which Frye mailed to him.  Bradbury wrote on 16 March 1969, thanking Frye for the books and saying that he hoped they could “meet again some day under quieter auspices, and not have to discuss the pros and cons of such 1968 vaudeville miseries as HAIR.”  With his letter, Bradbury sent Frye several of his own books, prompting the present reply.

Dear Mr. Bradbury,

I am just taking off for your part of the world again, but your books have just arrived and I did want to thank you for them.  I am quite familiar enough with your work to know that the statement quoted from Isherwood in one of the introductions, that yours is a very great and unusual talent, is a simple factual statement. (130)

As Bob points out in his explanatory notes, “These were doubtless the following two presentation copies in Frye’s library: The Martian Chronicles, with a new introduction by Fred Hoyle (New York: Time, 1963), and The Vintage Bradbury: Ray Bradbury’s Own Selection of His Best Stories, with an introduction by Gilbert Highet (New York: Vintage Books, 1965).” As to the Isherwood reference:  “In a 1950 review of The Martian Chronicles, Christopher Isherwood observed, ‘Mr. Bradbury is a very great and unusual talent.'”

Then there is the following, a letter to the biologist David W. Ehrenfeld,  Barnard College, Columbia University, dated 15 January 1974:

In reply to Ehrenfeld’s query (28 December 1973): why is Spengler not juxtaposed more often in the critical literature with Roderick SeidenbergEhrenfeld reports that he had just read Frye’s essay on Spengler, “The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler”( Dædalus, 103 [Winter 1974]: 1–13), which he found to be reminiscent of Orwell’s critical style. 

Dear Mr. Ehrenfeld:

Thank you very much for your letter.  I am glad if I was like Orwell, who seems to me an admirable stylist, but he is impossible to imitate, because his lucidity is a direct product of his moral integrity.

I cannot say that I know Seidenberg’s book well enough to answer your questions properly.  From what I can gather of him, I should say that you have answered them yourself pretty accurately.  I don’t know why he isn’t mentioned more often: I suppose one thing is the difference in date.  Seidenberg seems to me to be predominantly a writer reflecting the age of science fiction as an extremely important and central cultural development.  But the kind of questioning of cultural values which he embodies seems very like the kind of thing one keeps running into in Clarke, Bradbury, Ballard, and others.  In general, I am inclined to feel that Seidenberg’s thesis is really a more superficial and simplified version of Spengler’s, as you yourself strongly hint. (163)

I wish you the best of luck in your own reflections on the subject.

The reference is to “Post‑historic Man (New York: Viking, 1950).  Seidenberg argued that the human race was being trapped into moral immobility by rational mechanisms aimed at organizing and thus controlling the natural and human world,” and Ehrenfeld believes that Seidenberg “has posed a plausible and direct challenge to Spengler’s view of history.”



Collecting Frye’s Thoughts: Story by Mike Landry

Bob Denham in his library

What follows is the text portion of “Collecting Frye’s Thoughts,”  a story by Mike Landry, from the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, part of a special feature on Northrop Frye (April 21, 2012).  Mike Landry is the Telegraph-Journal’s arts and culture editor. He can be reached at

Now retired in Emory, Va., former professor Robert D. Denham has dedicated decades of his career to compiling and then annotating Frye’s bibliography. In the process, he has assembled an extensive and unparalleled near nine-metre library of Frye-related material, which he hopes to donate to the Moncton library.

In the southwestern corner of Virginia, a 30-minute drive north of Tennessee and North Carolina, about 850 metres above sea level in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is Northrop Frye country.

To say it’s an unlikely home for the world-renowned Canadian literary theorist would be an understatement. It’s inconceivable that the tiny town of Emory, Va., 1,000 kilometres from Toronto, would account for arguably the most impressive personal library of Northrop Frye’s work.

Frye visited the town only once, for two days, in 1979, to give The Reynolds Lectures at Emory & Henry College. And while snow is still melting from Frye’s old stomping grounds in Moncton in early April, those in Emory are busy mowing their lawns.

Yet, in the study of Robert D. Denham’s home in Emory, almost nine metres of shelf space is allocated to Frye. It takes almost 40 pages to list all the books, monographs, journals and offprints in Denham’s collection. It’s so extensive, the two editions of Anatomy of Criticism not in the collection are a translation from Tunisia and an Italian edition from a print run that was destroyed by the publisher.

Add then, not measured on his shelves, are the eight videotapes and 56 audiotapes Denham has collected. Nor included is what Denham refers to as ‘Frygiana’: Frye’s writing desk and chair; a silver bowl, presented to Frye on the occasion of his giving the Jacobs Lecture at Columbia University; a bronze bust of Frye by Hanna Boos; and more than 50 other items of miscellany.

“It’s anal neurotic, I guess, this collecting stuff,” Denham says. His other “collecting fetish” has led to 2,700 modern poetry books in his library. “I don’t know how to explain it, it’s kind of like stamp collecting – I’ve got to have it complete, but I keep finding more stuff.”

A former John P. Fishwick Professor of English Emeritus at Roanoke College, just east of Emory in Salem, Va., Denham published his enumerative bibliography of Northrop Frye in 1974. He then collaborated with the University of Toronto Press to publish an annotated bibliography in 1987. Denham has been involved in editing nine of the 30 Collected Works of Northrop Frye.

He’s put his collection to good use, and Denham wants to make it available to the wider public. He contacted the Frye Festival last fall about donating his Frye material to the Moncton Public Library, and in May someone from Moncton is heading down to assess the collection. In addition to his primary sources, Denham is also sending his hundreds and hundreds of secondary sources relating to Frye. Denham hopes to turn the Moncton library into a centre for Frye studies – one of the few places someone so inclined could find not only a signed 1947 copy of Fearful Symmetry, but an edition in one of 19 languages and its reviews from across the decades and the world over.

“He’s not on the lips of every post-structuralist thinker, but someone is thinking about him out there,” Denham says regarding Frye’s enduring appeal. A study he did a few years ago documented the rise in secondary sources about Frye, and his prevalence in hundreds of school curricula.

Denham purchased his first Frye book, Anatomy of Criticism, on a whim in the early ’60s while browsing the shelves of the University of Chicago bookstore. He had only recently come across literary criticism while pursuing an MA in religion and art.

He wouldn’t read the book until he had left to serve in the army in 1964. By the time he returned to the University of Chicago to complete his PhD in 1970, he decided to write his dissertation on Frye’s critical method. He was drawn to specializing in history and theory of criticism as he felt it would be a good base for an undergraduate professor. Traditionally, then, dissertations were written on dead thinkers, but Denham’s supervisor was interested in critical theory and had invited Frye to lecture in ’68.

“Once I discovered Frye, there wasn’t much going back. He was a large presence, and you always discovered something new.”

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