In a letter to his future wife, Helen Kemp, dated 10 August, 1936, Frye gives an account of his journey from the Kemp family cottage on Gordon Bay to Montreal, and from Montreal to Moncton, to visit his parents for a month before leaving to begin his studies at Oxford. The trip to Montreal was “pretty bloody” with an open door behind and “an oxygen-and-cinders addict in front with an open window, so I caught a hay feverish cold which kept me sneezing like a threshing machine for a day or two.” Plus a fretful two-year-old “whose mother was working on a theory that she could stop her from crying by slapping her.” The trip from Montreal to Moncton was more pleasant.
From Bathurst down to Moncton I talked to the trainman, whose name is Cormier, a next-door neighbor of ours who is quite a friend of Dad. He probably has the best library in Moncton, and has been collecting and reading standard works on anthropology, comparative religion and evolutionary theory for twenty years. He undoubtedly knows far more about comparative religion than anyone in Emmanuel College. Very dogmatic and violently anti-clerical, full of Haeckel and Frazer type of materialism and rationalism. Somewhat narrowed by a profound conviction that all theological writers are either fools or deliberate liars, and quite surprised that I had read or even heard of any of the books he had read. The Acadian Frenchman is naturally a liberal free-thinker on good terms with the English, in contrast to the Quebec habitant, who is nationalist and obscurantist. The latter are gaining ascendancy through their superior spawning faculties, and are trying to foment racial quarrels here. Cormier is part of the vanguard of an agnostic tendency which I think will absorb eventually most of the urban population of French Canada. He made me feel ……. that he, a mere trainman, should ……. while I, who had been to University ……. Fill up the blanks with something pious and patronizing.
The month of August was a difficult month for Frye, as the letters back and forth between Frye and Kemp (collected in The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1932-1939, edited by Robert Denham) testify and as John Ayre’s brief summary (Northrop Frye: A Biography) also suggests. He was concerned about his lack of money, worried about his rapidly aging mother, and unhappy at the prospect of being separated from Helen for such a long time. Sometime just before August 20, in a letter from Helen that has gone missing and is not included in the Correspondence, he learned (but wanted not to believe) that she was pregnant, and in turmoil trying to decide what to do. But in the midst of these very tumultuous few weeks he did take time to visit and be entertained by his next-door neighbour, Cormier. There are two such occasions recorded in the Frye-Kemp Correspondence. In a letter dated August 20 (the same letter in which he asks Helen not to “jump to conclusions quite so quickly this time”) he writes:
I went over to see Cormier the other night. He takes a magazine called the Literary Guide, run by a group of people called Rationalists, a sort of anti-clerical cult. There’s a Rationalist club in Toronto which meets every Sunday. I was very much disappointed in it (he lent, or rather gave, me a few copies) – it’s a snuffling, canting, self-righteous, priggish little magazine, incredibly sectarian and narrow-minded. The magazine itself is one of those publisher’s rackets – its review section designed to advertise their books and knock other publishers’. However, I got a good bibliography from him, as he has some really good things, and some very rare and valuable books.
At the end of a long letter postmarked 29 August he writes:
I think I forgot to mention in my last letter that I saw Cormier again – he took me to see a pig-headed old fool of about 70 who reads his rationalist magazine and much the same books – deaf, and uses his deafness as an excuse for his pig-headedness. Rationalists seem to have only two ideas, that Jesus never lived and that the church has always persecuted. So I got Sun myths and public school history bellowed at me – or rather across me, as I took little part in the conversation – all evening long.
It’s clear that Frye was fascinated and repelled by his neighbour Cormier, with his collection of “very rare and valuable books,” his openness to new ideas, his anti-clericalism, and his narrow-mindedness. In the midst of Helen’s (and his) agony over her unwanted pregnancy, his worries about money, and the excitement of his imminent departure for England, he can’t stop talking about the trainman next door. I don’t know much about this Cormier, other than what Frye gives us in his letters. But I do know that his collection of books survived intact, handed down from generation to generation. In my capacity as a dealer in used and rare books I bought the entire collection from Cormier’s granddaughter, in September, 1994.
He penciled his name very neatly into all his books – Robert J. Cormier, or sometimes just R. J. Cormier. I don’t know if he continued living in the house near Frye’s, and I don’t know when he died. The books came into the possession of his son Wilfred J. Cormier, and when Wilfred died in 1992 his widow, Florence, kept possession. Two years later, in the spring or early summer of 1994, Jean Beers, Florence’s daughter, called me to come and look at the books and to make an offer. My offer seemed low to Jean Beers, but it was all that I could afford, and all that made sense to me, with my known clientele. I suggested she contact a book dealer in Halifax, who might offer more. I thought that was the end of it. I felt sick, because I had seen the books and recognized the treasure I had let slip through my hands.
But several months later Jean Beers called me again and asked if my offer still stood. I don’t know if she ever contacted the dealer in Halifax. I had the feeling she just wanted me to take them away. I made the cheque out to Florence Cormier, whom I don’t think I ever actually met. (Florence Cormier, as I discovered from a recent google search, died July 23, 2002, at age 82.)
And so it was that on September 10, 1994 I returned to my bookstore with the greatest (not the biggest but the greatest) collection of books to come into my possession during the 21 years I was active as a bookseller. I still had no idea, no clue, that there was any connection between this collection of books and Northrop Frye. (That would only come later, in the early 2000s, when I had access to the Frye-Kemp correspondence and put two and two together.)
It’s easier these days to get a sense of the value of a book, through multiple internet resources. But I had no doubt, in 1994, that these were special and valuable books. My challenge would be to find the right buyer. (As it turned out, I sold many in my shop, at bargain prices, and many, eventually, to the book dealer and publisher Samuel Weiser in New York City.)
I still have the detailed, 11-page list from the date of purchase, with the amount I offered for each. Included in the list are J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the Third Edition complete in 12 volumes (Macmillan, 1906-1915), Frazer’s Folklore in the Old Testament in 3 volumes (MacMillan, 1913), the Arabian Nights in 12 volumes (illustrated edition, H.S. Nichols, 1897), Gerald Massey’s The Book of Beginnings in 2 folio-size volumes, Massey’s The Natural Genesis in 2 folio volumes, Darwin’s On The Origin of Species (Appleton, 1885) and The Descent of Man (Appleton, 1885), Ernst Haeckel’s The History of Creation in 2 volumes (Kegan Paul), and Thomas Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature (Appleton, 1877, 3rd edition). To pick just 3 of the more valuable books: The Golden Bough today is worth about $2,000; the illustrated Arabian Nights of 1897 is worth about $4,000; Massey’s Natural Genesis is worth $950. There were many other books, including more than ten books by J. M. Robertson, who wrote about the historical Jesus, the history of free-thinking, and related topics. Many books were anti-clerical and anti-Catholic. Many were anthropological and Darwinian in content.
Cormier had a connection with a book dealer in England, and every month, with his trainman’s salary, he would order the books that interested him. In this way, over the years, he built up the library that Frye saw and marvelled at. The Frazer titles (there were five in all, including the two mentioned above) would have immediately interested Frye. As we know from his published works and from his notebooks Frye continued to find fertile ground in Frazer to the end of his life. Of all the authors in Cormier’s library Frazer is the one, I believe, who was most important to Frye. I’d like to talk a little now about Frye’s relation to Frazer.
When did Frye first read Frazer? Did Frye have a chance to read the Frazer he found in Cormier’s library? If so, when might this have been? From my reading of the letters and the biography it seems he first discovered The Golden Bough in 1934 when he was taking a class in the Old Testament from Prof. Richard Davidson. Here is what he says to Helen (in a letter dated 19 October, 1934):
And I’ve started to read the Golden Bough for my Old Testament, which is all about magic in religion, the development of vegetation rites, the symbolic killing and eating of the god, bewailing the death of the god of fertility in the winter and his resurrection in the spring – the Adonis, Osiris, Dionysus and Demeter cults which all synthesise and coalesce in the Passion from Palm Sunday to Easter. It’s a whole new world opening out, particularly as that sort of thing is the very life-blood of art, and the historical basis of art. My ideas are expanding and taking shape so quickly that they frighten me; I get seized with terror sometimes that somebody else will think them out before I do, or that I shan’t live long enough to complete anything. I shan’t live very long in any case, of course; but that doesn’t matter if I make the contribution I seem destined to make.
In a letter postmarked 1 January, 1935 he writes, “I am doing some work in Old Testament for Davidson that should knock his eye out – connecting it with Frazer’s Golden Bough.” This work included two essays, “The Concept of Sacrifice” and “The Fertility Cults”, preserved at the University of Toronto in the Northrop Frye Fonds.
“That sort of thing is the very life-blood of art, and the historical basis of art.” So already in 1934 (if not earlier) Frye had come to the major insight that would inform his writing. No wonder that he maintained his interest in Frazer all his life, and kept referring to Frazer to the end. In Words with Power he refers to “the vast number of ‘dying god’ myths assembled by Frazer” and later in the book states “The hypothetical ritual [involving the sacrifice of a divine king] studied in Frazer’s Golden Bough may be vulnerable enough in various anthropological contexts, but as a mythical structure it is as solid as the pyramids.
The Late Notebooks contain many references to Frazer, which indicate that Frye was still getting a lot of sustenance from him. From Notebook 50, paragraph 266: “Seven is based on the Frazer stuff I’ve already written about …” From paragraph 410: “I still lean to the idea of combining the Oedipus & Frazer for a smash ending.” From paragraph 413: “I wonder if Seven can be built around Frazer & the Eucharist …” From Notes 52 in the Late Notebooks, paragraph 972: “History of ideas deals only with ideology: history of mythology, or real literary tradition, takes a crank or a nut like Frazer or Graves or me.”
From Notes 54.2, paragraph 32: “What Frazer unaccountably leaves entirely out of his scheme is the female principle, who represents the earth itself …” From paragraph 34 of the same section: “The Frazer-Graves cycle is pretty clear to me now; but the top cycle, where we go from the paradisal garden which is the female body through to a place of seed, isn’t; and there are no books about it.”
But though Frye kept his interest in Frazer to the end, he also of course had some harsh criticism of Frazer’s understanding of myth. This is expressed perhaps most succinctly and forcefully in The Great Code.
Earlier students of myth seem to have put up a strong resistance to the fact that myth is a form of imaginative and creative thinking, and is therefore autonomous. There must have been some cause of myths, it was felt: we are giving up the game if we suggest that man makes myths because he makes myths, and that no deterministic explanation will work. Frazer is one such early investigator who is indispensable for a book like this, not only because his center of cultural interest is close to mine, but because he treats myths as interlocking story patterns like a literary critic, rather than in terms of their functions within their various cultures. But Frazer was a Classical and Biblical scholar who thought he was a scientist because he had read so much anthropology, and hence was subject to fits of rationalism, which seem to have attacked him like a disease. In Folklore in the Old Testament he collects flood stories from all over the world, in typically Frazerian fashion, and then suggests that in every case a local flood was the reason for the myth. True, there do seem to have been floods in lower Mesopotamia, though the really big ones appear to be later than the great story in the Gilgamesh epic. But why does man respond to such events by myth?
Frye’s answer, in The Great Code and elsewhere is, “It seems clear that flood myths are better understood when they are compared with other flood myths, not when they are compared with floods.” More generally: “Mythology is not a datum but a factum of human existence: it belongs to the world of culture and civilization that man has made and still inhabits.”
In the introduction to Words with Power Frye describes what he calls “the anti-literary prejudices in religious scholarship” and notes that these are “complemented by anti-religious prejudices among literary critics.” Both sorts of prejudices create barriers to understanding, but these were, in Frye’s time, slowly being overcome.
A more serious issue, to me, is the number of literary critics who seem to be as unwilling as Biblical critics to admit that myth and metaphor form the primary language of their own subject. Ever since Plato, most literary critics have connected the word ‘thought’ with dialectical and conceptual idioms, and ignored or denied the existence of poetic and imaginative thought. This attitude continued into the twentieth century with I. A. Richard’s Science and Poetry, with its suggestion that mythical thinking has been superseded by scientific thinking, and that consequently poets must confine themselves to pseudo-statements. The early criticism of T. S. Eliot, though considerably more cautious than this, also exhibited an array of confusions clustering around the word ‘thought.’ Since then there has been a slowly growing realization that mythological thinking cannot be superseded, because it forms the framework and context for all thinking.
I think Frye may have been overly optimistic here and that the only thing growing is the idea that myth means something that seems, or once seemed, true, but isn’t. I was once caught up in the so-called “Death of God” movement that flourished in the 60s in the United States, and I was very much taken by the somewhat earlier writings of Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and especially Rudolph Bultmann. Tillich’s ultimate reality (God above God), Bonhoeffer’s revelation without religion, Bultmann’s program to demythologize the New Testament, all centered on the idea that mythical thinking is something to be got over – left behind. What I liked about Tillich, Bonhoeffer, and Bultmann is that I saw in them an attempt to make religion “attractive” (to use Frye’s own word for what he wanted to accomplish) to the modern, critical mind.
The Great Code put an end to my infatuation. One sentence in particular (still the most important sentence for me in all of Frye) stopped me in my tracks: “In the next chapter I shall give my reasons for saying that myth is the linguistic vehicle of kerygma, and that to ‘demythologize’ any part of the Bible would be the same thing as to obliterate it.”
Frye’s full statement (about making religion “attractive”) as found in the Late Notebooks (and as quoted by Bob Denham in the introduction to Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World) is: “I’m no evangelist or revivalist preacher, but I’d like to help out in a trend to make religion interesting and attractive to many people of good will who will have nothing to do with it now.” Bultmann, I believe, had the same desire, as did Tillich and Bonhoeffer, though I’m not sure about the Death of God people. But the point is that Frye’s way of helping out was just very different from theirs, and I think it remains to be seen if it will be any more successful.