Author Archives: Joseph Adamson

In Cabazon

Trevor Losh-Johnson, one of our regular contributors, has recently published an original hybrid book of lyric  poetry and prose. It is a brilliant piece of writing, with many remarkable high points and outstanding passages. In an email Trevor described it to me this way:

In Cabazon is a gothic pastoral spun out of a setting that by any exercise of rationale should be fictional. Cabazon, a dusty hamlet in California, is home to the world’s only creationist museum to be housed in the bowels of a dinosaur. A fusion of verse and prose, the narrative roves through the suburban sprawl of Southern California and into the heart of Western wastelands. In Cabazon  is of and for Californian deserts.

 By gothic pastoral, I mean a nightmarish story split formally between two poles, the lyric and the narrative. Each relates to the other. The lyric side starts with an invocation to build a church in a boundless, chaotic desert, to delimit sacred space. It then transitions into a journey through a museum, in which the attempt at building a space like a cathedral to contain all creation has changed into an attempt to record and preserve the things that have been lost to time. The narrative side follows a man’s search for his lost wife, and makes a similar transition into loss, but with a twist. It is a very hallucinogenic piece of writing, extremely ironic and revelatory at the same time, ambitious, doomed to failure, entirely in keeping with the spirit of a desert city with concrete dinosaurs espousing creationist ideology.

The book was edited and published by Jeffrey Douglas, a PhD candidate here at McMaster, and a brilliant young writer himself. All content is copyrighted by BlankSpace Publications, 2012. For more on the book and BlankSpace Publications, go here, here, and here.

Here is a sampler:



At the Cabazon museum a single room

Contained two antechambers, sun and moon

And I took the latter through a purple veil

Silent and dim the chamber led past a mural

As on a cave’s wall down unintended steps

A plesiosaur suspended in the deep

Caught a darting fish with needleteeth

And past the mural encased upon the wall

A fossilfrieze of curled bones in rock

As boulders pebble the surface of shallow lakes

And diagrammed beside the osseous heap

A map depicting how the mother lay

And where to note the bones in the uterine wall

Beside that broken eggs or stomach stones



In the oilhot temple smells of olive and cedar

Climb along the columns to erect

The prehistoric past with carved dinonecks

Inhabited of old Titans, serpentine and follicular

Those cornices seethed and the room suffused with green

And while the herd milled like scattered palms

A pack, bipedal carnivores, lurked and surveyed

At once took casually the nearest calf

And exerted after others but the mothers

Trampled many—one both dazed and hurt

Pressed its snout to its partner’s neck and found

Gashes and spongiform tissue—ponderously

Their knees sank beneath buckling weights to the mud

And let the carcasses rot in the fetid place

House of Cards

Jeffery Donaldson has given us permission to publish this lovely poem:


House of Cards

Jeffery Donaldson

For Garry Sherbert



“Ah, that fine fragile cathedral,”

said Jacques Derrida of Northrop Frye’s

Anatomy, one evening he was asked,


and there implied that, sooner or later,

literature’s whole top-heavy elaborate estate,

its fictive papers gingerly assembled,


would come crashing down on itself,

your canny devotions notwithstanding.

Said Frye himself: the world we create


in our imaginations is above time;

when the whole structure is finished,

nature, its scaffolding, is knocked away….


For Monsieur, you have fiction’s ephemera,

the broad-footed obelisk’s weightless

undergirdings, giddy and unhinged.


For the Canuck, nature is the provisional

gizmo, down and out, all gauze and gimcrack,

a mustered rigging’s trial-and-error.


Something between them will have to give.

Look this way and let us watch a moment

this child at work on a house of cards,


her painstaking piecemeal agglomerations,

rows of card-pair tee-pees’ touching tips

rising pyramidal, fine-flicked and unquibbling,


frangible as Tiffany. Her gangly,

jeweller’s-eye-tuned hand at widdershins

and dodging round buttresses athwart


must have a knack for stealth, that furtive

gesture, nearly, of not putting a thing

where you leave it, lifting your fingers free.


The testy habiliments climb to a single point,

light headed, slackening upwards,

all the more shouldering less and less,


next to nothing in the end. Fixed on little

more than the touchy gossamer integra,

she knows its equilibrium is a travesty,


how far from sound-footed, how possessed

of no greater poise than that each

tipped buttress is already half-toppled.


And she knows how we wait for hubris

to come knocking the moment she gingers

a last card onto the ticklish pinnacle.


Her staying it was never in the cards,

we like to say. The rooms are empty.

Once the whole is done, she’ll need to wreck it.


How that last one didn’t trigger the upset

let-down already settled upon, who knows?

Her patience is dizzying. Her fingers, feathers.


In the end she will not keep us guessing,

or leave unproven for a Derrida or Frye

what comes next once she is finished with it,


this dwelling she had a hand in making

that tapers at all odds above the fallen world,

once she is above knocking it down.

A Letter to the Frye Community

“I think that everybody tries to produce what Marshall McLuhan called a ‘counter environment.’ That is, you set yourself in opposition to the kind of mass tendencies which the media set up. That’s what’s so important about the humanities in the uni­versity; there is always something of Mark Hopkins and the log. There’s something of a personal dialogue between one human being and another. And the fact that this dialogue is being car­ried out in the teeth of all the mass emotion techniques of the electronic media is a very important side of the humanities.” ––Northrop Frye

A great deal of imaginative and intellectual energy was generated by the two recent conferences on Frye, honoring the centenary of his birth––one in Budapest and the other in Toronto.  Our weblog, “The Educated Imagination,” allows us to continue the dialogues begun at those two gatherings.

The aims of the blog are

● to stimulate and foster interest in Frye’s work

● to facilitate the conversation about his criticism

● to provide useful research tools for all who want to study his writings

● to keep the bibliography of Frye studies up to date, becoming a steward of the history and tradition of such studies

● to testify to the ways that Frye’s thought has influenced our thinking, understanding, and teaching

● to explain things in Frye’s work that may be difficult, to analyze the various parts of his conceptual universe, and to evaluate and critique his theories

● to understand the sources of Frye’s thought and the influences that shaped it

● to see how Frye’s criticism interpenetrates with or otherwise relates to the conceptual universes of other systems of thought

● to study how Frye’s criticism has been applied practically, both in literary studies and in other disciplines

● to understand how Frye’s work fits into the history of criticism

● to examine Frye’s place in Canadian culture

● to pose questions about Frye’s work that others may be able to answer

● to develop the fledgling journal––go here

● to publicize and review books and articles about Frye

The blog, which, as you can see, is fully searchable, enables one to comment on earlier postings, and it has a “library” that has begun to accumulate materials, including articles on Frye’s work, several ebooks, pdf files of the Northrop Frye Newsletter, previously unpublished material, selected reviews of some of Frye’s books, student notes from Frye’s courses, and the like.

The purpose of this letter is to invite you and your friends and colleagues to become a part of the conversation.  You may want to respond to earlier postings by using the “comment” feature of the blog.  Beyond that, feel free to send Joe Adamson ( your articles, comments, queries, suggestions, and / or earlier things you’ve written about Frye.  By so doing you will circulate your ideas among the more than 11,000 visitors who log on to the blog each month.  If you would like to become a regular blogger, posting every week or even once a month, please let Joe know.  As Frye says, the techniques of the electronic media certainly have their down side.  But they can also help bring us together by engaging in dialogue about a common subject.

Joe Adamson and Bob Denham

Frye on the Two Americas

Walden Pond

As the American presidential election campaign comes to a close, and the prospect of a president Romney is, grotesquely, a possible outcome we must brace for, I thought it might be worth quoting from an essay that Frye wrote in the late sixties, entitled “America: True or False?”  Roger Hyman, a Canadianist and a colleague of mine here at McMaster, drew the piece to my attention the other day as we were grumbling over lunch about the wretched state of the world and harkening back to the sixties and the very different, much more hopeful atmosphere then; he recalled, to my envy, the year at grad school when he was taking, all at the same time, courses from three giants, Frye, McLuhan, and Donald Creighton, the Red Tory historian of Canada.

The essay was written in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam war and the student movement, and originally published in Notes for a Native Land, A New Encounter with Canada (ed. Andy Wainwright, Oberon Press, 1969), a collection of essays by various Canadian writers and intellectuals. It was another time, another place, but the words, mutatis mutandis–and the necessary adjustments are remarkably few–still speak so clearly and lucidly. As Frye eloquently said of Canada in The Modern Century, the country we should be loyal to is not the country that exists, but the one we have failed to create:

. . . . As for the USA, there is a political separation from that country which a Canadian feels as soon as he goes outside Canada. Politically, Canada ought to be one of the small, observant countries in a new world of continental, powers, much as, say, Switzerland has been in Europe. A Canadian going to the United States to teach in a university there is often asked by his American students if he notices any difference. They expect the answer to be no, and nine-tenths of the time it is no, but the tenth time there is some point of discussion that suddenly makes him feel like a Finn in Russia or a Dane in Germany. His students have been conditioned from infancy to be citizens of a vast imperial power; he has been conditioned to watch, to take sides in decisions made elsewhere.

But what does political separation matter when economically and culturally there seems to be no difference at all? The great producing machine of North American capitalism knows nothing of an undefended border: it spews its consumer goods all over us, pollutes our air and water and earth, turns our landscapes into a strangling nightmare of highways, tears the guts out of our cities and strews them along “ribbon developments,” cuts down our forests and digs up our mines, bellows and mimes a mixture of advertising and propaganda into our eyes and ears all day long. In short, everything that happens in the United States happens in Canada too, except that most of it is crossing a border and invading another country. But is that any real exception? Canadians seem to be quite willing to go along with this process: no political leader dares resist it for fear of “lowering the standard of living.” If our identity is to consist only of a querulous and pointless anti-Americanism, it is hardly worth holding on to.

The economic development of America has been intensely competitive, and so has developed in an oligarchic direction, taking advantage of everything that increases social inequality, like racism. Exclusiveness breeds hysteria, because of the constant fear of revolt from “below,” and the hysteria is increased by an economy that depends on advertising, and so tries to create a gullible and uncritical public. Advertising absorbs propaganda as the economic expansion goes beyond the limits of America and turns imperialist, and the two merge into the category of “public relations,” where one throws oneself into a dramatic role, and says, not what one means, but what the tactics of the situation are supposed to demand. In so insane a context the question of whether or not murdering a prominent figure or planting a bomb would be good publicity for one’s cause becomes almost a rational question. Hysteria breeds counter-hysteria, racism counter-racism, and American capitalism is now facing various opposed forces who may turn out to be stronger than it is, because they fight with the same weapons but believe in them more intensely. On both sides the social unit is the organized mob. An appalling crash in the near future seems to be at least a possibility for American society, and Canada could no more avoid such a conflict than Belgium could avoid a war between Germany and France. We look round for a third force, but the best organized one seems to be the criminals, who profit from both.

And yet everyone realizes: that there are two Americas, and that underneath this gigantic parasite on the American way of life there is quite a different America, tough, shrewd, humorous, deeply committed to a belief in democracy, with a genuine hatred of violence and unreason, anxious to reduce, even try to eliminate, poverty and social discrimination in its own country and to keep out of trouble with other nations. It may be sentimental and easily misled, but it is very far from being inarticulate or powerless. It is potentially in control of the political structure, which may often be,. in practice, the executive committee of the economic structure, but does not have to be: the Constitution which is its basis aims at democracy, not at oligarchy, and it is still a powerful revolutionary force.

I do not see how America can find its identity, much less avoid chaos, unless a massive citizens’ resistance develops which is opposed to exploitation and imperialism on the one hand, and to jack-booted radicalism on the other. It would not be a new movement, but simply the will of the people, the people as a genuine society strong enough to contain and dissolve all mobs. It would be based on a conception of freedom as the social expression of tolerance, and on the understanding that violence and lying cannot produce anything except more violence and more lies. It would be politically active, because democracy has to do with majority rule and not merely with enduring the tyranny of organized minorities. It would not be conservative or radical in its direction, but both at once.

What is true of American identity is a fortiori true of Canadian identity. Our political independence, such as it is, is the chance that enables us to make common cause with the genuine American that Thoreau and Jefferson and Mark Twain and even Ezra Pound were talking about. This all sounds very vague, but that doesn’t worry me: this is a statement of belief, not a program of action. It also sounds very unlikely, but hope is said to be a major virtue.

(CW 12: 403-405)

Educating the Imagination Conference

As many of you will know, a conference was held at the University of Toronto at the beginning of October in honour of Frye’s centenary, and on Thursday evening a bronze statue of Frye (modeled on the one originally unveiled in Moncton earlier this year) was unveiled in the quad of Victoria College. The statue is located just outside Northrop Frye Hall. For more on the unveiling, go here.

The conference itself was a great success, the level of the papers very high, and the considerable number of papers from the younger generation of scholars gave us much to hope for the future of Frye studies. The conference website, here, may be posting some of the papers.  Here is the conference program:


October 4th – 6th 2012,
Victoria University in the University of Toronto



9.45 -10.00 Welcome by Neil ten Kortenaar (University of Toronto)

10.00-11.15 am

Panel 1: Influences on Frye (Chair: Melissa Dalgleish, York University)

Joseph Adamson (McMaster University): “Frye and Edgar Allan Poe”

Craig Stephenson (IAAP): “Reading Frye Reading Jung”

Robert D. Denham (Roanoke College, Emeritus): “Frye and Colin Still”

11.30 am-12.45 pm

Panel 2: Frye: Structure and Change (Chair: Paul Downes, University of Toronto)

Duncan McFarlane (University of Ottawa): “Frye, Bloom, and the Problem of Satire”

Jan Gorak (University of Denver): “Frye and the Comedy of Humors”

Glen Robert Gill (Montclair State University): “The Dialectics of Myth: Northrop Frye’s Theory of Culture”

12.45-2.00 Lunch (on your own)


Plenary Lecture by Robert Bringhurst

“The Use and Abuse of Theory in Literature”

(Chair: Germaine Warkentin, University of Toronto)

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Nella Cotrupi on the “Secular Scripture”

In honour of the centenary, Nella Cotrupi, author of Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Process, will be giving a series of lectures on Frye and the concept of the “secular scripture.”  I certainly intend to catch as many of the talks as I can. Not to be missed if you are a Frye devotee and live in the area. Here is the blurb from the flyer:

Northrop Frye and the Secular Scripture
With Nella Cotrupi

Tuesdays, October 2, 9, 23 & 30, 2012
7:00- 9:00 pm at Emmanuel College

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Northrop Frye and many special events have been organized to mark this centenary and honour a graduate of Emmanuel College who is widely acknowledged to have been one of Canada’s  brightest intellectual lights. In honour of this occasion, Dr. Nella Cotrupi will deliver a series of four talks with discussion on a concept that is central to Frye’s life work, the “Secular Scripture.” What did Professor Frye comprehend by this expression, and why did he privilege it so prominently in his literary criticism? In order to answer these questions, we will delve into the very core of his spiritual beliefs and ethical commitments.

Nella Cotrupi has taught and published widely on Northrop Frye. Her book-length study, Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Process, was published by University of Toronto Press.

For registration details go here.

Two Frye Alerts

These  two alerts are courtesy of Bob Denham, our roving reporter who always has a sharp eye out for matters Frygian:

You can follow this link to the website of one of Frye’s former students, Margaret Kell Virany, who supplied Bob with so many of the notes for Frye’s courses. We owe her a great debt. The notes are published in our library, under “Class Notes and Exams”. I might take the opportunity here to thank Clayton Chrusch for his help in uploading them into the library.

This link will take you to a lovely piece by Sylva Ficová, freelance translator and editor, translator of Anatomy of Criticism and co-0translator of The Great CodeVelký kód [Bible a literatura].  Trans. Sylva  Ficová  and Alena Přibáňová.  Brno: Host, 2000.

New Book on Frye: Michael Sinding’s Body of Vision

Michael Sinding’s new book on Frye, Body of Vision: Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Mind, is forthcoming in January. Michael is Marie Curie Fellow in the Department of Language and Communication at the Vrije Universteit Amsterdam; this fall he is presenting papers on Frye at conferences in Budapest and Toronto. Here is a blurb from the flyer for the book:
Body of Vision (University of Toronto Press, 2013) reconsiders fundamentals of Northrop Frye’s theories of meaning, literature, and culture in the light of related current approaches that have taken his insights in very different directions. It develops branches of Frye’s thinking by proposing partial syntheses of them with cognitive poetics and with contextualist theories of cultural history and ideology, seeking to retain the best of all worlds. Case studies of texts and genres work out promising connections in detail.Three related aspects of Frye’s work are explored: meaning and thought, culture and society, and literary history. Chapter 1 connects Frye’s theory of meaning and poetic metaphor with those developed in cognitive linguistics and poetics by George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Mark Turner. Chapter 2 applies this synthesis to the metaphoric world of Dante’s *Divine Comedy*. Chapter 3 links Frye’s approach to the relations among literature, society, and ideology with that of cultural theorists Roland Barthes and Stuart Hall, and with Lakoff’s cognitive account of metaphor and framing in political thought and discourse. It characterizes the contrasting conservative and liberal worldviews represented in Hobbes’s Leviathan and Rousseau’s Social Contract. Chapter 4 considers relations between general principles of literary cognition and particulars of texts and contexts in history. Frye’s approach is compared with Patrick Colm Hogan’s study ofemotional and literary universals, and with the new historicism of Stephen Greenblatt and Louis Adrian Montrose. The pastoral is examined as a genre that appears decidedly dated in many ways, yet is still capable of communicating powerfully.

Michael and the University of Toronto Press have kindly given us permission to post an excerpt. Here is the first chapter:

 Cognition, Meaning and Culture

“Systems That Won’t Quite Do”: Schematic Structure in Literary Metaphor, Myth, and Models

Michael Sinding

 I do not think of the Anatomy as primarily systematic: I think of it rather as schematic. The reason it is schematic is that poetic thinking is schematic. The structure of images that C. S. Lewis in The Discarded Image calls “the Model” was a projected schematic construct which provided the main organization for literature down to the Renaissance: it modulated into less projected forms after Newton’s time, but it did not lose its central place in literature.

Northrop Frye, “Reflections in a Mirror,” 1966

Our first imaginary conversation proposes to reveal important parallels between Frye’s literary and cultural theory, on the one hand, and cognitive literary studies, on the other, which make it worthwhile to look at these theories in each others’ lights, so to speak. The most important parallels concern the relation of metaphors to one another and to the larger mental models giving structure to culture, literature, philosophy, science, and moral and political worldviews and ideology. Determining their points of agreement and divergence can indicate how they may be developed in concert, as supplementing, extending, and correcting one another’s claims and arguments about common concerns. From this vantage, I see Frye as elaborating some of the broader cultural implications of the conceptual approach to meaning, and the conceptual party as able to support certain versions of Frye’s theses about literature and culture by articulating the linguistic and conceptual details. (Putting them together, as I’ve suggested, we get more of the forest and more of the trees than we could with either one alone.) After a brief overview of some common aims, principles, and background, this chapter turns to detailed discussions of the former, then the latter. The ultimate aim is to describe in detail the possible forms of coherence across metaphors and their imagistic structures. This will prepare the ground for a study of metaphoric coherence in what Frye calls “literary cosmologies”, which are metaphoric storyworlds. To clarify, storyworlds, as David Herman defines them, are “mental models of who did what to and with whom, when, where, why, and in what fashion in the world to which recipients relocate [. . .] as they work to comprehend a narrative” (Story Logic 5). Literary cosmologies are metaphoric storyworlds in that they are structured by compounds of metaphors (i.e. many aspects of the storyworld are metaphorical, and as they interact with one another, the metaphors combine). The next chapter will use this chapter’s analysis to examine the metaphoric coherence of the cosmology of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The chapters following connect the cosmology to social mythology and to literary history.

The approach to figurative language and thought pioneered by George Lakoff, Mark Johnson and Mark Turner caught imaginations across the world, and I think it’s no exaggeration to call it revolutionary. At present it constitutes a flourishing research program that continues to invigorate many fields. It has roots in cognitive linguistics, which is also highly interdisciplinary, and claims a very broad scope, examining metaphor, figures, and narrative in many areas, including literature, philosophy, religion, anthropology, politics, mathematics, and particularly worldview and common sense. As with Frye, there is an impressive interdisciplinarity of sources and influences. Cognitive literary studies encompasses cognitive poetics, narratology, rhetoric, reader response, and more. Indeed, it may draw on any of the fields associated with cognitive science—not only linguistics but cognitive psychology, anthropology, and various divisions of neuroscience.

In fact, reception of the two theories is also comparable and can lead us into some of their common aims and assumptions. Early views of Frye tend toward hagiography or hatchet job, and the gamut remains narrow and polarized. In short, while many find Frye’s ingenious analyses, analogies, synopses and pattern perception highly informative, others find them over-ingenious and over-idealized. Discounting genial praise, general abuse, and frequent misunderstanding, Hamilton sees in serious critiques of Frye chiefly a distrust of his systematicity, a concern that abstraction away from contextualized particulars can be flattening of textual complexity and literary experience, and rejection of his totalizing ambitions (Anatomy 4-6). Dolzani notes the standard complaint of reductivism, and says that during the fifties and sixties Frye was attacked for being unscientific—not proving his patterns empirically there—and during the seventies and eighties for misinterpreting empirical findings—we easily find patterns because we are conditioned to do so. In the nineties sociological critique asks who decides on and interprets universals, and on what authority? (“Wrestling” 98). Cognitive critics are also oriented towards form and structure, general principles, and universals, and Lakoff and Turner and others have also been accused, in similar terms, of overstating their claims and simplifying their topics: reducing specifics to abstractions, flattening meaning and emotion, downplaying cultural and historical context, insufficiently distinguishing literal from figurative.

Without going into great detail, we can fashion one response for both: reductionism need not follow. Neither theory purports to explain everything about particular texts. Both address a clear need for larger perspectives by creating frameworks capable of bringing together arrays of related phenomena. Fine-grained facts may be the most immediately evident to the senses, especially with art, which trains and rewards heightened sensitivity to nuance. But they are not the only facts, and they do not vitiate the need to address those of larger, coarser grain. Indeed, if Frye and the conceptual party are right about the importance of conceptual systematicity (or schematicity) in the creation of resonance for myth and metaphor, then their theories offer an explanation for some of the most powerful, and most specifically artistic effects of literature—an explanation of a kind that is unavailable to the scrutineer of surfaces. As Frye puts it, “Many who consider the structure of my view of literature repellent find useful parenthetic insights in me, but the insights would not be there unless the structure were there too” (“Reflections” 145).

The business I envision for this chapter, then, is using Frye’s literary theory to conjoin two kinds of “cognitive criticism” deliberately oriented to explanations that make essential but not greedily reductive use of cognitive research. On the one hand there is the kind represented by Mark Turner (Reading), David Bordwell (“Case”, “Contemporary”) and Noël Carroll (“Prospects”), who demur from both isolated textual “readings” and sweeping self-ratifying annexations of texts and theories by “grand theory”, to focus on “middle-level” topics and problems specific to the arts. These critics aim to describe the commonplace background knowledge of readers and viewers, and explain how it underpins readers’ experience and interpretation of texts and films. On the other hand, there is the kind represented by Reuven Tsur, who distinguishes cognitive poetics from cognitive linguistics by the former’s focus on explaining specifically poetic “effects” (“Aspects” 279-81). Yeshayahu Shen (“Cognitive Constraints”, “Metaphor”) makes a related distinction between approaches to the nature of poetic (especially figurative) structures. Against the various approaches that highlight the creativity and novelty of poetic discourse, his approach highlights the need of such discourse to conform to cognitive constraints, in order to be communicable. Poetic discourse must both conform to, and interfere with, cognitive processes (cf. Semino and Steen). Indeed, for Ray Gibbs Jr. the “paradox of metaphor” everywhere, not just in literature, is that it is “creative, novel, culturally sensitive, and allows us to transcend the mundane while also being rooted in pervasive patterns of bodily experience common to all people” (“Metaphor” 5). As I hope to show, Frye’s approach examines the special structures and processes specific to literature, but he does so by comparing and contrasting that literary cognition with non-literary cognition.

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Woe to Poe: Inescapable Bloom

[Vincent Price as Prince Pospero in The Masque of the Red Death]

I thought I would post the following as a warm-up for the Frye centenary conference at the University of Toronto in October. This is the introductory part of the paper I am planning to give on Frye and Poe, and will doubtless end up in the trash bin, since this portion of the paper is largely a polemic directed at the unctuous Harold Bloom and a piece he wrote on Poe years ago now in The New York Review of Books. Bloom does not shoulder the responsibilities of the critic with much care. His review of a new edition of Poe’s collected works was essentially an act of literary assassination.

I hope to follow with the remaining parts of this draft of the paper in the next week or two. . .

It might surprise readers not entirely conversant with Frye’s writings that he should make such an important place in his writings for the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Surprising because critical responses to Poe’s work have been, as Frye notes, remarkably “schizophrenic” from the beginning. “There have been no lack of people,” as he puts it, “to say that Poe is fit only for immature minds; yet Poe was the major influence on one of the subtlest schools of poetry that literature has ever seen.” (CW 18:37) Part of this plentiful group of nay-sayers is Harold Bloom, self-appointed defender of the canon. Almost thirty years ago Bloom joined his voice to the chorus of Poe skeptics in a review of the two-volume Library of Congress edition of his works which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1984. Entitled “Inescapable Poe,” it is an astonishing piece of criticism, consisting of little more than one glib dismissive after another, all to the effect that if Poe is a figure in the canon of literature and criticism it is only for the most spurious reasons, and not, most certainly not the fault of Harold Bloom. Poe, he says, “cannot survive authentic criticism,” by which, one suspects, Bloom means his own, authentic or not. Whatever valuable lessons Frye’s polemical introduction to Anatomy of Criticism had to offer, Bloom ignores them all. Instead of working to expand the diverse contexts informing our understanding of literature, to expand our woefully limited mental and spiritual horizons, Bloom chooses to base his judgment entirely on his taste, or rather distaste, and makes no effort to illuminate the admittedly often difficult and challenging, but ultimately fascinating symbolic framework of Poe’s writing.

Evaluation, in Bloom’s hands, is an exact science. Rating Poe as an American poet of the 19th century–after first exempting Whitman and Dickinson from adjudication (they are not to be sullied by comparison)–he lists a dozen poets in their exact (Bloomian) order of importance. Poe fights for twelfth place with Sidney Lanier, both coming behind the alliterative and inglorious duo of  Tuckerman and Timrod. Poe may be a very uneven poet, but on vision and originality alone he should get the highest marks. Like Blake, he is a visionary writer whose individual poems must be read as parts of a larger interpenetrating and intelligible whole, a whole whose imaginative consistency is evident from Poe’s earliest writings, and whose symbolic undercurrents inform all of his later writings.  No effort is made by Bloom to clarify this context. Instead, he short-circuits any understanding by preemptively pronouncing judgment.

As for the tales, surely one of Poe’s acknowledged strengths, Bloom deems them no better than Roger Corman’s lurid and campy film versions, an intellectually dishonest judgment, to say the least, since they are little more than travesties, the tales only serving as the barest of pretexts. Poe’s prose style Bloom particularly singles out as unfit for human consumption, adducing as an example the melodramatic opening passage of “Ligeia.” It seems not to have occurred to Bloom that the first-person narrator’s portentous style might be consciously designed to fit the tale, as a number of very perceptive critics have pointed out.

To be fair, Bloom does check off one box:  Poe’s affinity for a certain type of mythic story-telling. But he immediately crosses it out by referring to the “dreadful universalism pervading Poe’s weird tales.” He  confesses, in fact, that he was haunted and traumatized by them as a little boy–a hypersensitive little boy, to be sure.  Poe’s “reductive” and “bizarre myths,” he assures us, would be much better handled by more stylistically gifted writers.

He then, perhaps most astonishingly, speaks contemptuously of Poe’s critical writings, including “The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition,”  as completely unoriginal and contributing nothing to the history of criticism. Near the end of his review, Bloom invidiously compares Poe’s intellectual powers to those of Emerson, a writer whose influence on the literature and criticism of the last two centuries is almost imperceptible by comparison.

It is as if Bloom is somehow personally offended by the existence of Edgar Allan Poe, or at least of any claim he might have to literary stature and influence.  It is hard to treat Bloom’s sneering as a good example of the “authentic criticism” he claims Poe cannot survive. Everything has its place, but Bloom is not content and must pillory Poe and deny him any legitimate place in the literary universe, without making the least effort to ascertain what that place might be. The fact that Poe is “inescapable,” as the great evaluator snidely puts it–that he continues to be read and to be popular, and to fascinate and engross even the most sophisticated literary critics and theorists–he can only explain by the ineradicable existence of poor judgment, even among the highly educated. There is, it appears, no accounting for bad taste.
What a different view of Poe we find in Frye’s writings, and how bracing and liberating it is. Jean O’Grady’s invaluable index to the Collected Works shows clearly Frye’s extensive interest in the great American writer. Frye does in fact refer to him just that way. In his essay on Thomas Beddoes in Studies in Romanticism, he compares the romantic English writer’s interest in death and the grotesque to that of  “his great American contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe.” In the Late Notebooks he goes so far as to say that

[t]he greatest literary genius this side of Blake is Edgar Allan Poe—that’s why he’s regarded as fit only for adolescents, or French poets who don’t really know English.  I don’t apply this to the poetry, but there’s no prose tale, however silly, that doesn’t hit an archetype in the bullseye. . . . (CW 5:165)

Poe features perhaps most significantly in Anatomy of Criticism, where he is summoned at several key moments to illustrate various aspects of the structural poetics that Frye sets out in detail in that work. He is first invoked in the very good company of Bunyan, Richardson, and Dickens, not to mention Shakespeare and the Bible, as an example of the particular association of archetypes and myths  prevalent in “fairy tales and folk tales” with“primitive and popular literature”–literature, that is, as Frye defines these terms, “which affords an unobstructed view of archetypes.” .  . .

(To be cont’d . . .)