Author Archives: Russell Perkin

Doctoral Programmes in Literary Studies


In the last few years, there has been considerable discussion of the possibility of rethinking the nature of the doctoral dissertation in literary studies.  This is in part prompted by the fact that many students apparently take an inordinate amount of time to complete a PhD, and in part by the crisis in scholarly publishing, in which greater pressure to produce scholarly monographs to obtain tenure and promotion has coincided with reductions in the number of books published by many prominent academic presses.  The underlying causes of these various facts are complex, and disputed, and I do not want to address them here; but it is important to recognize that they provide a context for the discussion about the requirements of doctoral programmes.

In the Spring 2010 MLA Newsletter, MLA President Sidonie Smith’s column is entitled “Beyond the Dissertation Monograph.”  Mentioning both the adverse conditions that prevail for many students in humanities programmes and the digital revolution, Smith suggests that we should perhaps “begin to expand the forms the dissertation might take.”  By this, she primarily means that we should be looking at alternative forms to the Gutenberg-era book.  I noted that one of the “Member Comments” on her column was from Bob Denham, who observed that Northrop Frye, who among his innumerable accomplishments was President of the MLA, never earned a Ph.D., although he was awarded 38 honorary degrees.  Bob adds, “In fact, he likened the doctoral regimen to ‘jumping through the hoops’ and ‘turning Ph.D. cartwheels’ for the amusement of one’s elders.”

I thought it might be interesting to look at a few other passages in Frye that relate to the topic of scholarship in the humanities, in the hope of provoking some more discussion on the blog about it.  In Spiritus Mundi (1976), Frye remarks on the immense amount of effort required to produce first a humanities dissertation and then a book on the same material, but adds, “There are many things in the Ph.D. program which are extremely valuable, as I know to my cost.  I avoided the Ph.D. myself by sheer accident, but there were elements in the training which I wish I had got in the regular way, and have always felt the lack of.”  He contrasts the centrality of the book in the humanities with the way that for scientists the article is the standard means of communication.  Of course, the question here is to what extent digital technologies have changed the situation that Frye is describing.  At the very least, it seems to be true that scholars do not buy as many scholarly books as they used to.  But ebooks have started to appear in the collections of academic libraries, which might indicate that the monograph will continue to flourish in a new material form.

In 1989, Frye gave a talk entitled “Literary and Mechanical Models” to a conference on Computers and the Humanities (published in The Eternal Act of Creation).  He tells the story of Pelham Edgar’s dissertation of Shelley’s imagery, the bulk of which was a catalogue of various images and their contexts.  Frye writes that “Clearly it was of immense benefit to the author of the thesis to steep himself so thoroughly in Shelley’s poetic vocabulary, but still most of the thesis could have been done by an appropriately programmed computer in a matter of seconds.”  Frye’s utopian fantasy, later in the essay, is that the idea of a “productive scholar” should be replaced by the idea of the “creative scholar,” and the dissertation should be seen as something solely for the benefit of the student, “So the crazy chain of thesis, thesis rewritten as book, book published, book bought by libraries, book added to an already groaning bibliography, would be broken.”

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll’s books of fantasy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, were important to Frye, and he mentions them frequently in the Notebooks.  In the Anatomy of Criticism he says that “the Alice books are perfect Menippean satires, and so is [Charles Kingsley’s] The Water-Babies” (Anatomy 310).  Elsewhere, he identifies a quality “of slightly nutty fantasy which has been the characteristic of Oxford from time immemorial” that links works such as The Anatomy of Melancholy, Alice in Wonderland, and the works of the Inklings (C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams) – the latter products of the Oxford in which Frye himself studied (“The Critic and the Writer,” Collected Works 7:470-71).

Tim Burton’s new film Alice in Wonderland is more of an epic adventure than a Menippean satire, and interestingly enough it combines elements from the two Alice books with elements of The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia stories, and perhaps one or two from The Wizard of Oz.  The result is a successful and charming film whose ethos is quite different from the bizarre world created by Lewis Carroll.

The opening of the film effectively represents the famous descent which was the subject of some discussion on the blog last year; thereafter, the story becomes a quest narrative and a struggle against evil.  Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp are excellent as the Red Queen and the Mad Hatter.  It is a visually stunning film, in Frye’s terminology a triumph of opsis.

Quote of the Day


Ian Brown, The Globe and Mail, 22 February 2010:

“I personally think that the energy here is as good as the arena,” a tall guy named Derek said. He was standing up at the bar with a pal named Dave. Dave was shorter. They knew hockey the way Northrop Frye knew the Bible. “I don’t know if we’re gonna win the gold,” Dave said. “Russia has the best team in the World Cup, Sweden won the last hockey Olympic gold.” They were analyzing training patterns, age, everything. They could easily have been a part of the Canada Line hockey symposium. Still, he thought we’d be in the final.

Teaching with Frye (1)


With this post, I am inaugurating a series documenting a year of teaching English, in which I plan to highlight the part played by Northrop Frye’s ideas.  For me, Frye has always been more important for my teaching than for my scholarly research and critical writing.  I am beginning now, rather than in September, because I have already had to do some thinking about my courses for the next academic year, which were assigned late in 2009.  Entries for the department Handbook were due last week, and that means I had to decide on at least the main focus and the assigned textbooks for the courses that I will be teaching.  If I find I have enough to say, and the energy and commitment to keep it up, I will post in this series until the end of classes in April, 2011.  (Academic life certainly keeps you planning ahead!)

First, a few words of introduction.  Teachers often keep journals for personal use, and there have been numerous publications such as James Phelan’s Beyond the Tenure Track: Fifteen Months in the Life of an English Professor (1991), a detailed account of events both professional and personal in the life of a professor moving into the mid-career phase. More recently, many students, professors, deans and other administrators write blogs in which academic life is a major focus.  I was partly inspired to start this series by the example of Rohan Maitzen’s regular feature “This Week in My Classes” at her blog Novel Readings. I do not plan to write a detailed diary about my teaching, and I will not provide regular commentary on what goes on in the classroom.  The plan is to write about some of the decisions I make, especially about what texts I choose and how I teach them.  In so doing, I will consider in what ways and to what extent Frye is a vade mecum for my work as a university teacher of English.  I hope that these occasional journal entries will be of some interest and use to other teachers and to students in the discipline.

To set the scene, I teach at Saint Mary’s University, a former Jesuit college that is now a medium-sized public university.  (I once taught Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist in a panelled classroom that had formerly been the Jesuits’ dining room).  We have an English department of 19 full-time members and offer a wide range of courses for a department of our size.  In 2010-2011, I am scheduled to teach a section of the first-year Introduction to Literature, the second-year survey course English Literary Traditions (6 hours), a third-year course on British literature from 1900-45, and an advanced course on the novels of the Brontë sisters.

In the survey course, along with the usual Norton anthology, I have decided to teach Measure for Measure, Sense and Sensibility, Frankenstein, and Hard Times.  These are all comfortable choices for me, and usually popular with the students.  The British course is a new one.  Thinking about my plans, I realize that they involve historical context and cultural studies to a fairly large extent, and also the dialectic between modernism and realism.  In spite of my love of at least some of the masterpieces of modernism, I have a fondness for the alternative poetic tradition that was championed by Philip Larkin, and for the English tradition of fictional realism that continued through the modernist period.  I will be teaching novels by E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Graham Greene.  Frye’s discussion in the Anatomy of realism and symbolism as two opposing literary poles will be useful in mapping the literature of the first half of the twentieth century, along with David Lodge’s The Modes of Modern Writing.  The influence of Yeats and Eliot, and then of Auden, can also usefully be described in the terms set out by Harold Bloom in his books on poetic influence.  As for the Brontës, another new course – thank goodness I am on leave at the moment! – my entry for the Handbook does little more than list the books, noting that there were three sisters, not two, and that Charlotte wrote more than just Jane Eyre.  The psychological and the sociological will figure prominently in this course, I expect, as will a kind of comparative phenomenology of the sisters’ novels.  Of course, I will go back to Frye on romance, and I recall a number of entries on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley in the notebooks.

That’s it for my first entry, and I imagine that I will add to this journal infrequently until late in the summer, when preparations for the academic year begin in earnest.

Quote of the Day


Actually, two quotes from Kingsley Amis on popular and serious literature

I have been reading Zachary Leader’s vast biography of Kingsley Amis (The Life of Kingsley Amis, 2006).  Amis had a strong interest in popular, or “genre” fiction, and he wrote books about science fiction and about Ian Fleming’s James Bond series.  Here are two quotations from the latter book, The James Bond Dossier (1965):  “I think wish fulfilment is a common and normal human activity.  I find self-advertised maturity, pride in maturity, at least equally suspect.  No adult ought to feel an adult all the time.”  And even in works of anti-escapist, ‘serious’ literature,  Amis argues that a process of compensation is at work: “one of the qualities that took us to it in the first place is its implicit assurance that life is coherent and meaningful, and I can think of no more escapist notion than that.”

Criticism and Society


While looking for a quotation in David Lodge’s 1990 book After Bakhtin, I rediscovered his review of Imre Salusinszky’s Criticism in Society, which is reprinted as the last essay in After BakhtinCriticism and Society is a collection of interviews with Northrop Frye, Jacques Derrida, and a group of influential critics at American universities, recorded by Salusinszky in the mid-1980s, at the moment when deconstruction was beginning to give way to schools of criticism more concerned with ideology and social identity.  Some readers of this blog will know Imre Salusinszky’s work on Frye; he left academe some time ago to work for the newspaper The Australian and is now a well-known political and cultural commentator in Australia.

Criticism in Society came out the year that I defended my PhD, and I remember that it was read avidly by everyone with an interest in literary theory.  I’m sure most readers were like myself in not fully taking in the prominent position that Frye was given in the book: we were mostly too interested in what the stars of Yale, Columbia, and Duke had to say.  Lodge sums up Salusinszky’s premise in his own words as follows: “since literary criticism was virtually monopolized by the universities, it has become of all-absorbing interest to its practitioners and a matter of indifference or incomprehension to society at large.”

Lodge’s review is particularly resonant at the moment, as the humanities in the university seem to be returning to the same austerity conditions that prevailed during the 1980s.  He observes that among the critics interviewed, “only Frye and Derrida . . . mention the problem of obtaining public funds for the humanities.  If Mr Salusinszky had interviewed a batch of British academic critics at the same time he would have heard about little else.”

Lodge quotes Frank Lentricchia defending socially engaged criticism from an attack by Harold Bloom, then observes:

But there is a certain factitiousness about the counter-attack, betrayed by the familiar ‘Harold’.  Nearly all the interviewers refer to each other, even when expressing strong disagreement, by first names – Harold, Geoffrey, Jacques, etc. (though not ‘Northrop’ – in this as in other respects, Frye is the odd man out.  I wonder if anyone dares to call him Northrop).  This style of naming again reminds one of the world of sport, where top athletes who compete fiercely against each other on the football field or tennis court share a kind of professional camaraderie at other times, a mutual respect based on their sense of belonging to a professional élite.

I wonder, however, whether criticism or theory has such an absorbing interest even for aspiring practitioners today?  Are there nine critics today whose words in interview would be eagerly perused – and if not, is that a good or a bad thing?  Has the pendulum swung back to interest in the creative writer?  Perhaps we would rather read interviews with – to pick a few names randomly – Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, Nino Ricci, Martin Amis, or Lorrie Moore.

“Reasons Literature Alone Can Satisfy”


Readers of The Educated Imagination may be interested in this post on Rohan Maitzen’s blog Novel Readings.  Responding to a review of Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, Professor Maitzen provides a cogent reflection on the dangers of emphasizing the practical benefits of literary study, at the expense of the actual subject matter of the discipline.  She argues that “We need to justify the study of literature for reasons literature alone can satisfy.”

Robert B. Parker, 1932 – 2010

Another sad death to report is that of Robert B. Parker, creator of the Boston private detective Spenser (whose first name was never given, but who said that his last name was spelled with an ’s’, “like the poet.”) It’s appropriate to pay tribute to Parker on this blog, both because Frye liked reading detective stories, and because Parker had a PhD in English from Northeastern. Several of his novels feature academic satire. He died at his desk, a writer to the last moment.

Steven Axelrod’s tribute at (”How the crime novelist taught me to stand up for myself and taught my son about the carnal pleasures of reading”) can be found  here.  Axelrod’s piece is noteworthy for the way it suggests the liberating possibilities inherent in popular fiction.

Shakespeare the Establishment Conformist, or The Virtue of Disloyalty: Northrop Frye and Graham Greene (3)


The “Cobbe portrait,” allegedly a newly-identified image of Shakespeare fully decked out in establishment conformist finery

In an earlier post, I compared Northrop Frye’s and Graham Greene’s readings of Henry James.  Greene’s criticism often seems eccentric, a product of the same obsessions that drive his fiction.  His discussion of Shakespeare is as distinctive as his essays on James.  In 1969, Greene received the Hamburg Shakespeare Prize, endowed by an Anglophile German, and awarded to British citizens for artistic achievement.  He marked the occasion with an address entitled “The Virtue of Disloyalty” which begins,

Surely if there is one supreme poet of conservatism, of what we now call the Establishment, it is Shakespeare. . . .  If there is one word which chimes through Shakespeare’s early plays it is the word “peace.”  In times of political trouble the Establishment always appeals to this ideal of peace. . . .  Peace as a nostalgia for a lost past: peace which Shakespeare associated like a retired colonial governor with firm administration.

In what follows, two of Greene’s major obsessions, Roman Catholicism and betrayal, coalesce in a discussion which, however inadequate as Shakespeare criticism, reveals much about Greene’s view of the writer’s role in society.  One should bear in mind that the speech was given during the Cold War, at a time when Russian dissident writers were much in the minds of people in the west, and that it was given to a German audience, about twenty-five years after the end of the second world war.

Greene is deliberately provocative in the sardonic manner in which he discusses the great national poet after whom the prize was named.  “There are moments,” he says, “when we revolt against this bourgeois poet on his way to the house at Stratford and his coat of arms, and we sometimes tire even of the great tragedies, where the marvellous beauty of the verse takes away the sting and the last lines heal all, with right supremacy re-established by Fortinbras, Malcolm and Octavius Caesar.”  Greene then continues:

Of course he is the greatest of poets, but we who live in times just as troubled as his, times full of the deaths of tyrants, a time of secret agents, assassinations and plots and torture chambers, sometimes feel ourselves more at home with the sulphurous anger of Dante, the self-disgust of Baudelaire and the blasphemies of Villon, poets who dared to reveal themselves whatever the danger, and the danger was very real.

Shakespeare does not, for Greene, belong in the company of Russians such as Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, though, anticipating recent postcolonial critics, he detects a note of rebellious outrage in Caliban’s speech “You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.”

Greene then goes on to contrast Shakespeare, “the great poet of the Establishment,” with the brilliant but minor poet and Jesuit martyr Robert Southwell.  If only Shakespeare had shared Southwell’s disloyalty, Greene says, “we could have loved him better as a man.”  The remainder of the short essay argues that the writer should be opposed to the State, acting as a devil’s advocate in the face of official efforts at scapegoating.  The writer should always be counter-cultural, “a Protestant in a Catholic society, a Catholic in a Protestant one.”  The writer should be ready to change sides at a moment’s notice, for “He stands for the victims, and the victims change.”  This does not mean that the writer is a propagandist, but rather someone who enlarges the bounds of sympathy, “making the work of the State a degree more difficult.”  Greene concludes, perhaps to the discomfort of some in his audience – apparently the lecture was received enthusiastically by the students who were present – by presenting, as his final example of the virtue of disloyalty the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who “chose to be hanged like our English poet Southwell.  He is a greater hero for the writer than Shakespeare.”

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Notes on Frye, from Ten Years Ago


Throughout the 1990s, I regularly taught an intermediate course in the Theory of Criticism.  At various intervals in the course, I would give students a brief essay providing an overview of the unit we were studying.  I used the Hazard Adams anthology Critical Theory Since Plato, and always assigned the selection from Frye (the second essay from the Anatomy).  What follows is the last version of my notes on Northrop Frye, from the fall of 2000.  After that semester, I stopped teaching the theory course in order to make room in my schedule for a new course I had developed on the Bible and Literature.

My notes may be of some slight historical interest to readers of this blog; if I were teaching the course again, I would change a few emphases, but I was struck on rereading the essay by how little I would change of the substance.  I’m not sure to what extent the prophecy of my last sentence has been fulfilled; Frye does not seem to me especially influential on the liberal studies and great books programmes that claim to be in the humanist tradition, though I may be generalizing here from inadequate knowledge.  Furthermore, reflecting on these comments at the beginning of 2010, my impression is that there has been something of an accommodation between literary and cultural studies in recent years.  (Joe and Michael may well disagree with this as an overly sanguine opinion.)  I expected to see an increasing polarization between the two approaches, but that does not seem to me to have happened.  I think that PMLA is a more genuinely diverse publication than it seemed in the 1990s, and the graduate students I meet are often eclectic and flexible in their thinking, even if they are also realistic about what they have to do to get an academic job.  Frye’s place in the contemporary scene is something that I am sure we will continue to discuss and argue about.

In one section of the theory class, during the mid-90s, I had an excellent student – let’s call her Antonia – who was the only person ever to choose R. P. Blackmur as an essay subject in all the times that I taught the course.  A colleague told me that she had mentioned Frye in her Canadian literature class, to which Antonia responded, “I love Northrop Frye!”

Here are the notes:

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