Author Archives: Russell Perkin

“My Desire to Remain at Victoria College”: Frye and the History of Literary Studies (I)


I have recently been reading Northrop Frye: Selected Letters, 1934-1991 (ed. Robert Denham, published by McFarland).  They give one a vivid insight into the history of literary studies through the twentieth century, and of Frye’s developing role within that history.  One thing that stood out for me in the selection of letters from the earlier years was the extent to which Frye’s career was bound up with his identification with Victoria College, and with various other Canadian institutions.  This is of course something that anyone at all familiar with Frye is aware of; what is so compelling about these letters is the glimpses they give us of the thoughts and feelings of Northrop Frye, in his late thirties, a promising young scholar who has just published his first book and finds his promise transformed into achievement and recognition. 

People often comment today about how star scholars are lured from campus to campus with offers of increased pay and reduced teaching duty, but on the evidence of the Frye letters, things were not so different in the 1940s.  In February of 1948, Frye writes to Walter Brown, the president of Victoria College, asking for promotion to the rank of Professor.  He notes “the College has treated me very well, and my refusal of the Wisconsin offer is pretty tangible evidence that I realize that fact.  I do have to consider the question of how far I can afford to keep on refusing offers for promotion and greatly increased salary.  The Wisconsin one is the fourth full professorship I have been offered in the past eighteen months: I have no reason to suppose that such offers will cease coming, and I should be greatly fortified in my desire to refuse them by possessing the rank which they offer.”  He concludes the letter by telling Brown that “my conviction of your personal concern for my welfare has always been an essential factor in my desire to remain at Victoria College.” 

A few years later (November, 1951), Frye writes to Robert Heilman, chair of the department of English at the University of Washington, who had been exploring Frye’s willingness to consider a career move, “I look around at my desk and see it piled high with Royal Commission reports on Canadian culture, Canadian magazines and books, letters about jobs in Canada, Royal Society and Canadian Humanities Research bulletins, and I realize how deeply intertwined I am with this community.  I think I should be unlikely to move except to a job that could absorb my teaching and writing interests completely – that’s the nearest I can get to indicating a state of mind at present.” 

Those of us who are academics can no doubt draw many conclusions from this exemplary narrative.



Responding to Clayton Chrusch:

Clayton, the one place where I disagree with you is the assumption that the hermeneutic of charity is unorthodox. In fact, it is the essence of Augustine’s hermeneutics as set out in On Christian Doctrine:

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbour does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way.

Also, I think orthodoxy begins with faith, which is not intellectual assent. This is expressed in Anselm’s maxim “credo ut intelligam,” “I believe so that I may understand.” Not a quotation Frye was fond of, as I recall. But it does express the point you are also making, that one should not make “an idolatry of one’s current understanding of God.” The Nicene creed is a statement of faith in the first person plural, at least in its modern translation: “We believe in one God,” etc. is a statement of collective faith. How that faith is understood is a matter for each individual, and develops through that individual’s life. In that sense the language of the creed is more the language of myth than the language of positive knowledge.

Perhaps my use of the term “orthodoxy” has caused some misunderstanding; by it the theologians I was discussing mean an affirmation of the traditional creeds of Christianity. I would distinguish this -radically!-from fundamentalism, which approaches the doctrine of the church not as myth but as positive knowledge, like the student who every few years tells me in the Bible and literature course about the remnants of the ark on Mount Ararat. The type of liberal theologian who was prevalent when I was growing up delighted in shocking people by arguing, in an equally positivistic way that this or that story “did not happen.” I recall Frye saying that to say you do not, or do, believe in the virgin birth is to be theologically illiterate.

Regarding The Great Code


Responding to Matthew Griffin: 

Matthew, I have just re-read my post, and realized that it is really about two quite different but related topics, and what is at the root of both is (here I brace myself, realizing that I am probably going provoke a flurry of responses) my ambivalent response to The Great Code. I have read and re-read the book, and have thought about it during what are now many sections of a second-year course on the Bible and Literature. For me, the problem is that for the purposes of teaching that course, the book is not literary enough, and not enough concerned with the different faith traditions of the English writers who are especially biblical.  Of course, I know that was not Frye’s intention or his method, but nevertheless, I find myself relying more on Robert Alter, or on David Jeffrey’s Dictionary of Biblical Tradition. Whereas on the other hand if I were to consider The Great Code as a spiritual guide, it is too literary, not enough concerned with the traditions of Christian exegesis and spirituality. I also find Frye’s treatment of Judaism is sometimes problematic.

I consider myself very sympathetic to Frye in many ways, having spent a good part of the last fifteen years reading his works and writing about them, but in regards to his writings on religion I always come back to the feeling that they are limited by his idiosyncratic personal development of a radical dissenting tradition. I recognize the intellectual power of that tradition, having been raised within a similar one myself. No doubt many of my difficulties with Frye’s writings on religion arise from the fact that I now occupy a rather different position.

Ultimately it comes down to a question of experience: you and Clayton Chrusch obviously find Frye more valuable as a religious teacher than I do, and that is not something it would be very helpful to argue about.

The more general point I was trying to make in my original post is that I think Frye’s religious concerns hastened the reaction against his work in the secular critical climate of the 1980s. Now that religion is no longer such a taboo subject in intellectual circles, I think there are in Frye’s writing on religion various obstacles that hinder those from certain traditions from an easy access to his work.

Northrop Frye and “The Return of Religion”


In his recent response to Michael Sinding, Michael Happy quotes a passage from one of the Late Notebooks where Frye “wonders with uncharacteristic despair, ‘Why am I so revered but so ignored?’”  In Michael’s words, “Frye was not merely superseded during the post-structuralist realignment, he was pushed aside with what can only be taken as shows of bad faith through misreading and misrepresentation.”  Why was there such hostility, apart from the usual need to misread or discredit precursor figures?  In thinking about this, it struck me that Frye had the bad fortune to publish his major late works on the Bible at precisely the time when literary criticism, under the sway of theory, had largely turned away from any notion of the religious, the transcendent, the spiritual, or the divine.  From the late 1970s to the late 1990s the climate in literary and cultural studies was resolutely secular.  Interestingly, one of the dominant theorists was the ex-Catholic Althusser (who might be thought of as the Auguste Comte of the twentieth century).  Even in the study of religion, the emphasis was on the cultural and the material: I remember a friend who is a church historian telling me of the dominance of Marxist methodology in his own field.  Edward Said, recently discussed by Michael Sinding and Joe Adamson, referred to his own critical project as “secular criticism,” in the sense of criticism occupied with the world and its social and political relationships; in several published comments Said objected to the religious concerns of various other critics.  Such a sceptical, this-worldly critical climate probably accounts for some of the hostile treatment of Frye that Michael mentions.

From the late 1990s, there has been a return of religion in literary studies and theoretical discourse, but – and here I think is part of the source of Michael’s frustration – Frye does not seem to have benefited very much from this development.  I suggest that there are several reasons for this, and in attempting to articulate them I am also arguing that for many people Frye’s work seems remote to the present horizon of discourse about religion.  If it is going to play a larger role in that discourse, beyond the confines of what Michael Happy describes as “the comparatively small Frye community,” I think there will have to be a fairly extensive effort of critical engagement, involving a willingness to think beyond the terms used by Frye himself.  (Here I am agreeing with Michael Sinding’s comments of 19 October.)  I am writing as someone who might be described as standing with one foot in the Frye community, and one foot in the world of postmodern theology, and my aim is not to belittle Frye’s work, but rather to suggest ways in which it needs to be critiqued and “translated” in order for it to play a greater role in both the study and the practice of religion in the twenty-first century.  The problems that I think must be faced are

  1. For Frye, in spite of his radical spiritual vision and distance from established forms of Christianity, the Bible was largely identical with the Bible of the Protestant evangelical tradition, that is, it was a book made up of various parts arranged in a specific order that told a specific story of creation, fall, redemption, and apocalypse.
  2. Frye’s religious thought, however independent, is in some of its dominant themes and concerns strongly analogous to liberal Protestant theology of the mid-twentieth century, notably in its accommodation to secularization, its realized eschatology and its consequent emphasis on the social dimension of religion.

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Re: Big Picture


Responding to Michael Sinding’s post:

There are many points that one could engage with in Michael Sinding’s post; I plan to come back to some of them in relation to Michael Happy’s response. For the present, a few random comments: I enjoyed and largely agree with the assessment of “the brilliant, the wrong, and the batty.” Eve Sedgwick is undoubtedly important, but her prose is off-putting: Susan Gubar noted in a review of Epistemology of the Closet that she turns English into a foreign language with her critical jargon, arcane vocabulary, and elaborate qualifications. As for Michael Berube’s blog, having gone through quite a few posts at random, he seems to have missed his true calling as a political commentator. Though I agree that he is a good writer, as well as something of a satirist. I also see he is a candidate for the MLA presidency.

Regarding the Cornel West quotation, with its reference to Zora Neale Hurston’s Republican affiliation: John Dos Passos is another example of an American writer with a problematically complex political identity, beginning as a radical leftist, and moving to support of Barry Goldwater and writing for the National Review. The case has been made that underlying the shift of allegiance was a commitment to the individual and to ideas of liberty and democracy; on the other hand, few people seem to read the later works of Dos Passos (and I am not among them, and so cannot comment personally on them). Perhaps there’s somewhat of a parallel with Wordsworth – in relation to whom T. S. Eliot wrote (with some self-reference?) “when a man takes politics and social affairs seriously the difference between revolution and reaction may be by the breadth of a hair, and … Wordsworth may possibly have been no renegade but a man who thought, so far as he thought at all, for himself.”

“The desiring self is Northrop Frye”


Re: Cheryl’s reading of Frye, that is something I had forgotten.  Thanks, Bob, for reminding me of this exchange from David Lodge’s Small World:

“You’re never telling me that those are your own ideas about romance and the sentimental novel and the desiring self?”
“The desiring self is Northrop Frye,” she admitted.
You have read Northrop Frye?” his voice rose in pitch like a jet engine.
“Well, not read, exactly. Somebody told me about it.”

“Small World”


Responding to Bob Denham’s earlier post:

Bob, A quibble about Frye and David Lodge (whom I have been working on recently). Lodge’s Small World is self-consciously “An Academic Romance,” and Lodge used Frye’s writings on romance to help him think about the genre. But I don’t think that his Professor Kingfisher has much in common with Frye. Kingfisher, “a man whose life is a concise history of modern criticism,” is born in Vienna, and has links to Prague structuralism before coming to the USA to become a leading figure in New Criticism. All of that makes him resemble Rene Wellek, who of course wrote a history of criticism. (In other ways, the character does not correspond to Wellek.) I remember that Lodge once commented in an interview that his deconstructionist friends, who in their theorizing denied any connexion between literature and any non-linguistic reality, were the ones who were most adamant in their questions about who various characters in Small World “really” were! From an archetypal point of view, the name Kingfisher signals that the character originates in Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance via T. S. Eliot, so the idea for the character was perhaps inspired by Frye’s theorizing of romance.

12 March 1974: Northrop Frye Looks to the Twenty-First Century


I have been browsing in a recently acquired copy of Bob Denham’s new collection, Northrop Frye: Selected Letters, 1934-1991.  These build up a picture of Frye largely in the role of  professional academic.  It is a wonderful book, and the range of correspondents and subjects is remarkable.  For example, Frye writes to Martin Amis in 1971 about the latter’s interest in studying at the University of Toronto, and to Greg Gatenby in 1987 with some very amusing memories of meeting Wallace Stevens at Columbia University in 1948 .  In 1974, Frye looks to the future while commenting to Bob Denham on his Northrop Frye: An Enumerative Bibliography, a copy of which Frye has just received:

The bibliography is a most impressive achievement: your introduction in particular, which I had not seen before, seems to me an excellent and very judicious one.  Reading through Section 3, I am astonished at the number of people who seem to have rushed into print with the notion that my view of literature is preposterous.  Something tells me that the twenty-first century will have a good deal of difficulty in understanding what all the fuss was about.

Last Post Before the Weekend


In Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (Latin with English subtitles) one Roman soldier calls another “Oedipus.” No prizes for guessing how the subtitles translate that!

Last thought for this holiday weekend: as the story of a woman’s ultimate triumph, The Color Purple can be grouped with Esther, Ruth, and Judith, and given Celie’s erotic awakening (which I remember well from the book, but can’t recall how prominent it is in the film), The Song of Solomon. “I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem”

Clip from The Color Purple after the break.

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Re: Frye and Spielberg and Oedipus Rex


Responding to Peter Yan:

Thanks for this, Peter. You’ve given me even more reason to teach  Oedipus Rex! I studied Frank O’Connor’s story, “My Oedipus Complex,” in high school – a long time ago – and haven’t read it since, but still remember it vividly. It obviously made a deep impression.

As for Spielberg and the Bible, you could make a good case for The Terminal representing at least the proverbial Job! I suppose Munich could be paralleled with one of the historical books of the Bible. Not so sure where you would put The Color Purple, which has the structure of a Shakespearean romance.