Category Archives: Birthdays

Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn

The first edition of Huckleberry Finn, 1885.

Yesterday was Mark Twain‘s 176th birthday. Huckleberry Finn seems to have been a treasured text from Frye’s youth. He noted that his personally favorite archetypal theme was katabasis, or descent, and Tom Sawyer (the protagonist for whom Frye appears to have had an abiding distate) along with Huckleberry Finn provide a powerful rendition of it. There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal but still interesting in itself, that Frye as a first year undergrad at Victoria College wrote home to have his copy of Huckleberry Finn shipped to him because the copy he had didn’t fall open at the right places.

There are any number of quotes to be culled from Frye on the novel, but this one from National Consciousness in Canadian Culture,” is especially resonant, with Twain’s birthday in mind:

Everyone quotes the penultimate line in Huckleberry Finn about lighting out for the Territory, but less attention is paid to the even more significant last sentence: “I been there before.” There can be no creative return to the past; the past is absorbed into the future. . . .

Happy Birthday, Bob Denham

Bob with his wife, Rachel

Today is Bob Denham’s birthday.

We do not have to say much about Bob’s extensive work as a scholar because anyone who knows him knows about it. However, we do have much to say about Bob’s contribution here. Bob, more than anyone else, has made this website what it is. It was easy enough to set it up in its present form: a daily blog, a library of resources, and a journal of articles about Frye. But all of these would have been shells without Bob’s extraordinarily generous contribution. This generosity is worth detailing.

Bob has so far submitted more than 200 posts to the daily blog portion of the site in the two years since we first went online, which is a remarkable effort in itself. The blog is put together daily on the fly, and Bob’s posts provide the best that can be accomplished on such short notice; and they are, not surprisingly, the most widely read. As a very modest birthday present to him, we have designated a new Bob Denham category, which means that anyone wanting to search out and read his archived posts can now do so without having to scroll through the daily entries looking for them.

Bob has also kindly archived six articles in our journal, including papers he delivered at three Frye Festivals in Moncton.

His greatest contribution, however, that makes this site a significant scholarly resource, is his patronage of the library we established under his name, and which currently holds more than 100 items, virtually every one of them bequeathed to us by Bob. These include:

* An archive of all ten volumes of Bob’s Northrop Frye Newsletter, which he published between 1988 and 2007.

* Several “Previously Unpublished” items, including two notebooks, and a number of letters, among other treasures.

* Ten sets of class notes, as well as some exams, from a number of Frye’s courses between 1947 and 1955. This is a singular resource to provide insights to Frye as a teacher.

* All nine of the introductions to the editions of the Collected Works Bob has edited, which make up a third of the Collected Works as a whole.

* Four lectures.

* A large sampling of reviews of a number of Frye’s works.

* Thirteen “Miscellaneous Compilations” on various subjects, including chess, Islam and the Koran, and movies Frye had seen and refers to throughout the Collected Works.

If it ended here, this would constitute an exceptional contribution to the Frye scholarship to be found here. But it does not, of course, end here. Bob has also allowed us to post in their entirety two books: his first comprehensive study, Northrop Frye and Critical Method, as well as his latest collection, Essays on Northrop Frye, which includes seven new essays on Frye’s relation to a number of thinkers and writers, from Aristotle to Lewis Carroll.

It is not just a courtesy to say that without him this site would not be much more than a hobby shop of Frye enthusiasm. We therefore offer our warmest thanks, and wish him a very happy birthday.

Fryeday: Ninety-nine Years and Counting

Frye and Barry Callaghan on the back cover of Callaghan’s memoir, Barrelhouse Kings.

Today is Frye’s 99th birthday, which means we’re in the run-up to what will undoubtedly be an eventful centenary.

Looking back at our posts for Frye’s 98th birthday on July 14, 2010, we’re reminded what a busy and eventful time it was.

First of all, it occurred during a rising storm of protest after the University of Toronto announced the closing of the Centre for Comparative Literature, which was founded by Frye. The closure was eventually cancelled, in large part through the efforts of highly dedicated people, like our own Jonathan Allan. Our first post of the day, therefore, was a letter from Bob Denham to U of T President David Naylor, offering support for the Centre.

Next up was a compilation of birthday entries from Frye’s personal diaries, as well as many more letters to his fiance, Helen Kemp, covering the period 1932 to 1950; and, finally, selections from his notebooks at the other end of his life.

There then followed a post about the legacy and continuing importance of the Centre for Comparative Literature from Jonthan Allan.

Then came an update from Dawn Arnold of the Frye Festival on the competition for funding of a community project. Moncton’s proposal was to raise a statue of Northrop Frye to sit in front of the Moncton Public Library, an institution Frye worked for in his youth. The bid did not succeed, but it was very close. I remain hopeful that, with the centenary approaching, the good people of Moncton will somehow get their wish.

That was followed by a birthday greeting from reader Tamara Kamermans, in the form of a novelty video of the Beatles playing “Birthday.”

Finally, a post to round out an eventful day: an announcement that the website was now on Facebook, and a further announcement of a new addition to our journal, a paper by Ken Paradis.

This is a good time to remind readers that we have a dedicated category, Call for Papers, which includes solicitations related to the centenary. We also have a separate category, Frye Centenary, which we expect will fill with more content as the year progresses.

There’s obviously a story attached to the wonderful photo above, and you can read it after the jump. As it was Alice Munro’s 80th birthday the other day, it’s nice that she appears in it too, along with a number of other Canadian luminaries.

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Alice Munro: “A Twentieth Century Jane Austen”


Alice interviewed at the Vancouver International Authors’ Festival in October 2009 on the occasion of the publication of her latest collection of stories, Too Much Happiness.

Today is Alice Munro‘s 80th birthday.

Frye in “Culture and Society in Ontario, 1784-1984”:

….[T]he [Bildungsroman] theme seems to have an unusual intensity for Ontario writers: the best and most skillful of them, including Robertson Davies and Alice Munro, continue to employ a great deal of what is essentially the Stephen Leacock Mariposa theme, however different in tone.  Most such books take us from the first to the second birth of the central character.  Childhood and adolescence are passed in a small town or village, then a final initiation, often a sexual one, marks the entry into a more complex social contract.  (CW 12, 621)

In any case, as we saw, prose in Ontario began with the documentary realism of journals and memoirs, and when fiction developed, that was the tradition it recaptured.  Documents, when not government reports, tended to have short units, and the fact may account for the curious ascendancy in Canadian fiction of the novel which consists of a sequence of interrelated short stories.  This form is the favorite of Alice Munro, and reaches a dazzling technical virtuosity in Lives of Girls and Women.  (ibid., 624)

From “‘Condominium Mentality’ in CanLit,” an interview with the University of Toronto Bulletin, February 1990:

O’Brien: Which Canadian writers are you most enthusiastic about?

Frye: The obvious people: Peggy Atwood, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, Timothy Findlay, Mordecai Richler, . . . especially Alice Munro, who seems to be a twentieth-century Jane Austen.  (CW 24, 1037)

Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (1999) in the New Yorker here.


Marc Chagall

A beautifully assembled collection of Chagall paintings, with music by Maurice Sklar

Today is Marc Chagall‘s birthday (1887-1985). Maybe one of the gentlest people ever to be a great artist, who was rewarded with an extraordinarily long life.

Frye in a single-paragraph review of The Art of Russia, in Canadian Forum, December 1946:

A very useful collection of black and white reproductions illustrating Russian painting from medieval icons on. It appears from it that after the seventeenth century, Russia become the Eastern colony of European art as America became the Western one, and Russia like America lost the ability to resist cultural invasions at the same time that she gained the ability to resist military ones. All the European fashions in painting seem to have rolled over Russia in waves, most of them dyed with a strong Germanic tinge by the time they arrived. The Revolution helped release a tremendous burst of creative energy, and the art of Lissitsky, Malevich, Chagall, and Kandinsky was the result; but, following a directive of Lenin, this energy was soon gleichgestaltet [forced into conformity] and a rather corny “socialist realism,” supposed to be directed more directly to the masses, took its place. The same development occurred in America under the WPA, where however, a more relaxed policy permitted the growth of more variety. (CW 11, 114)

Hermann Hesse


The conclusion of the “experimental” (that is, disastrous) 1974 film adaptation of Steppenwolf

Today is Hermann Hesse‘s birthday (1877-1962).

Frye in Notebook 44:

When I was in Japan I visited a Buddhist temple, several buildings all dignified, rather sombre, and in exquisite taste. At the top of the hill it was on was a Shinto shrine, incredibly gaudy, as though it were made of Christmas candy, the bushes around having rolled-up prayers tied to every twig, like women with their hair in curlers. My immediate feeling was that it was good-humored and disarming: I had no hostile or superior feelings about it all. So why did hostile and superior words, like “superstitious” and “vulgar” start crowding into my mind? Did God tell me he thought it was superstitious and vulgar?

I was reminded of this when I started reading Steppenwolf. I started that in the sixties, when every fool in the country was trying to identify with Steppenwolf, and abandoned it after a few pages. I couldn’t stand the self-pitying whine of someone totally dependent on middle-class values but trying to develop his self-respect by feeling hostile and superior to them. I was hearing the whine all around me at the time. The next stage, also obvious in Hesse’s text, is when you try to raise your opinion of yourself by despising yourself. Like the wrestler: “I got so fuckin’ tied all up I could see was a big arse in frunna me, so I takes a bite out of it, and, Christ, it was me own arse.”


Footnote on Steppenwolf: what I said about it over the page [para. 437] was utter crap, and I didn’t abandon it after a few pages. I read it through, and, as my marginal notes show, with appreciation. Funny how screen memories work: I resented the student hysterics so much in the sixties, and some of them (at Rochdale, e.g.) made a cult of Hesse. So the remark about the wrestler biting his own arse comes home to roost. Not that I think now that Steppenwolf is really a great or profound book, but he’s aware of his own irony. (CW 5, 197-99)

Thomas Hardy and God


A beautiful clip from the 1996 film adaptation of Jude the Obscure

More synchronicity: today is Thomas Hardy‘s birthday (1840-1928), and he adds nicely to our ongoing consideration of religion, compassion for the poor, and the pseudo-literal conception of God. Here’s Frye in “The Times of the Signs”:

A later poet, Thomas Hardy, is never tired of showing what an imbecile God turns out to be if we create him in the image of the starry order. Hardy has a poem called God’s Education, in which God is represented as learning from the misery of man, in the manner of middle-class people reluctantly coming to realize that some people are not only poor but poorer than they should be. He has another called By the Earth’s Corpse, where God remarks, at the end of time, that he wishes he had never started on this creation business, for which he clearly has so little talent. (CW 27, 349)

Bob Dylan


“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” rendered in one of the first great proto-videos. (Yes, that’s Alan Ginsberg animatedly in conversation in the background.)

Frye has a few things to say about Dylan, but this is especially high praise to offer up for his 70th birthday:

Oh, I think Bob Dylan is a poet.  I am quite interested in the folk-song idiom as a poetic idiom.  It’s a revival of an oral tradition in poetry which disappeared for centuries.  Poetry got too badly bogged down with books, and I think it’s a very healthy thing when poetry becomes something that can be recited to an audience with a musical background.  (CW 24, 474)

Malcolm X


“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.”

Today is Malcolm X‘s birthday (1925-1965).

Frye in Notebook 21:

I must read Malcolm X to see why the hell a black revolutionary would turn to the religion of the Arab slave-traders. I suppose it’s a vulgarization of the black-Hebrew anti-Egyptian Queen Sheba let-my-people-go alliance. Because the Queen-Bride is certainly black (reversed into white), whatever suit I’m expounding. (CW , 193)