Category Archives: Bob Denham

The Bob Denham Collection at the Moncton Public Library


I am posting to give an update on the Bob Denham Collection at the Moncton Public Library. The wonderful donation that Bob made in July, 2012, is housed in a special room – The Heritage Room. The “primary” materials (Frye’s books and the many translations thereof, as well as many books about Frye) have been on display and available to the public almost from the beginning, but now library staff have completed the somewhat more difficult task of cataloging and presenting the “secondary” materials (photocopies of contemporary reviews and essays, offprints, funeral notices, etc.). I visited the library this past Friday and was delighted to see many drawers of a built-in cabinet neatly filled with labeled folders containing these secondary materials. So I think now the Moncton Library is really ready to present itself as a destination for Frye scholars and students.

I should also mention that the display includes many artifacts, as well as original portraits and caricatures, that Bob collected over the years.

For more on the collection, go here and here.

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.

A Report from Occupy Washington

My wife Rachel and our neighbor Barbara Kingsolver went to an OWS demonstration in Johnson City, TN, on Saturday. Check it out here. You can see part of the interview with Kingsolver in the “Related Video” window on the upper left.

Below is an eyewitness account of Occupy Washington.


Report on October 2011 by Cinny Poppen

Stop yer bitching. . . start a revolution! (message on a t-shirt)

The Occupy movement is spreading all over this country.  Roger and I felt extremely moved by the encampment we joined in Washington, DC, from its first day, Thursday, October 6, 2011, through Saturday, October 9.

People were well-organized, peaceful, angry, and determined to make their desires known. We found the hundreds of colorful signs dotting Freedom Plaza extremely entertaining.

The first night we witnessed a large crowed making decisions by consensus.  An excellent facilitator asked for proposals on the subject of where the demonstrators should sleep, limiting speakers to a minute apiece. People reacted with what I learned is called “sparkling”: hands in the air with fingers waving means agreement, hands pointed downward means disagreement. Through this process the many proposals were finally boiled down to one with two tiers. After much helpful clarification, especially by members of DC’s homeless population, it seemed that the plaza might be under federal jurisdiction, so sleeping there could lead to arrest by federal police. Sleeping on nearby streets might be less risky because the park police, or DC police, or transit police, or yet another of the many policing entities in our nation’s capitol, would be in control. As it turned out, around 300 people slept outside with no arrests at all.

During the subsequent days, several marches took off  down the street, at least once to another occupation in McPherson Square, and once to the Art and Space Museum in an ill-advised attempt to protest the current exhibit of drones there. When I first saw Bread and Puppet Theater in Chicago years ago, some of the actors, dressed in black,  pretended to be bombers, with great effect; nowmembers portrayed even more threatening drones.  On Saturday welistened to a talk on US national security policy by iinvestigative historian/ journalist Gareth Porter,  participated in a workshop on economics for the people, and then had the great pleasure of hearing from Ralph Nader. He advised us to keep our focus and warned us not to be co-opted–because we are the 99%.The permit was supposed to end on Sunday, October 10, but the city has agreed to extend it for four months.

From an article in the Washington Post on Tuesday, October 11, by Tim Craig:

Several D.C. Council members said Tuesday they have no problem with antiwar and anti-Wall Street protesters setting up extended encampments on National Park Service property in the city, and one council member hopes they ”‘stay for years.”

Two groups are entrenched in Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square downtown. Protesters with the Stop the Machine and Occupy DC groups have erected tents and piled up boxes and other living materials as they hold meetings, decamp for marches and protests and otherwise traverse the city. In Freedom Plaza, Stop the Machine group organizer Margaret Flowers said Tuesday that the group and the National Park Service agreed to extend its permit to stay there through Dec. 30. At McPherson Square, Occupy DC protesters have said they have no permit and have not been bothered by authorities.

In interviews Tuesday, eight of 13 council members supported the protesters’ presence.

“Sometimes for people without means, the only way to get a message out is a public display,”’ said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. “Other issues could develop, such as public health, but I think we shouldn’t be too quick to sweep them off the public plaza. Flowers said Tuesday that while her group has a permit for the entire Freedom Plaza park area, other groups have permits for events there and she would make sure space is cleared. Meanwhile, she said her group may apply for another extension that would run through February. “’We can’t say how long we’ll be here,’ Flowers said. ‘We’ll see an end when our groups accomplish what they need to accomplish.’”

And from the most recent email from the Occupy 2011 organizers:

One of the beautiful aspects of the occupation is that it has brought people out into the open to talk about the issues. Everywhere we look right now as we gaze out at Freedom Plaza in Washington DC, people are engaged in conversations. Some are standing in groups, and some are sitting in circles in the assembly area or between the tents. This is the first step in this evolution to a more peaceful, just and sustainable planet. For too long we have been focused on divisions. Now we are finding what unites us.

Increasing numbers of people are becoming unemployed, uninsured, losing their homes or pensions or dignity. Students are dropping out of college due to cost or graduating with lifelong debt in a deteriorating job market. The days of sitting in silence and blaming ourselves for not working hard enough are over. The first step in the process of change is awareness of the problem. We are encouraging all people to come out of their homes. Join us in the streets either through your local occupation or on the local playground. Talk to those around you. Talk about the way things are with increasing wealth disparity and poverty. Talk about the way you want things to be – a society based on openness, acceptance, honesty, transparency and kindness.Following are the 15 issues we’re working on. Please talk about them and share what you learn with your family, friends and colleagues. This is the first step in the nonviolent transformation of our country.

Frye on Drinking

Photo from Macallan Scotch

Here’s a followup on Clayton’s earlier post on Victoria University’s Northrop Frye Gold Medal wines. One of Frye’s diary entries from 1950 recounts drinking at a dinner party with James Thurber that did not go well. On most days through a long working career, however, he liked to drink according to the accepted social standards of the time. Here are some of his observations on and accounts of drinking. (An earlier posting of his Canadian Forum editorial in support of the repeal of Sabbath drinking laws here.)

I knew an old man once who settled for drinking straight Scotch, and he said, “I find it agrees with me.” I find the same thing. (“Chatelaine’s Celebrity I.D.,” Chatelaine 55, no. 11 (November 1982), 43.

Claude Bissell had a few drinks ready for us afterwards before Clawson’s dinner. Very typical of Clawson that his dinner should come on a day when congratulations were being showered on Blissett & me.  I drank Scotch very hard & fast & was quite high until I had my dinner.  (Diaries, 11 April 1950)

There’s getting to be too damn much God in my life.  After lunch I went over to hear Crane’s paper on the history of ideas, but instead of staying for the discussion after tea I went off and had three Martinis—Carpenter doesn’t drink and I decided against giving him the handicap of a slug of Scotch, so it was the first drink I’d had in three days.  (Diaries, 23 February 1952)

We had dinner at Jean’s hotel and I went along with the two girls to the theatre: they had tickets to Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra but I couldn’t get one, as it was the last performance.  I waited until the man said it was a waste of time to wait longer, then went home and had a couple of Scotches & went to bed early. (12 April 1952)

Felt very sleepy after Woodhouse’s whisky & didn’t make much out of Vaughan or Traherne.  The kids didn’t cooperate either: the final Huxley lecture was brilliant—Freudian slip again—I meant to write wasn’t brilliant.  (Diaries, 15 March 1950)

So I sneaked off to collect Helen from some women’s meeting at Wymilwood, and we went down to the Oxford Press to a cocktail, or rather a whisky, party, given for Geoffrey Cumberlege.  I couldn’t get much charge out of Cumberlege, but enjoyed the party.  (Diaries, 17 May 1950)

In the evening the Macleans had a supper party for the Cranes, and a very good party it was.  (Very good of Ken too, as Crane wrote one of his typically slaughterous reviews of Ken’s book). The Grants, the Loves, the Ropers, and Ronald Williams (I suppose because of the Chicago connection) were there (I suppose Mrs. Williams is pregnant again).  Martinis to begin with, and whisky afterward, so what with a very late dinner I got sick again afterward.  My own damn fault.  I was well into my fifth drink before I realized that I’d had practically no lunch.  The party did a men-women split, unusual for the Macleans [MacLeans], and we gossiped about jobs and they about curtains.  We were, as I faintly remember, beginning to get slightly maudlin about Eliot and Auden just at the end.  Douglas Grant of course talked very well, and remained sober enough to drive us home.  I suppose a car, to say nothing of children and sitters and things, does make one very temperate.  Crane is a very charming man, but remains a most elusive one. (Diaries, 22 March 1952)


It is not hard to ridicule the fallacy of the distinctive essence, and to show that it is really a matter of looking for some trade mark in the content.  A satirical revue in Toronto some years ago known as Spring Thaw depicted a hero going in quest of a Canadian identity and emerging with a mounted policeman and a bottle of rye.  If he had been Australian, one realizes, he would have emerged with a kangaroo and a boomerang.  One needs to go deeper than ridicule, however, if one is to understand the subtlety of the self-deceptions involved. (“Criticism and Environment”)

I suppose they must have a disease for lies, as they have kleptomania for stealing.  This chap had “spent years in the South Seas”: rubber plantations and trading vessels were at the top of the whisky bottle, waving palm-trees and pounding surf around the middle, and island paradises and brown-eyed mistresses near the bottom.  It bored me a bit, I must say, and after we’d finished the whisky and he started looking inscrutable over a lighted cigar butt I thought I was in for some pretty involved brooding.  (opening paragraph, “Face to Face”) [Frye’s Conrad‑imitation phase]

Marked a few essays & took Helen, who had just finished writing an article for the Star Weekly, out for a cocktail.  I had a sidecar, which, I’ve been told, works on the backfire principle: you swallow down one lemonade after another trying to get a faint alcoholic taste in your mouth, when suddenly there’s a dull boom in your stomach, a sudden ringing in the ears, crimson clouds before the eyes, & there you are as drunk as a coot.  I had only one, so I don’t know.  A businessmen’s dinner was in the dining room, and as I came out I heard the hostess say to the waiter, “How are they getting along with eleven bottles among twelve men?” (Diaries, 5 January 1949)

Ran into Ned [Pratt] & told him my woes.  He says Markowitz tells him that evening drinking is the best way to ward off heart disease.  He went to the liquor store with me & bought me a bottle of rye.  Promised him faithfully I would not have a heart attack in ten years.  (Diaries, 11 January 1949)

On the way back [from the library at Harvard] I stopped at a liquor store & asked if there were any formalities about purchasing liquor.  He said the formality consisted only in the possession of cash.  Even so I didn’t know what to buy, and Canadian rye is $5.75 a bottle—though I think a larger bottle than what we’re allowed to buy.  I got a cheaper rye for $3.75, a Corby’s.  I must investigate California wines.  We came home & had dinner in, after speculating about going out & deciding to renounce the gesture. (Diaries, 14 July 1950––Frye’s 38th birthday)

[Frye tells this story in several places]:  In the year of his retirement he [Ned Pratt] turned up unexpectedly at a meeting of the Graduate Department of English (he hated graduate teaching), and sat through three hours and a half of petitions and what not, and then, under “further business,” announced that this was undoubtedly his last meeting of the Graduate Department, and therefore–at which point he produced a bottle of rye. It was a typical gesture, but he was also reminding us of a certain sense of proportion. (“A Poet and a Legend”)

Crackpots and Undistinguished Flakes

In Anatomy of Criticism Frye notes that critics often break forth into an “oracular harrumph” when they encounter references to alchemy, the Tarot, Rosicrucianism, and the like, and the same attitude persists more than a half‑century later.  One encounters readers here and there, having discovered that Frye thought highly of Colin Still’s book on The Tempest or that he had read some esoteric work, recoiling in amazement, as if it automatically followed that Frye was a card‑carrying member of some mystery cult or was engaging in the ritual practices of Freemasonry.  In the late 1970s I was invited to a party in Toronto by a friend at York University, where the assembled party‑goers turned out to be McLuhanites. When they discovered that I had an interest in Frye, they began to pepper me with questions about Frye’s having been a Mason. I naturally asked what evidence they had for this claim, but none was forthcoming, their assumption being that this was common knowledge. The rumor, apparently, was initiated by Marshall McLuhan, or at any rate perpetuated by him. McLuhan’s biographer Philip Marchand writes that McLuhan “certainly never abandoned his belief that his great rival in the English department of the University of Toronto, Northrop Frye, was a “Mason at heart, if not in fact” (Marshall McLuhan, 105).  In a book review Marchand removes the qualification, saying flatly that “McLuhan thought Frye was a Mason” (Toronto Star, 30 November 2002).  He goes on to say that it’s no wonder that McLuhan suspected that Frye was a Mason because (check out this logic) he was interested in the occult, used diagrams, and, heaven help us, took Colin Still’s Shakespearean criticism seriously.

“Colin Still,” Marchand declares, “was a crackpot,” whose book on The Tempest “[m]ost academics would have been embarrassed to be seen reading.”  Really?  This is an example of a little learning having turned into ignorance.  Marchand has no sense of allegory, and he has no sense of the difference between the reading of a text and the use to which that reading is put. All this gets picked up by Colby Cosh, who does Marchand one better: “The crushingly excellent Philip Marchand has a mesmerizing column about the poisonous rivalry between Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. . . . McLuhan, a conservative Catholic, despised Frye because he thought he was dabbling in dark occultic forces and perhaps messing about with Freemasonry. . . . Marchand has discovered a new and major source for Frye’s thinking in Colin Still, a hitherto undistinguished flake who believed The Tempest was a disguised representation of some sort of pagan initiation rite” ( 30 November 2002).

Although Frye occasionally comments on Freemasonry (e.g., the Masonic overtones of The Magic Flute, the Masonic links with the trade unions in the nineteenth century, the affinity between the Freemasons and the Royal Society, and the Freemason scapegoat myths), there is not a shred of evidence that Frye was a Mason. As for Still’s being a “crackpot” and an “undistinguished flake,” no less a critical intelligence than R.S. Crane speaks of the “pioneering work” of Still in reading Shakespeare allegorically, discovering in the play “the double theme of purgation from sin and of rebirth and upward spiritual movement after sorrow and death” (The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry, 132).  Peter Dawkins refers to Still as an “eminent scholar” (The Wisdom of Shakespeare in “The Tempest,” xxv), and Michael Srigley has defended Still’s thesis (Images of Regeneration).  Ronald Tamplin finds in Eliot’s The Waste Land “a pattern corresponding in outline, imagery, and incidental material to Still’s account of initiation into the Greek mystery religions” (American Literature 39 [1967]: 361). In a detailed examination of Still’s argument, Michael Cosser says, “Certainly it is not stretching credulity to see a close parallel between the play and what can be pieced together from classical sources as to the training received in the Mystery-centers of old” (Sunrise 49 (December 1999–January 2000). And in his study of the sacerdotal features of The Tempest my colleague and friend Robert Lanier Reid, though not convinced of the explicitness of Still’s claims, nevertheless takes seriously Still’s view that the play is a “universal purgatorial allegory” (Comparative Drama 41, no. 4 [Winter 2007–8]: 493–513). These critics, like Bishop Warburton before them, are far from being crackpots and flakes. In the eighteenth century Warburton, as both Still and Frye were aware, had proposed the theory that book 6 of the Aeneid––the descent to the underworld––corresponds to the ancient rites of initiation.  In other words, observations about parallels between literary works Greek initiations rites had been around for some time: noting such parallels was a common critical practice.

Still’s books, listed in all the bibliographies, were also celebrated by the distinguished Shakespearean G. Wilson Knight, who calls Shakespeare’s Mystery Play an “important landmark” (Shakespeare and Religion, 201). As an undergraduate at Victoria College, Frye had known Knight, who taught at Trinity College at the University of Toronto in the 1930s.  T.S. Eliot referred to Still in his preface to Knight’s The Wheel of Fire, and it is possible that Frye ran across this reference even before he checked Still’s book out of the Toronto public library during his sophomore year in college––the same year that The Wheel of Fire was published (1930). In The Wheel of Fire Knight writes, “Since the publication of my essay, my attention has been drawn to Mr. Colin Still’s remarkable book Shakespeare’s Mystery Play . . . .  Mr. Still’s interpretation of The Tempest is very similar to mine. His conclusions were reached by a detailed comparison of the play in its totality with other creations of literature, myth, and ritual throughout the ages” (16). Knight regards Still’s book as confirmation (“empirical proof”) of his own view that The Tempest is a mystical work (ibid.). A year later Knight wrote that his view of The Tempest

is most interestingly corroborated by a remarkable and profound book by Mr. Colin Still, Shakespeare’s Mystery Play: A Study of the Tempest (1921). . . . Mr. Still analyses The Tempest as a work of mystic vision, and shows that it abounds in parallels with the ancient mystery cults and works of symbolic religious significance throughout the ages. Especially illuminating are his references to Virgil (Aeneid, VI) and Dante. His reading of The Tempest depends on references outside Shakespeare, whereas my interpretation depends entirely on references to the succession of plays which The Tempest concludes.  We thus reach our results by quite different routes: those results are strangely––and, after all, I believe, not strangely––similar.  To the skeptic this may suggest that mystical interpretation of great poetry may be something other than Horatio’s (Hamlet, I. V. 133) ‘wild and whirling words’. It is not without its dangers, yet it is the only adequate and relevant interpretation of Shakespeare that exists; since, if the vision of the poet and that of the mystic are utterly and finally and in essence incommensurable, where are we to search for unity? And yet if the art of poetry has its share of divine sanction and transcendent truth, what limit can we place to the authentic inspiration of so transcendent and measureless a poet as Shakespeare?” (Shakespeare and Religion, 67–8)

Marchand and friends are of course free to say whatever they wish about the interpretations of Still, Knight, and Frye, though one wishes that their dismissals had not been based on such ill-informed opinions about the parallels between Shakespeare and ancient myth and ritual.

Previous posts on Frye and McLuhan here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The complete McLuhan thread here.

Frye’s RCMP File

Frye’s Spies: Documents in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Security Files on Northrop Frye

Jim Bronskill’s uncovering the security files that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police kept on Frye for a dozen years has been reported in the blog, a story that was picked up by numerous news organizations.  The entire episode seemed so unlikely that I felt obliged to get a copy of the files, which I requested from the Library and Archives of Canada and which were kindly provided me.  Reading the files is like watching a Beckett play where nameless bureaucrats with not enough serious work to do write memos and shuffle papers around as if their trivial actions were of great moment.  One finds oneself laughing at the absurdity of it all.

Still, we do learn something from the security files that we didn’t previously know: the extent of Frye’s involvement with a number of left‑wing committees and organizations precisely at the time he was writing all those critiques of the student protest movement.  From the files we discover that Frye was involved, as a sponsor or signatory, with the following:

  • Montreal Hemispheric Conference to End the Vietnam War
  • Opposition to Trudeau’s invoking the War Measures Act
  • International Conference on Racism and War
  • Corporation des enseignants du Québec
  • International Commission of Inquiry (Vietnam War Tribunal)
  • Vietnam Moratorium Committee (Montreal)
  • Faculty Committee on Vietnam (University of Toronto)
  • Alexander Defence Committee
  • International Forum Foundation
  • Canadian Committee for Amnesty in Portugal
  • International Teach‑in on China
  • Canadian teachers opposed to “ the U.S. policy of ‘genocide’ in Vietnam”
  • Committee established to aid the students accused of violating the Anti‑subversion Act of 1951
  • Toronto Committee on Disarmament

Many of the security files are heavily redacted and some 40 of the 142 pages have been withheld altogether, pursuant to the regulations of the Access to Information Act.  But as I read the files, slogging through the deadening bureaucratic prose, there are 39 separate entries.  What follows is a brief abstract of  each of the 39 entries.

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Frye‑McLuhan Rivalry?

A great deal has been made of the claim that Frye and McLuhan were rivals.  But were they?  W. Terrence Gordon’s Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding: A Biography says twice that they were rivals, without indicating any basis for the claim.  Philip Marchand’s Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger (Toronto: Random House, 1989), takes a different view, showing McLuhan to be jealous of Frye’s eminence and noting several small-minded actions on the part of McLuhan to chip away at that standing.  Take for example this episode from Marchand’s biography:

A panel of graduate English students was organized by the Graduate English Association at the University of Toronto to discuss Frye’s book [Anatomy of Criticism] shortly after its publication.  One of the panellists, Frederick Flahiff, recalls, “One morning after the announcement of the panel had gone out, Marshall appeared in my room carrying a copy of [an] essay entitled “Have with You to Madison Avenue; or, The Flush Profile of Literature.”  The essay, written by McLuhan, was an attack on Frye’s criticism as the formation, via literature, of a perceptive mind to a pseudo‑scientific charting of the features of literature vaguely analogous to Madison Avenue profiles of consumer groups (“Flush profile” is a reference to a method of measuring viewer response to radio and television programs by gauging the incidence of toilet flushing. [“Flush Profile” is reproduced below.]

McLuhan was not at his best in this essay.  His argument, studded with tortured metaphors, was extremely convoluted, and would have succeeded in confusing any audience, no matter how well versed in Frye’s book.  One thing was clear though: no one but McLuhan could have written it.  Nonetheless, McLuhan asked Flahiff if he would read the essay on the panel as if it were his own response to Frye.  We went out and walked around and around Queen’s Park, Flahiff recalls.

McLuhan was at his most obsessive.  I don’t mean that he was hammering away at me to do this thing, but he was obsessive about Frye and the implication of Frye’s position in the same way he had talked about black masses.  It was the first time I had seen this in McLuhan––or the first time I had seen it so extravagantly.  As gently as possible I indicated that I could not do this and that I was going to write my own thing. . . . Later, on the night of the panel, he phoned me before my appearance and asked me to read to him what I had written.  I indicated that he could come to the session if he wanted, but he said “Oh, no, no.” (105–6)

Marchand also reports on a letter from McLuhan to a close friend in which “McLuhan mentioned Frye’s leaving Toronto for a conference and added that he hoped Frye would not bother to return” (105).  Perhaps McLuhan did see Frye as a rival, but I find no evidence in all of Frye’s comments on McLuhan that Frye considered McLuhan to be a rival.  Nor does Frye say anything unkind about McLuhan, except perhaps for the remark that McLuhan had a reputation as a great thinker but he didn’t think at all.

If Frye saw McLuhan as a rival it seems doubtful that he would have argued long and hard that McLuhan should be given the governor general’s award for Understanding Media. Or that, as David Staines reports, he would have said to Corrine McLuhan after Marshall’s death, “I always wanted to be closer to Marshall than I was.”

After the jump, McLuhan’s review of Anatomy.

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Frye’s References to McLuhan in the Correspondence

From Northrop Frye: The Selected Letters, 1934-1991, ed. Robert D. Denham (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Co., 2009)

Letter to Robert Heilman, 29 October 1951

. . . I am very deeply obliged to you for being responsible for my having a wonderful summer.  I have seldom enjoyed a summer so much.  We topped it off with ten days in San Francisco and two weeks in New York—one at the English institute, which turned out to be a very good one.  I got Marshall McLuhan down to give a paper [“The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry,” in Alan Downer, ed., English Institute Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 168–81; rpt. in The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan 1943-1962, ed. Eugene McNamara (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 91–7].

Letter to Richard Schoeck, 24 November 1965

You may know that Marshall and Ernest have asked me to do a collection of comments on myth and criticism as one of the Gemini books.  I gather that their original idea was to collect contemporary essays on the subject, but I thought it might be more interesting and useful to go back into the history of the tendency.  Things like Raleigh’s History, the opening of Purchas, Camden, Reynolds’ Mythomystes, Bacon’s Wisdom of the Ancients, Sandys’ Ovid, from that period; some of the “Druid” stuff from around Blake’s time; some of the material used by Shelley and Keats, and so on down to Ruskin’s Queen of the Air, but without incorporating anything much later than The Golden Bough and the turn of the century.  An introductory essay would of course indicate the relevance of this to what came after Frazer.  I’ve spoken about this to Marshall and he suggested that I might consult the other editors.  [Frye wrote a preface for the proposed collection, but the project was for some reason aborted.  His preface was published forty years later in CW 25:326–8.]

Letter to John Garabedian, 12 September 1967 [In reply to an letter by Garabedian (1 September 1967), a feature writer for the New York Post, wanting Frye to expand on a comment quoted in an article in Time magazine that hippies were inheritors of the “outlawed and furtive social ideal known as the ‘Land of Cockaigne.’” The Time article also referred to Frye as a disciple of McLuhan.]

Thank you for your letter.  I am not sure that I can be of much help to you, as I did not have hippies in mind when I spoke of the Land of Cockaigne as one form of Utopia.  The association was due to the Time writer, and I doubt very much that the Land of Cockaigne is really what the hippies are talking about.  Neither was it correct to describe me as a disciple of McLuhan, although he is a colleague and a good personal friend.

Letter to Walter Miale, 18 February 1969

. . . Korzybsky was, because of his anti‑literary bias, a person I was bound to have reservations about, but there was still the possibility that he might be, like Marshall McLuhan today, probing and prodding in directions that might turn out to be useful.

Letter to Walter J. Ong, S.J., 28 March 1973

. . . I saw Marshall [McLuhan] the other day at a meeting on Canadian Studies, where we were discussing the question of how difficult it is for students in this bilingual country to acquire a second language when they don’t possess a first one.

Letter to William Harmon,  13 August 1974

Harmon had requested (8 July 1974) the source of Joyce’s referring to Eliot as “the Bishop of Hippo,” which Frye quotes in his book on T.S. Eliot (pp. 67–8).  Frye replied that he wasn’t certain as he was quoting “orally from someone who had been working in the Joyce papers at Buffalo.”  Harmon responded with a note of thanks, which prompted Frye to write again to say “Marshall McLuhan was present when this tag from Joyce was quoted, and his memory of it may be more accurate than mine.”

Letter to Richard Kostelanetz, 7 January 1976

. . . Please don’t make me an enemy of Marshall McLuhan: I am personally very fond of him, and think the campus would be a much duller place without him.  I don’t always agree with him, but he doesn’t always agree with himself.

The statement of Colombo’s on page 16 strikes me as curious, but it’s your article. [John Robert Colombo had said that “McLuhan and Frye are Canada’s Aristotle and Plato.  McLuhan is the scientist, and Frye the mystical theorist, with the eternal paradigms and everlasting forms” (qtd. by Kostelanetz, Three Canadian Geniuses, 131).]

Letter to Andrew Foley, 20 April 1976

. . . I think psychologists are now moving away from the Freudian metaphors about an unconsciousness buried below a conscious mind, and are thinking more in terms of the division in the brain between the hemisphere controlling a linear and verbal activity and the one that is more spatially oriented.  It seems to me that the most important aspect of McLuhan is his role in the development of this conception.

Letter to Fr. Walter Ong, December 1977

. . . I saw something of your student Patrick Hogan this year, but he left early.  I don’t know whether he was disappointed in what we did or didn’t do for him.  He was very keen, and one of his proposals was that he and Marshall and I should form a seminar to discuss Finnegans Wake, which hardly fitted my working schedule or, I should imagine, Marshall’s.


Letter to Barrington Nevitt, 20 September 1988

This is in connection with your letter about your proposed book on Marshall McLuhan.  I am sorry if I am unhelpful on this subject, but I doubt that I have anything very distinctive to say on the subject.  What I could say I said at the teacher’s awards meeting you referred to [Distinguished Teacher Awards, December 1987], but unfortunately I had no text for that talk.  I think I remember saying that Marshall was an extraordinary improviser in conversation, that he could take fire instantly from a chance remark, and that I have never known anyone to equal him on that score.  I also feel, whether I said it or not, that he was celebrated for the wrong reasons in the sixties, and then neglected for the wrong reasons later, so that a reassessment of his work and its value is badly needed.  I think what I chiefly learned from him, as an influence on me, was the role of discontinuity in communication, which he was one of the first people to understand the significance of.  Beyond that, I am afraid I am not much use.

Frye on Privacy, Cont’d

“The whole appeal of Sherlock Holmes,” Frye writes, “was connected with his ability to notice ordinary details. Here again is the dialectic between the all-seeing eye of God & of the spy of the state with his ‘telescreen.'” In Anatomy of Criticism Frye links the telescreen with the “humiliation of being watched by a hostile or derisive eye,” a theme in the tragedies of such figures as Prometheus and Milton’s Samson.

I’m reminded of two stories from Frye’s early life, one more or less innocent, the other malicious.

When he was a student circuit rider on the Saskatchewan prairies, he reported that whenever his horse Katy “broke into a trot you had to stand straight up in the stirrups and let the saddle come up and caress your backside at intervals. I remember something that I found later in a Canadian critic, I think it was Elizabeth Waterson, who spoke of the prairies as the sense of immense space with no privacy. And I found that on top of Katy, who naturally stimulated one’s bladder very considerably. I realized that I couldn’t get off in that vast stretch of prairie because everybody was out with opera glasses, you see, watching the preacher on top of Katy. That was what people did. They all had spy glasses. They weren’t doing it with any malicious sense. It was just that their lives were rather devoid of incident, and naturally they liked to see who was going along. It wasn’t their fault.”

And now the sinister tale, recorded by Frye in one of his diaries:

“I often wonder about intuitive racial-stereotype thinking: a lot of it’s balls. For instance, there’s a big good-natured German in Moncton called Lichtenberg who had been a peaceful, thrifty, industrious contractor there for thirty years. For two wars the local Gestapo have cut their teeth on him: when the news is bad or they get tired of reading spy stories they’d go up and practise on him. Recently the Gestapo combed his whole house over, in response to some silly anonymous ‘tip,’ & one of them found two large knobs in a dark closet. ‘Aha!’ he said, stepped into the closet & gave one a twist, thinking of course it was a private transmitter set. It was an extra shower he’d installed. Incidentally, he’s a naturalized Canadian citizen, but married before that, so his wife, who belongs to one of the oldest Maritime families, is an enemy alien. Well, Dad’s friendship for Lichtenberg has come in for much unfavorable comment in that stinking little kraal Moncton, & the stinkers point out gleefully that ‘Frye’ is really a German name, & that I look just like a German. It’s a beautiful theory, only it just happens to be wrong.”