Category Archives: Correspondence

Ninth Symphony


“Ode to Joy” finale conducted by Leonard Bernstein

On this date in 1824 Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna.

Frye in a letter to Helen Kemp, April 18th, 1934:

I heard the ninth symphony last night.  There was some Wagner ahead of it that didn’t amount to much.  I enjoyed the symphony, though that Ode to Joy bothered me as usual.  I would like to hear the 9th as the only thing on the programme, with the Ode sung in some language I don’t understand.  The translation was execrable.  The singing was all right, or would have been if it had been possible to sing that infernal orgy at all — most of it is simply sopranos screaming on an A flat, a sound which fairly pulls my own vocal chords apart in pure sympathy.  The symphony itself is prolix — suprisingly so, I think, but the general effect is tremendously exhilarating and disturbing.  Exhilarating because of the size of the attempt, disturbing because the attempt is strained and in the last analysis unsuccessful.  The symphony, big as it is, is only a torso of a complete subjective component of musical form.  (CW 1, 201)

Two Previously Unpublished Letters [Updated]


[Update] These letters are now posted in the Denham Libary under “Previously Unpublished Material” here.

The two letters below from Frye to Helen Kemp regarding his mother Cassie have never been published.

The first letter is undated but it was written sometime during the summer of 1940, when Frye had left Toronto to visit his sick mother in Moncton, NB. Helen, who had accompanied him on a trip to Moncton in July, had returned to their home on Bathurst Street in Toronto.

My pet:

Thanks for your letter.  Nothing much has happened here.  I want to leave soon: I couldn’t leave as long as mother had her bad spell: she was at her worst the day after you left.  She’s getting much better but she won’t have a doctor, and that’s that.  She gives a hundred and fifty different reasons: the house is so dirty she’d be ashamed to have a doctor in, God’s told her to take cod‑liver oil (which we got her), Dad would never pay the bill and we shouldn’t––the whole thing is that she’s got the idea she has cancer, and is afraid to have a doctor tell her so.  Whether she has or not I of course don’t know, not being a doctor, but even if she has the worst thing we could do would be to bring in a doctor over her head.  Dad, however, says she’s had this cancer bug since Vera was a baby.  Her conversation is still a monologue of sickness and death and how many corpses that ghoul Aunt Dolly collected for her accursed boneyard.  Mentally and physically, she’s a hundred years old.

I find Blake difficult here.  Vera writes and says she’s coming to see us at Christmas, bless her heart.  After one look at where they put my Forum article I gave in and got a haircut.  I’ve been trying to locate my dentist, but he seems to have disappeared or joined the army or something.  I drive around with Dad and lift cans of paint around for him––how he manages alone I don’t know.  He hasn’t made any more trips, but talks of going to Toronto this week.  We’ve got to look around and find a girl to come and live here during the winter: if she got her room free it would be well worth it.  Sorry about the cut in the budget––not altogether unexpected, I suppose, and if Baldy is not too much of a born grafter to save on Ent. it perhaps won’t matter much.

There’s a bulky dress bag folded up on top of your suitcase: do you want it?

Dad saw Lichtenberg the other day and tried to tease him by telling him that another builder, a cheap shyster who undercuts his competition and swindles his clients, was tearing the town wide open and getting all sorts of orders.  “Yeh,” said Lichtenberg.  “I hear a rooster crowed like hell all vun morning.  By night his head vass off.”  I love you.


Vera = Frye’s sister

Aunt Dolly = Elthea Howard, eldest sister of Frye’s mother

Forum article = the reference is uncertain but the obvious candidates are “Poetry.” Canadian Forum 20 (July 1940): 125–6, and “War on the Cultural Front.” Canadian Forum 20 (August 1940): 144, 146.

Baldy =  Martin Baldwin = curator and director of the Art Gallery of Toronto

Lichtenberg = Described by Frye in the Diaries as a “good-natured German in Moncton . . .  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. . . . Dad’s friendship for Lichtenberg has come in for much unfavorable comment in that stinking little kraal Moncton.”

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Frye on the New Yorker


For the article that Michael Happy surely intends to write about Frye’s love affair with The New Yorker, here are the references—at least most of them—plus a few from Helen.

I have been rather handicapped by the lack of money, but that doesn’t matter so much this first term. But if you really want to do something for me, my own self‑sacrificing little girl—WHEN THE HELL ARE YOU GOING TO COME THROUGH WITH SOME NEW YORKERS? (Frye‑Kemp Correspondence, CW, 2, 620-1)

To switch the subject to civilization for the moment. Thank you very very much for the New Yorkers. You are a sweet little girl. It was just pure nerves that made me bark for them in my last letter [above]. The idea that you might have forgotten to buy them owing to pressure of work or something nearly made me collapse. I spent a marvellous weekend with them. It was just as well they came when they did, as the boots took my shoes Saturday morning to repair them and didn’t return them till Sunday morning—I had to go to Hall in my tennis shoes. (ibid., 630)

The poet may change his mind or mood; he may have intended one thing and done another, and then rationalized what he did. (A cartoon in a New Yorker of some years back hit off this last problem beautifully: it depicted a sculptor gazing at a statue he had just made and remarking to a friend: “Yes, the head is too large. When I put it in exhibition I shall call it ‘The Woman with the Large Head.’”) (Anatomy of Criticism, 87)

The dandy attitude survives in the early (twenties) essays of Aldous Huxley, whose epigrams are mainly inverted clichés, in Yeats’ association of dandyism & heroism, in Lytton Strachey, & in the contemporary New Yorker—see its Knickerbocker figure and again the inverted melodrama clichés of its cartoons. (Notebooks for Anatomy of Criticism, CW 23, 265)

Many years ago Edmund Wilson, in a New Yorker review, connected the Houdini situation with the dying & reviving god. [“And the magician who escapes from the box: what is he but Adonis and Attis and all the rest of the corn gods that are buried and rise?  This is quite plain in the case of Houdini” (Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1950), 151.  Wilson’s review appeared in New Yorker, 11 March 1944.]  (ibid., 294)

As I see it now, there are two main themes: the relation of literature to the other arts & disciplines, and the relation of the hypothetical to the existential: i.e., art & religion.  I call it Tentative Conclusion, & begin, possibly, with the New Yorker cartoon. [The “head is too large” cartoon, referred to above].  (ibid., 202)

Don’t assume that the intentional fallacy is always a fallacy, i.e. that you can judge a satire without taking account of a humorous or ironic intention.  The answer “but it’s supposed to be that way” is valid for many objections—cf. the New Yorker “large head” problem. [The “head is too large” cartoon, referred to above].  (ibid., 237)

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Frye’s Valentines


Here are some Valentine references culled from various sources.

[A verse to an unknown lover]


I will be your valentine.
Will you be my concubine?
On ambrosia let us dine,
With a glass of sparkling wine.
Let us now our limbs entwine.
I’ll be prone and you supine,
So our two hearts will align.
You’ll be mine, and I’ll be thine.
Cupid’s arrow is our sign
In our lover’s sacred shrine.
The world will never us malign:
Lover, you are all divine.

Just kidding.

– – –

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On Belief


Blake's Nebuchadnezzar

Northrop Frye letter to Roy Daniells, 20 December 1973:

It seems to me that there are two mental processes which are quite distinct, both called belief.  One is the existence of evidence which seems conclusive, as when I believe that the earth goes round the sun and not vice versa.  The other is a belief derived not from evidence, but from imaginative vision.  A belief of this kind is an axiom of one’s conduct: what a man believes in this sense is only what his actions show that he believes.  Such beliefs represent a voluntary choice from an infinite number of imaginative possibilities.  The gospels present their story as a myth, an imaginative vision.  They are remarkably careless about collecting or appealing to evidence in the form of testimony or reason.  The account of the resurrection is designed to elicit the response “I can believe in a conquest over death achieved by human, backed by divine, power,” or something like that.  I don’t think they are trying to elicit the response “I find that these things happened exactly as described, because I believe that the writers are trustworthy historians.”  They are not trustworthy historians:  they tell four different stories.  But they are all agreed that resurrection is an important subject to decide on for belief, one way or the other.  From this point of view, it is not necessarily a misleading myth to say “in Adam all die,” which simply means that everybody dies.

I agree about the habitual dishonesty of theologians, but of course they are just as confused as everyone else about the distinction between the two kinds of belief.  As long as they could they tried to insist that belief in Christ was the same kind of belief as belief in the global shape of the earth.  Forced out of that position, they find themselves with no standards for any other kind of belief.  Very few theologians know or care much about literature or about the mental processes it calls for.  So they cannot understand that the gospel writers wrote in mythical rather than historical language because they felt that what they had to say was too important to be trusted to factual language.

Northrop Frye letter to Roy Daniells,  19 March 1975

What fills me with horror and terror, to use your words, is the mystery of the corrupted human will.  That is never more corrupt than when it gets to work in the religious area, in obedience to Swift’s principle that we use religion to hate each other and not for love.  The desire to persecute is never founded on “believe in God,” but always on “believe in what I mean by God”––all persecution and inquisition have been products of man’s deifying of his own understanding.  That and the lust for political power.  In the Apocalypse of Peter, one of the earliest NT pseudepigrapha, Peter is shown hell, given a strong hint that the sufferings there may not be everlasting after all, and then cautioned not to say this to anyone when he gets back, because people won’t behave properly unless they’re threatened with this kind of bogie.  That’s the way social institutions operate, and they operate in the same way even in Marxist countries where there’s no re­ligious basis as such.  They all try to paralyze man with fear.

Christianity makes a good deal of sense to me because its myth does.  It identi­fies man and God in a way that doesn’t cripple our critical faculties, and the kind of man it sees as divine is a man who cared enough about what was happening to other men to go through a pretty grim death.  I know that the Christian myth has been treated as fact but the people who did that were repeating the crucifixion when they made martyrs of people like Bruno and Servetus.

“Offprints or Offspring”: Frye and the History of Literary Studies (3)


This is the last in a brief series of reflections on the profession of literary studies prompted by passages that struck me in Bob Denham’s recent edition of Frye’s Selected Letters, 1934-1991.

In a letter to Roger Shattuck, Frye comments on various aspects of the state of the humanities in 1971.  He says, “I suppose some of the bewilderment in modern humanities comes from the false analogies to business which are made at one end of the university, and the false analogies to democracy at the other.”  The assumption of the former analogy is

that the university, instead of being a process which is, in Newman’s phrase, its own end, must be a process with a product, like all other assembly lines.  The product is assumed to be either the works of “productive scholarship,” or students in the form of “trained minds.”  The conception of a university which is not essentially committed either to offprints or offspring is a difficult one to take in.

The business analogy is of course still with us, and still a major bone of contention.  It is even more pervasive because students have largely abandoned what Frye calls the false analogy of democracy.  He was writing to Shattuck in the midst of the student protest movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s (the Kent State Massacre had taken place in the previous year).  My sense is that the business analogy has now been adopted by many students as well as administrators (with the encouragement from universities that promote a rhetoric of customer satisfaction which students, used to completing product surveys in the hope of winning an iPod, are quite willing to respond to).

In terms of the scholarly product, the pressure to publish has only increased since the 1970s.  As for the “student product,” there have recently been efforts to quantify the “value-added” in a university education.  This is often characterized as a conservative initiative that attempts to impose an ideological straitjacket on higher education, though in his most controversial column as MLA President (see the Spring 2008 MLA Newsletter), Gerald Graff defended the general principle of outcomes assessment, arguing that too many colleges and universities are victims of what he calls the “Best-Student Fetish”: “it is as if the ultimate dream of college admissions is to recruit a student body that is already so well educated that it hardly needs any instruction!”

Once again, Frye’s reflections on the state of the academic profession identify trends that would become more and more apparent with the passage of time.  What would a university look like today if it were not committed “either to offprints or offspring”?  Can we even imagine such an institution?  Perhaps all those involved in university education need to have at least the idea of such a university in mind, as a utopian vision and a reference point while working within the less than ideal institution where they are a teacher or student.  In “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision,” Frye argued that everyone who works at a task in society has an imagined ideal towards which his or her actions are directed: “The model so constructed is a myth or fiction, and in normal minds it is known to be a fiction.  That does not make it unreal: what happens is rather an interchange of reality and illusion in the mind.”  A good example of what he is talking about is John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University, which originated in a series of lectures in Dublin, discourses to an impoverished religious community in a colonial society who were hoping to set up some sort of college to educate their youth.  Newman responded with the most idealistic of visions of what a university could and should be.  But he then showed considerable business and political shrewdness and realism as he went about trying to create a university for Catholics in Ireland.  That combination of idealism and pragmatism is still a good model for those of us who work in higher education.

The Collected Poems of Northrop Frye


1.  In letter to Helen Kemp, 15 July 1932.

A man with a bad case of phthisis

Kept asking his family for phkhisses

Until his wife said,

“You can’t see your head

So you don’t know how rotten your phphiz is.”


2.  In letter to Helen Frye, 5 January 1939.

I could fly as straight as an arrow,

To visit my wife over there,

If I could excrete my marrow,

And fill my bones with air.


3.  Sonnet written on Frye’s 23rd birthday (14 July 1935).  In a letter to Roy Daniells.  Frye refers to it as “horrible doggerel, like all of my alleged poetry.”

Milton considered his declining spring

And realized the possibility

That while he mused on Horton scenery

Genius might join his youth in taking wing;

Yet thought this not too serious a thing

Because of God’s well-known propensity

To take and re-absorb inscrutably

The lives of men, whatever gifts they bring.

Of course I have a different heritage;

I’ve worked hard not to be young at all,

With fair results; at least my blood is cooled,

And I am safe in saying, at Milton’s age,

That if Time pays me an informal call

And tries to steal my youth, Time will get fooled.


4.  Among the annotations Frye made in his copy of The Wisdom of Laotse (1948, trans. Lin Yutang) is this holograph verse at the end of chapter 4.

Laotse’s Commentary of Genesis

In the beginning God created heaven and earth.

That was where the trouble started.

Before, there was chaos,

Which is what the wise man still seeks.

He divided light from darkness, dry land from sea,

But we got sea and darkness anyway.

Silly blundering old bugger,

Why couldn’t he have left well enough alone.


5.  Among the annotations to Frye’s copy of Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, this couplet scribbled in the margin of page 153.

When night lets fall her sable hood

How may one know which dame one scrood?

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Who Was Elizabeth Fraser?

Fraser's ullus.2

Illustration by Elizabeth Fraser

In mid‑October 1936 Frye has a chance encounter with Elizabeth Fraser, a Canadian graphic artist and book illustrator with whom he and Helen Kemp had had a passing acquaintance in Toronto and who was living in London and (sometimes) in Oxford.  “We parted with expressions of esteem,” Frye writes to Helen, “and promises to come together later.  I may give a tea for her and [Douglas] LePan soon.  She looks interesting.”  But before he can send an invitation, Fraser asks him over for a meal, which he accepts, showing up at her place two weeks later.  Thus begins the most intriguing relationship Frye has during the year.  Fraser, a pipe‑smoking free spirit who is twelve years older than Frye, is trying to survive in Oxford by illustrating books, always living on the brink of insolvency.  One of her projects, described in some detail in Frye’s letter of 3 November 1936, mystifies him because he cannot imagine why she is drawn to the turgid prose of the text.  Fraser completes twenty or so extraordinary drawings for the book, which turns out to be Plato’s Academy: The Birth of the Idea of Its Rediscovery by Pan Aristophron, published in 1938 by Oxford University Press.  Frye says that Fraser is “a very remarkable girl” and is attracted to her ideas, which he says “have been gradually developing the way mine have on Blake, into a more and more objective unity all the time,” as well as to her drawings, which he sees “as sincere as the book is faked, and as concrete as the book is vague.”

Aristophron says nothing at all in his preface about Fraser’s drawings, which are identified only by her stylized initials—EF—tucked away in the corner of several of the illustrations.  The book was printed by John Johnson, “Printer to the University” and also a friend of Fraser’s.

Fraser was also interested in preserving wall paintings in medieval churches, and so she and Frye would go to churches in and around Oxford and sketch the paintings, which are in various states of disintegration.  They share each other’s company on a number of occasions during November and December 1936, having tea together, going on a “pub‑crawl,” hiking to the countryside and surrounding villages on numerous occasions, and seeing plays and movies together.  “God knows what one can make of the girl,” Frye tells Helen. “Her relief at finding someone who wouldn’t blush and look the other way when she powdered her nose and who wouldn’t think she was a fallen woman if she wanted to go find a bush in the course of the walk suggested that she had been making rather a fool of herself in front of Englishmen recently—I suspect she has a genius for that.”  They continue to see each other frequently throughout the 1937 Easter term.  Toward the end of the term Frye writes to Helen that Elizabeth is “a lonely girl with lots of courage, pride and sensitiveness, but she is a swell girl.  She hits hard and rubs people the wrong way, in a way I think you understand, after six years of me, but she’s more honest and straightforward than I am and has more guts.  You’ll love her when you meet her.”  Both Frye and Fraser frequently borrow money from each other, and each is attracted to the other’s creative bent, even though Frye hardly knows how to respond to some of her illustrations and designs.

After completing his examinations at the end of his first term at Oxford, Frye finds himself miserable and penniless, waiting to receive the next instalment of his Royal Society grant so he can go to London for the Christmas vacation.  But his spirits are lifted by the arrival of ₤50 from the Royal Society and by “a fairly concentrated dose” of Elizabeth Fraser.  On 19 December he escapes to London for the holidays, staying with Edith and Stephen Burnett, friends of Kemp through Norah McCullough, the educational supervisor at the Art Gallery of Toronto.  Elizabeth Fraser shows up in London on 26 December for a five‑day visit, and she and Frye attend two performances of Murder in the Cathedral. (Fraser gets sick at the first performance and has to be hauled home in a taxi). They also wander out to Hampton Court to see a painting by Mantegna.

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Before the Revolution: Frye and the History of Literary Studies (II)


When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s there was a pioneering women’s studies course on campus.  It was interdisciplinary, and I believe it was team taught.  The course was discussed among students – with the exception of those who were self-proclaimed feminists, a tiny minority – in much the same way that a Communist cell might have been discussed during the early years of the cold war.  A rumour circulated that “there is a guy taking the course.”  When I started a tenure-track job in the late 1980s, female faculty comprised about one-quarter of my department, and gender issues came up frequently, and sometimes contentiously, in discussion about the curriculum, hirings, and occasionally about the conduct of meetings.  With the sudden rise to prominence of feminist criticism and the institutional and societal concern with equity in the workplace, it was clear that a revolution was in progress.  Things have changed so much since those days that it is hard to realize that they were only twenty years ago.  In the last five years, my department (of nineteen full-time members) has hired ten new tenure-track faculty.  That is in itself a remarkable fact, but it is also noteworthy that the gender ratio of those appointments is 3 men to 7 women.  This was not the result of any conscious policy, but rather is a reflection of the feminization of English studies.  As another example of this, I noticed that at several sessions at this year’s Congress that the graduate students and junior faculty in the room were almost entirely female.

This personal reminiscing is by way of a historical preamble to a passage from Northrop Frye’s Selected Letters which provides an excellent illustration of the way things were before the feminist revolution.  Frye is writing to Robert Heilman, chair of English at the University of Washington in 1951:

Dear Robert,

Thanks very much for your letter.  If there weren’t a catch, I could recommend the best teacher of Middle English that you or any other English department is ever likely to get.  She’s a wonderful girl named Margaret Stobie, now at Winnipeg, Manitoba, Ph.D., author of a Middle English grammar and of several articles ranging from scholarly notes in PMLA to studies in the metre of Hopkins.  Excellent teacher.  It’s no doubt irrelevant to add that she’s a great pleasure to look at.  The catch is her husband Bill, a most agreeable and likeable chap, will get along in any society, probably do a good teaching job with elementary composition classes, but no scholarship and little promise of any.  The conventions of modern society don’t permit the woman to do the job and the man to wash the dishes, which is what’s appropriate here: Bill would make an excellent faculty wife.  They’ve had a lot of jobs because people hire Bill to get Peg, and then a new administration comes in that fires all married women, which is why she’s unemployed now.

Margaret Roseborough Stobie, who was a friend of Frye from graduate school days, died in 1990.  Those who want to see more details about her academic career can find information here on the University of Manitoba Archives website; it is interesting to note that she was “the first woman appointed to the academic panel of the Canada Council.”  In Frye’s comments to Heilman he clearly recognizes that the “conventions of modern society” are at odds with what is obviously appropriate and desirable, which is that Margaret Stobie should be hired for her own merit.  Superficially, by today’s standards, his letter might be considered a bit condescendingly sexist, but in the context of the time and the situation, I think it reveals his essential liberalism.

Two additional comments: 1. An anecdote in John Ayre’s biography of Frye indicates that Stobie was skeptical of Frye’s archetypal method of criticism.  2. William Stobie died in 2007, leaving the couple’s fortune of $7 million to the University of Manitoba, where they finished their teaching careers.  The money, the largest bequest ever received by the university, is specifically designated for the purchase of books in the literary humanities.  An article in the National Post observes that “The Stobies donated the money without asking that their name be placed on any building on campus – a rare move for anyone giving a multimillion-dollar gift.”

“A First-Class Scholar in a Second-Class Institution”


Like Russell, I am reading Bob Denham’s selection of Frye’s correspondence.  This observation to Edith Sitwell in April 1948 caught my attention:

Once a critic learns his job, criticism ought to come very easily, for if he is writing about a greater man than himself (the normal procedure), he has that man’s power available  and ready to be tapped, if he will only realize that it is greater, and puncture a hole in the dam of his own ego.  The arrogance and self-sufficiency I find in so much contemporary criticism, especially in America, bewilders me, as it seems to make things needlessly difficult.

The “arrogance and self-sufficiency” of scholars seems to be a perennial problem.

As Russell points out, Frye dedicated himself to Victoria College, even though in the diaries (which end in 1955) he complains about how stifling the institution could be and occasionally wonders if he shouldn’t take up one of the better offers coming his way.  On January 19, 1950, he observes, “I am worried about my future as a first-class scholar in a second-class institution.”