Category Archives: Correspondence

“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.

Frye and Martin Amis


It’s really interesting to read in Russell’s earlier post that Martin Amis considered attending U of T in 1971 to study with Frye before publishing his first breakout novel, The Rachel Papers, in which Frye plays an integral part in the protagonist Charles Highway’s intellectual development.  It’s been a very long time since I’ve read the novel, but if I remember correctly, Highway must read Frye more or less under the covers, in secret: it is completely symptomatic of a time when Frye had somehow become anathema to the British idea of literary scholarship.  I know I’m a partisan, but I’d still say that in the long run, the British lost out in the bargain.  When the Franco-American poststructuralist tide was rising in the 1980s, the English school had very little to fight back with on literature’s behalf, and the lingering Leavisites certainly weren’t going to get the job done.

Frye also appears regularly in Amis’s critical writings, and is part and parcel with the contrarian badboy outlook that continues to carry him as both an author and a critic.  (One of his best observations is that a literary critic’s most essential attribute is a spine: something to tingle when tingling is the required response.)  Anyone interested in getting a sense of Frye’s influence on Amis should check out his excellent collection of articles and reviews, The War Against Cliche.

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.