Category Archives: Frye and Contemporary Scholarship

New on the Shelf: Harold Bloom’s “The Anatomy of Influence”

I have just read Harold Bloom’s most recent book, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (2011). This is Bloom at his finest. In many ways, it is the last statement of a living giant – a characterization he in fact makes a point of relaying to the reader who may not already know this. Bloom opens his book by acknowledging Frye’s influence on him:

I do not recall reading any literary criticism, as opposed to literary biography, until I was an undergraduate. At seventeen I purchased Northrop Frye’s study of William Blake,Fearful Symmetry, soon after its publication. What Hart Crane was to me at ten, Frye became at seventeen: an overwhelming experience. Frye’s influence on me lasted twenty years but came to an abrupt halt on my thirty-seventh birthday, July 11, 1967, when I awakened from a nightmare and then passed the entire day composing a dithyramb, “The Covering Cherub; or, Poetic Influence.” Six years later that had evolved into The Anxiety of Influence, a book Frye rightly rejected from his Christian Platonist stance. Now, in my eightieth year, I would not have the patience to reread anything by Frye, but I possess almost all of Hart Crane by memory, recite much of it daily, and continue to teach him. (3)

As readers here likely already know, I have published an article on Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom’s relationship and how they react to one another. In my article, I demonstrate how Bloom was theorising influence through a series of letters to Northrop Frye. However, unlike earlier critics of the relationship, I also argue that Frye was influenced by Bloom. and that we must now begin to think about what it means to have influence, in other words: the anxiety of influencing.

Professor Bloom is at his most interesting in this volume, particularly the first section as he comes to terms with his entire project of influence:

More than any other I have written, this book is a critical self-portrait, a sustained mediation on the writings and readings that have shaped me as a person and a critic. Now in my eightieth year, I remained gripped by particular questions. Why has influence been my obsessive concern? How have my own reading experiences shaped my thinking? Why have some poets found me and not others? What is the end of a literary life? (30)

This is an interesting observation from a critic reflecting on his lifelong obsession with influence. Bloom takes account of the situation of literature and the academy in the twenty-first century, and while he now seems like something of a relic, there is still much to be said about the ways that we teach literature. What are our roles as teachers of literature? Bloom offers a tentative answer:

All literary influence is labyrinthine. Belated authors wander the maze as if an exit could be found, until the strong among them realize that the windings of the labyrinth are all internal. No critic, however generously motivated, can help a deep reader escape from the labyrinth of influence. I have learned that my function is to help you get lost. (31)

Frye’s readers will surely find Bloom’s book of particular interest, not merely because of the relation between the two, but because it is positioned as a final statement on the problem of influence. And, in many ways, Bloom returns to the powerful critic he once was and evidently continues to be.

New Article by Denham: “Frye and Bruno”

Brian Russell Graham, author of the recently published The Necessity of Opposites: The Dialectical Thinking of Northrop Frye, introduces Bob Denham’s latest offering in his “Frye and…” series. This second paper in the series, “Northrop Frye and Giordano Bruno,” is newly posted in the journal. Bob’s earlier paper, “Northrop Frye and Soren Kierkegaard,” can of course be found there too. (Two earlier posts on Bruno can be found here and here.)

When we think of the unity of opposites, at least within a modern context, we automatically think of Hegel, a philosopher with whom Frye engages in his studies on the Bible and literature. But Frye’s early essays and notebooks reveal a fascination with Giordano Bruno’s thoughts on the notion of the coincidentia oppositorum. In this very erudite essay, “Northrop Frye and Giordano Bruno,” Denham, whose work on Frye is always informed by his encyclopedic knowledge of his subject, pinpoints and defines the significance of Bruno for Frye, painstakingly providing us with an entire career’s worth of examples of Frye’s reflections on Bruno’s ideas. Throughout Denham steadily moves towards his conclusion that Frye’s crucial notion of ‘interpenetration’ owes, in part, a debt to the legacy of Bruno.

Brian Russell Graham: “The Necessary Unity of Opposites”

Brian is a graduate of the University of Glasgow. He has written extensively on Frye and has published a number of reviews of the Collected Works. He is an assistant professor at Aalborg University in Denmark.

My monograph on Frye, The Necessary Unity of Opposites, has just been released by the University of Toronto Press. The study deals with each of the main areas of Frye’s work: Blake’s poetry, secular literature, education and work, politics and Scripture. For Frye, the history of ideas is characterized by sets of opposing values which result in repeated cyclical movements in that history. However, Frye’s thinking, I argue, can be thought of as a dialectical, “suprahistorical,” and – in the secular context – “post-partisan.”

In each area of interest, Frye deals with the fact that opposing ideas represent a unity; that is, they are “in agreement” with one another. The nature of the “agreement” is different  in each case: beauty and truth are “in agreement” because they both inhere in Blake’s poetry and, more generally, secular literature; leisure and work are “in agreement” because, complementing one another, both must be incorporated into the life of the individual in society; freedom and equality are “in agreement” because the two are simultaneously achievable in society; belief and vision are “in agreement” because the individual must manifest both in his or her own identity. But, in each case, “agreement,” and therefore unity, characterizes the opposition.

Throughout my study, I contend that it is the thinking of Blake which provides the inspiration for Frye’s dialectical thinking. More specifically, it is Blake’s conceptions of innocence and experience which provide the inspiration for Frye’s characteristic mode of thought.

In part, my study also attempts to explain the appeal of Frye through consideration of the relationship his thinking bears to what I call the ordinary history of ideas, with its political divisions. I conclude my study with a consideration of Frye’s thought in relation to “end-of-history” theses, drawing out the implications of my argument that Frye’s thinking can be described as “suprahistorical.”

A study of Frye as a dialectical thinker. An examination of Frye as a thinker whose ideas can be described as “suprahistorical.” An investigation into the notion that Frye’s thought is “post-partisan.” And a thorough exploration of the nature of Blake’s influence on Frye. In writing The Necessary Unity of Opposites I discovered that these four projects are one in the same, a much-needed fourfold study of Frye, which ideally does justice to each concern.

“The Great Western Butterslide” Revisited

In the current issue of the New York  Review of Books, Garry Wills reviews All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, who, according to Wills, recycle once again the notion that the Middle Ages presented a uniquely unified culture free of the taint of modernism and post-modernism.

Here is the first paragraph of Wills’s review:

This book, which was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, comes recommended by some famous Big Thinkers. It is written by well-regarded professors (one of them the chairman of the Harvard philosophy department). This made me rub my eyes with astonishment as I read the book itself, so inept and shallow is it. The authors set about to solve the problems of a modern secular culture. The greatest problem, as they see it, is a certain anxiety of choosing. In the Middle Ages, everyone shared the same frame of values. One could offend against that frame by sinning, but the sins were clear, their place in the overall scheme of things ratified by consensus. Now that we do not share such a frame of reference, each person must forge his or her own view of the universe in order to make choices that accord with it. But few people have the will or ability to think the universe through from scratch.

Everything old is new again. Frye called this the “butterslide” theory of history, sometimes rendered as “the Great Western Butterslide,” whose roots lay in an idealized conception of the Middle Ages.

Here he is in a 1947 Canadian Forum review of F.S.C Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West:

Hence, for many American thinkers today the gigantic synthesis of religion, philosophy, science and politics achieved in the Middle Ages looms up in front of them like an intellectual Utopia which complements that of their own moral idealism. American magazines and books are thickly strewn with admiring references to Aristotle, St. Thomas, the seven liberal arts and the medieval preservation of personal values; and of deprecatory ones to the cult of self-analysis, the dehumanizing of the individual, and the centrifugal movements in politics and science which came with the Renaissance and sent us skittering down the butterslide of introversion into our present Iron Age. (CW 11, 198)

And here he is at the other end of his career in conversation with David Cayley, providing an alternative to the butterslide view:

Cayley: We stand at what sometimes seems to be the end of a tradition. . . . At one time Spengler was important to you. Later on you satirized him and made jokes about the Great Western Butterslide. Do you accept the idea of decline in Spengler, and do you wonder now what’s next?

Frye: I’m not sure I ever reacted to the word “decline” in Spengler’s work. The vision I got from Spengler was not a vision of decline. It was a vision of maturing to a certain point. The question of cycle always turns up. There is a cycle in Vico, it’s a little different in Spengler, but it’s a cycle again in Toynbee. As I’ve said often, every cycle is a failed spiral. When you get to the end of the cycle, what should be done is to encompass the entire structure up to that point on another level, not just to go back to the beginning, although there’s going to be a certain amount of that. (CW 24, 1034-5)

New Article: “Northrop Frye and Soren Kierkegaard”

Here is a gem from our own Bob Denham, a remarkable piece on “Northrop Frye and Soren Kierkegaard.” It is the latest piece of peer reviewed scholarship we have posted in the journal. I am sure readers will find it of the greatest interest. Two main pivots of Frye’s complex thinking about the metaliterary – creative repetition and primary concern – are beautifully teased out and developed here. As only he can do, Bob shows in detail the development of these concepts from their very first appearance in Frye’s writings, including of course his notebooks and diaries, to their fullest fruition at the end of his career. The article bears more than one reading to appreciate the full effect. I am delighted to say that there is more to come from Bob on Frye and his relationship to other thinkers. It occurred to me today what a good job I have here: I get to read papers about Northrop Frye written by Bob Denham.

We expect Bob’s next paper to be “Northrop Frye and Aristotle,” and hope to have it posted soon.

We also wish to thank Clayton Chrusch for his time and effort to format the charts that appear in the paper.  It takes a fair amount of work to get them looking so good. He is always unfailingly our good friend and generous colleague.

Bob Denham’s “Frye and…” Series

We are pleased to announce that our journal will be publishing a series of essays by Bob Denham on Frye and some of the great thinkers whose influence on his work has not yet been fully surveyed.

Bob’s first essay is “Northrop Frye and Soren Kiekegard,” which will be posted tomorrow with an introduction by Joe Adamson.

To follow are “Northrop Frye and Aristotle,” “Northrop Frye and Longinus,” and “Northrop Frye and Giordano Bruno.”  You can be sure that we’ll let you know when they go up.

Here is the opening paragraph of “Frye and Kierkegaard”:

The roots of Frye’s expansive vision of culture have often been remarked.  Blake and the Bible are obviously central to the development of his ideas, and much has been written about Frye’s debts to both.  Much has been written as well about other significant influences on Frye: Nella Cotrupi’s book on Frye and Vico, Glen Gill’s study of Frye and twentieth‑century mythographers (Eliade, Jung, and others), Ford Russell’s account of the influence of Spengler, Frazer, and Cassirer on Frye, and Sára Tóth on Frye and Buber.  No one, however, has considered the ways that Kierkegaard influenced Frye’s thought.  As the impact of Kierkegaard on Frye is relatively substantial, the purpose of this essay is to examine Frye’s use of Kierkegaard.[1] Direct influence is sometimes difficult to demonstrate, but parallels between and similar ideas held by the two can be instructive.  Kierkegaard helps to define, illustrate, and develop Frye’s thought.  Along the way, we will also glance at Frye’s critique of certain Kierkegaardian ideas.

Frye and Rhetoric

Regarding Bob Ashley’s earlier comment on Frye and rhetoric

The first essay I ever published was a paper written for Wayne Booth’s course in “Rhetorical Criticism”:  “Northrop Frye and Rhetorical Criticism.”  Xavier University Studies 11, no. 1 (1972): 1–11.  Booth became my mentor and dear friend.  Everything I know comes from Booth and Frye.  Like Bob, I’m too far removed from the academy to know much of anything that’s going on in rhetorical studies.  I scanned the Frye bibliography of secondary materials for “rhetoric” and came up with the list below.  Most of these studies are only tangentially related to the issue Bob raises, though Hernadi, Gorak, and Kenny might prove useful.  I think if I were to study the issue I’d start with Frye’s Seattle epiphany on oracle and wit (see previous post here), and then try to relate this to his sense of an ending.  Frye’s endings are often oracular.

Blasing, Mutlu Konuk.  American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.  Examines the poetic strategies of Poe, Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson and relates them to the four levels of symbolism in Frye’s Anatomy.

Dillon, George L.  “Rhetoric.”  The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism.  Ed. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, 616–17.  Summarizes Frye’s theory of rhetoric, along with the theories of I.A. Richards and Paul de Man.

Druff, James H., Jr. “Genre and Mode: The Formal Dynamics of Doubt.”  Genre 14 (Fall 1981): 295–307 [299–302].  Believes that Frye’s distinction between genre and mode is too clear-cut and that we can understand better some of the disharmony in the forms of modern fiction if we see the two concepts as related, genre having a historical dimension and mode a rhetorical one.

Gorak, Jan.  “Frye and the Legacy of Communication.”  In Lee and Denham, Legacy, 304–15.  Opposes Frye’s view of communication, derived from literature as a means of human liberation, to the coercive communication of contemporary media––rhetorical or dialectical communication.  In his late writings Frye is eager to explore the interactions between the two.

Hernadi, Paul. “Ratio Contained by Oratio: Northrop Frye on the Rhetoric of Nonliterary Prose.”  In Denham and Willard, Visionary Poetics, 137–53.  Argues that the ideas in the last section of the theory of genres in the Anatomy prefigure several current concerns in the study of texts, including the question whether literature can be distinguished from nonliterature.  Concludes that Frye’s answer to the question is ambiguous: ratio both contains and is contained by oratio.  In this respect Frye differs from both the formalists, who see clear distinctions between the literary and the nonliterary, and the poststructuralists (e.g., de Man and Eagleton), who do not.

Kenny, Robert Wade. “Truth as Metaphor: Imaginative Vision and the Ethos of Rhetoric.”  In The Ethos of Rhetoric.  Ed. Michael J. Hyde, et al.  Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004. 37–55.  On Frye’s view that imaginative vision is the fundamental feature of human experience for Blake and the significance of such vision for rhetorical theory and practice.  Also remarks on the teleological thrust of Frye’s criticism and his view of existential metaphor.

Kristeva, Julia.  ‘The Importance of Frye.”  In Lee and Denham, Legacy, 335–7.  An homage to Frye, in which the Anatomy is said to have opened up “the field of literary criticism to an ambition which may appear excessive but which, only in this way, can ever hope to approach the extraordinary polysemy of literary art and take up the challenge it permanently poses.  The modalities of criticism, designated or hoped for by Frye . . . can be disputed; others can be added.  But it is undeniable that these types of critical approaches allow us, once they are linked, to decompartmentalize the technical enclosures in which contemporary literary theory habitually delights and to aspire to a capable interdisciplinarity.  The particular emphasis that Frye puts on the archetype as symbol which links one poem to another and allows us to unify and integrate our literary experience seems to me indeed an ethical requirement––not to lose sight of the content conveyed by rhetorical play, and to anchor this content in the Western metaphysical tradition.”

Kuchar, Gary.  “Typology and the Language of Concern in the Work of Northrop Frye.”  Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Litterature Comparée 27, nos. 1–2 (March–June 2000): 159–80.  Examines Frye’s view of typology as a mode of rhetoric and historical mode of thought and its relation to his understanding of metaphor and primary concerns.  Also outlines the relationships between Frye’s views and Patristic exegesis, Lacanian psychoanalysis and existential phenomenology.

Long, Douglas. “Northrop Frye: Liberal Humanism and the Critique of Ideology.”  Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’Études canadiennes 34, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 27–51.  Despite Frye’s wish to contribute to the discussion of fundamental socio-political issues, his reflections have received scant attention from social scientists.  Illustrates some of Frye’s political concerns and insights and discovers, especially in Words with Power, the basis for a critique of the modes of political discourse. Concentrates on the difference between the divisive rhetoric of ideology, expressive of the human urge of domination and advantage, and the inclusive and unifying language of myth, expressive of what Frye calls “primary concerns.”  See also Michael D. Behiels’s introduction to this issue, 9–14.

McCutcheon, Russell T.  Review of Marc Manganaro’s Myth, Rhetoric and the Voice of Authority: A Critique of Frazer, Eliot, Frye and Campbell. University of Toronto Quarterly 66, no. 1 (Winter 1996–97): 359–63.  On, among other things, Manganaro’s analysis of the rhetoric of Frye’s comparative method in The Critical Path.

Manganaro, Marc.  “Northrop Frye: Ritual, Science, and ‘Literary Anthropology.’”  Myth, Rhetoric, and the Voice of Authority: A Critique of Frazer, Eliot, Frye, & Campbell. New Haven: Yale UP. 1992, pp. 111–50.  On the relations between Frye’s criticism and the comparative method of anthropology.  Argues that Frye’s view of the way science uses facts and theory is similar to Frazer’s.  Frye’s authority derives from his “invoking what cannot be imagined: the perfect, ultimate originary unity of things.”  The rhetoric Frye uses to map out his views of literature is found also in his social and educational theories: it reveals Frye’s commitment to structure, continuity, and essentialism, as well as his mystification of the “historically contingent” and ideology.

Sutton, Jane.  “The Death of Rhetoric and Its Rebirth in Philosophy.”  Rhetorica 4, no. 3 (1986): 203–26.  Examines the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the methods of Frye, Kenneth Burke, and Hayden White.

Thomas, Brook.  “The New Historicism and the Privileging of Literature.”  Annals of Scholarship 4 (Summer 1987): 23–48.  Draws on Frye’s discussion of the distinctions between literary and nonliterary discourse in the Anatomy, pointing out that although Frye claims all discourse is rhetorical and therefore literary, “this does not mean that there is no such thing as literature.”  Looks at the critique of Frye by Terry Eagleton, maintaining that Eagleton’s view is a caricature and observing that both critics advocate the transforming power of literature.  Finds Fredric Jameson’s “reading through Frye” to be a much better way of transforming Frye’s ethical view of literature into a politically sensitive criticism.

Wuthnow, Robert.  Rediscovering the Sacred: Perspective on Religion.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1992.  Chapter 3, “Religious Discourse as Public Rhetoric,” uses Northrop Frye and Susan Rubin Suleiman as complementary visions on how persons from different perspectives can begin to understand one another.

“Forensics of a Straw Man Pharmakos in Northrop Frye’s ‘Theory of Modes'”

That’s the title of an article by Rickard Goranowski published in The International Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Change Management.

You can purchase it here.

The abstract:

Jacques Derrida in 1981, in ‘Plato’s Pharmacy,’ confronted the inveterate Northrop Frye over the 1971 Critical Path as a “pharmakos” or ‘rascal traducer’: Frye’s ‘straw man’ misprision of the Sidney-Peacock-Shelley controversy belittling Peacock and Shelley was obliquely identified by Derrida, in Pharmacy’s first paragraphs, prosecuting Frye’s undue influence on university publishing and tenure management.

Frye in Chinese

Cross-posted in the Denham Library here.

Frye’s books continue to be translated into Chinese.  The most recent is a translation of The Secular Scripture (Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 2010).  Trans. Xiang-Chun Meng.  The other Chinese translations are:


Anatomy of Criticism

Piping de Pouxi.  Trans. Chen Hui, Yuan Xianjun, and Wu Weiren.  Tianjin: Baihua Literature and Art Publishing House, 1998.

Piping de Jiepou.  Trans. Chen Hui, Yuan Xianjun, and Wu Weiren; revised by Wu Chizhe and annotated by Wu Chizhe and Robert D. Denham.  Tianjin: Hundred-Flower Literary Press, 2000.

The Educated Imagination, Creation and Recreation, and The Well‑Tempered Critic

Fulai Wenlun Sanzhong [Three of Frye’s Critical Monographs]: Xiangxiangli de Xiuyang, Chuangzhao yu Zai Chuangzhao, Wenlian de Pipingjai (Trans. Xu Kun et al., rev. with a preface and annotations by Wu Chizhe.  Hoh‑Hot: University of Inner Mongolia Press, 2003.

The Modern Century

Xian dai bai nian.  Trans. Sheng Ning.  Shenyang: Liaoning Educational Press; Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1998.

The Critical Path

P’i ping chih lu: Lo-ssu-lo pu Fu-lai chu.  Trans. Wang Fengzhen and Min-li Chin.  Beijing: Peking University Press, 1998.

The Great Code

Wei da de dai ma: Shengjing yu wen xue. Trans. Hao Zhengyi, Fan Zhenguo, and He Chengzhou.  Beijing: Peking University Press, 1998.

Words with Power

Shenlide Yuyan: Shengjin yu Wenxue Yanjiu xubian.  Trans. Wu Chizhe.  Preface by Ye Shuxian. Beijing: Social Sciences Documentation Publishing House, 2004.

Selected Essays

Nuosiluopu Fulai Wen lun xuan ji [Northrop Frye: Selected Essays].  Ed. Wu Chizhe.  Beijing: China Press of Social Sciences, 1997.

Contents: “The Responsibilities of the Critic” / “Criticism, Visible and Invisible” / “The Search for Acceptable Words” / “Literature as Therapy” / “The Archetypes of Literature” / “Forming Fours” / “Myth, Fiction, and Displacement” / “Design as a Creative Principle in the Arts” / “Expanding Eyes” / “Literature as a Critique of Pure Reason” / “The Koine of Myth: Myth as a Universally Intelligible Language” / “The Symbol as a Medium of Exchange” / “The Mythical Approach to Creation” / “Conclusion” to Literary History of  Canada” (1965), / “Criticism and Environment” / “The Cultural Development of Canada” / “The Stage Is All the World” / “Literature as Context: Milton’s Lycidas” / “Blake after Two Centuries” / “Yeats and the Language of Symbolism”