Category Archives: Frye Diaries August

Today in the Frye Diaries, 31 August


1942: Frye reveals that he’s a man of his time when it comes to women in wartime. He was clearly not yet familiar with this iconic figure, Rosie the Riveter, pictured above.

[90] Speaking of war, I sometimes feel that women are bad for morale: they go in for catastrophe, funerals & oracles. They’re the sex of Cassandra, and they’re extremely short on humor. They hate obscenity, an essential part of humor, and the female magazines never go in for it. Cartoons, jokes, breezy comic stories, have little place in the Ladies Home Journal. It isn’t just mediocrity: the male magazines for mediocrities always have humor: but what the average woman wants is something maudlin to attach her complex of self-pity and I-get-left-at-home and my-work-is-never-done and nobody-appreciates-it-anyway to. There’s something morbid about the domestic mind which weeps at weddings and gets ecstatic over calamities. During the war they keep making woo-woo noises prophesying large drafts & taxes with no we’ll-get-along-somehow reserve. Partly of course because they’re not in it. If people only believed in immortality & a world of spiritual values! But it might only make the war more ferocious.

1950: Frye’s account of the “Frye is God” lore that was then popular.

[585]… There was also a letter from Irving attached to his new essay for the Americans [it is not clear which paper Frye is referring to here]. A story in it about a freshman coming to Victoria to take an R.K. course from Professor Frye. When he begins he believes in God: when he gets to Christmas he believes in Frye’s God: when he comes to the end of the year he believes Frye is God. As a matter of fact I’ve known for some time that undergraduates used to refer to me casaually as “God” in their conversations. It’s a strain to live up to that, & doubtless of some theological interest to know that God gets a hell of a dose of hay fever every year at this time: maybe that’s why so many wars start in August & September.

Today in the Frye Diaries, 30 August


1942: The draft comes close to home, worrying Frye’s brother-in-law, Roy Kemp:

[89] Out to Fulton Ave., finding Roy [Kemp] very gloomy about the draft. The draft is getting rather horrible, with this hypocritical pretence that they’re only calling “single” men, including all men married since 1940 who now have businesses & small children coming along. Our three noisy female neighbors are getting it: one husband in the army, one in the air force, one category E with a game knee expecting to be examined and shoved in.

1950: One last day tour with Helen and Ruth Jenking as the summer comes to an end:

[584] We drove around Portland, which is a largish town about Lowell’s size & evidently attempts to dedicate itself to Longfellow, but looks tough. We make a half-hearted attempt to find the local museum — Ruth is very conscientious about such things but we had no desire whatever to be instructed by Portland. So we said goodbye to Ruth in a very hole-in-the-corner sort of way, as she was wriggling out of the wrong end of a one-way street. We have had some wonderful times with Ruth this summer, & hated to see them end. Helen has a theory that groups of three don’t work out properly, but Ruth has destroyed that theory.

Tomorrow: women during wartime; “Frye is God”

Today in the Frye Diaries, 29 August



[88] Read Oscar Levant’s Smattering of Ignorance. Gossipy and malicious: quite good on Hollywood’s bag-of-tricks approach to sound tracks. If a producer gets less than tutti he feels gypped. Conventional “sweep” for opening: i.e. harp glissando, ascending-scale violin passages & woodwinds, ff [fortissimo], then cymbals crash on first beat, then grandiose tuttis.

1950: A banner day: Frye has a big breakthrough on the paper that will eventually be published as “A Conspectus of  Dramatic Genres,” in The Kenyon Review 13 (Winter 1951).  This paper — along with “The Archetypes of Literature” also written during this same summer — is one of the foundations of what would later emerge as Anatomy of Criticism (1957).

[581] Today I was still very groggy & still didn’t feel I could go in swimming. One good thing is that my Kenyon Review paper has suddenly started to clear up. It’s clearing up so damn fast I can hardly keep up with it. Part One has boiled down perfectly out of what I had & Part Two came along beautifully this afternoon: it meant cutting out a lot of stuff, but the net result is one of the most concentrated & best integrated articles I’ve ever produced. No splutter, no gargle, no leers, no attempt to fasten pedantic teeth in the arse of somebody else. Nothing but dry fact and obvious truth, expressed with overwhelming concentration and great simplicity. In short, an article to rank with the Argument of Comedy and the Forms of Prose Fiction, only on an even bigger subject.

Tomorrow: the wartime draft blows close to home; “A Conspectus of Dramatic Genres” all but complete, an end of summer tour

Today in the Frye Diaries, 28 August


 1942: Frye and his drinking buddy George Beattie join Helen and Ruth Jenking for a night of “pounding hell out of” Mozart:

[87] Discovered something called Allergitabs, which make me feel funny but seem to work. Picked up that souse George Beattie at the pub and then went to a kosher place on College & Spadina, George making love furiously to Helen all the way. Then to Ruth Jenking’s where we pounded hell out of a couple of Mozart fantasias — amazing things he wrote in 1791 for music boxes, his last year when he was picking up anything he could get in the way of a commission.

1950: Hay fever, the formal causes of literature, and beauty:

[580] Well, today the sea breezes blew ragweed at me all day long, & I had, quite simply, one hell of a time. I didn’t feel able to go swimming — I knew that if I tried I’d start sneezing my fool head off. So I stayed on the verandah or on the beach and scribbled at my paper. A young girl here about eighteen…kept playing around me with a dog. She wasn’t especially pretty or intelligent looking, but her body — she was in a bathing suit — had that extraordinarily beautiful feeling of youth & health about it, & with this lovely & nearly naked figure hovering in my line of vision I had some difficulty concentrating on the formal causes of literature.

Tomorrow: hay fever notwithstanding, a breakthrough on the formal causes of literature

Today in the Frye Diaries, 27 August


 1942: The recent Dieppe raid, which was soon to be an acknowledged disaster, continues to preoccupy Frye (Canadian prisoners pictured above).

[84] I resolved today to (1.) keep up my diary (2.) read all the books I own, before reading much else (3.) write Blake (4.) practise Byrd. Saw Beverley Burwell, who looks taller & older & tells me Jerry Riddell has gone to Ottawa for [censored]. He’s pessimistic about the war. Bickersteth’s letters home are mimeographed & circulated & contain many vicious comments about the War Office: full of antiquated crocks hanging on to their salaries & avoiding being pensioned off on various pleas of emergency. He seems to feel that the German account of Dieppe as a foozled invasion attempt was correct: I’m not sure; it’s too symmetical. Of course if it proved only that Canadians are not cowards it didn’t prove much.

1950: A day trip to Salisbury Beach, Mass., with Frye’s U of T colleague, Ruth Jenking. 

[576] I find the Newburyport turnpike a bit dull, as a road, but Ruth talked easily, she was so relieved to get through with Harvard. The one thing she got from her summer is some understanding of [John C.] Pope’s study of The Rhythm of Beowulf, which, incidentally appeared in 1942, the year of my Music and Poetry article, and if I reprint my essays I may say that this article is a footnote to Pope’s book. Or, in the words of the oracular cliche, I may not. Anyway, the proper way to read Old English is crystal clear to her now, and as it’s a revelation in itself she feels it almost makes up for a very dull summer.

Tomorrow: the formal causes of literature and a young woman in a bathing suit

Frye and Shaw


Bob Denham sends us still more excerpts from Frye on Shaw.  The mischievous spirit of the Vicar of Bray evidently prevails.  All in all,  a remarkable amount of commentary has been generated by a single compellingly ambiguous diary entry from August 25th, 1942.

From the Diaries,  391-2:

I think the Blake is well in hand, and I’m starting on Shaw. [The reference is to CBC Radio talks on Blake and Shaw that Frye gave in 1950.]  My adolescent interest in Shaw pretty well faded out when I came to college—well, no, it didn’t, as I re-read all of his stuff later, but for some reason I’d never read any play of his later than The Apple Cart. [When he was on a visit to the home of classmate Graham Miller during the summer of 1933, Frye wrote to Helen Kemp that “the family here has all of Shaw’s plays in one volume and I have read six since Wednesday.  I read all of Shaw at fifteen and he turned me from a precocious child into an adolescent fool.  Therefore he has had far more influence on me than any other writer” (NFHK 1:98).]  Doesn’t look as though I’ve really missed much. Too True to be Good is an interesting comedy of humors: his trouble is he can’t just let humors be enlightened by each other: he wants a central character.  In that particular play the nearest norm is Private Meek, an ingenious tricky-slave modulation.  On the strength of The Apple Cart and the name of Good King Charles I’d been saying that Shaw had finally revealed himself as a frustrated Royalist, & I don’t think I was so far out.  Meek is actually a Caesar in disguise, Charles II is certainly the one idealized figure in his play, the Judge in Geneva is a practically royal centre of gravity, & the fact that the king is missing from On the Rocks is what makes that such a silly play: it’s Shaw’s version of England in 1659, waiting for its monarch to appear.  Of course Shaw points out the vulnerable point of hereditary kingship, the non-transmissibility of genius, which he gets around in Major Barbara—significant he has to speak of it.  But there’s more to it than that….

Going on with Shaw, he’s preoccupied by the search for the “ruler”: he simply can’t understand that the world is trying to outgrow all that nonsense about rulers.  He has very little sense of the governor-principle as that which has authority without power: it’s there in the middle of Geneva, I know, but he’s not satisfied with it.  The dialogue of Christ & Pilate ends in a deadlock.  He can see through Pilate, & doesn’t really want a dictator, though he’s enough of a senile enfant terrible to play with the notion.  The closest he comes to it is in the preface to Geneva, where he speaks of Mill & of the right to criticize.  He naturally sees that Stalin is a Pope, the incarnation of a dialectic, & rejects the Papacy, which he’s consistent in regarding as the only possible form of Christianity.  But in a rare flash of real insight he makes King Charles say that the Pope is always a Whig.  And he doesn’t really go for the Platonic philosopher-ruler.  No, it’s the royal epiphany, the king and queen (it’s very funny how he plops the “coupled vote” business into the preface to Good King Charles) [Shaw’s proposal that the representative unit should be a man and a woman so that every elected body would have equal numbers of men and women.  See the preface to “In Good King Charles’s Golden Days,” in Complete Plays with Prefaces (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1962), 6:7–9.] who are also normative in The Apple Cart, the rejuvenated father & mother (Cf. “Mopsy & Popsy” in TTG [To True to be Good]: the process doesn’t carry through there).  Not national royalty ultimately, of course: a Caesar or Charlemagne: Dante’s Feltro or super-Constantine: but still nostalgia for the days “when loyalty no harm meant” [“In good King Charles’s golden days, / When loyalty no harm meant” (The Vicar of Bray, ll. 1–2).] & when a representative of Louis XIV could be the comic Last Judgement on Tartuffe. Continue reading

The Vicar of Bray and The Analogy of Democracy


I am not sure this helps clarify Frye’s enigmatic statement about the Vicar of Bray not becoming a bishop, but Craig Walker’s post led me to a piece entitled “The Analogy of Democracy” (1952).  There Frye argues that

 democracy is to be judged not by what it does, but by what it aims at in spite of what it does. The supremacy of civil over military power, the full publication of all acts of government, the toleration of unpopular opinion, are all recognized to be unchangeable principles of democracy even when they are flouted as often as exemplified. Further, any feature of democracy that is nothing more than a safeguard designed to prevent a democratic process from congealing at a certain stage in its development may disappear when democracy passes that stage. We may find that even such apparently essential things as a two-party system of parliamentary government may so disappear. On the other hand, the fact that democracy is not in itself a form of government makes it possible for it to adapt itself to a wide variety of such forms. If the United States decided to adopt a Soviet system or, as in Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart, to recognize George VI as their king, the move might be inadvisable, but it would not be in itself a threat to democracy.

[Pages 219-20 in Northrop Frye, Reading the World, Selected Writings, ed. Robert D. Denham, 1935-76, New York: Peter Lang, 1990; the essay was originally published in Bias 1 (Feb. 1952): 2-6.]

In the same essay Frye observes that

the ultimate aim of democracy is to reach what is not only natural society, but a secular analogy of Christianity. The church is a community whose members are made free and equal by their faith. It is ordered by its Master to take society as it finds it, to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. This, of course, excludes the worship of Caesar as a divine being, which is one of the things that the Caesars of this world are most interested in, and Caesar finds other difficulties in trying to digest this free and equal community in his pyramidial state. To the extent that it obeys the command not to resist evil, the Church’s social dialectic works toward compelling the whole social order to fall into a pattern analogous to its own. This triumph of the Church in manifesting its Master’s victory over the world is the real meaning of the democratic revolution today. (224-5)

Continue reading

Today in the Frye Diaries, 26 August


1942: Frye complains about the practice of expurgation in the Everyman editions (especially of Samuel Pepys, pictured above), and goes on to note the “wave of prudery” that seems to rise during wartime.

[81] I don’t know why I keep reading this idiotic Braybrooke Pepys, for which Everyman’s Library obtains money under false pretenses. It’s not only heavily expurgated but some of the most important musical references are left out. For the expurgation there is only the faint excuse of 19th c. publication and the facts (a) that milord B. [Braybrooke] was in the Pepys family (b) that he was presenting a historical rather than a literary document. That Everyman should ask $1.50 for this croquette is nonsense. I’d like to write an article on Everyman’s prudery sometime. Geoffrey of Monmouth; the translator’s smug smear on p. 248. Malory, according to Blunden. The Gulliver’s Travels “For Young People” has been modified. The Pepys is the worst of course, for B. [Braybrooke] has even been allowed to tamper with the family text to the extent of printing “prostitute” for “whore,” on the three-point landing principle: I remember the New Yorker’s account of a play, I think Sean O’Casey’s, where Lillian Russell was billed as a “Young Whore.” [Ed. Frye must be mistaken: Lillian Russell was 20 years older than O’Casey and died in 1922 — three years before The New Yorker began publication.] Several papers printed it as a “Young Harlot” (more cushion for sensitive moral fundaments in two syllables). One “blushed prettily and whispered ‘A Young Girl Who Has Gone Astray.'” One said “with Miss Russell and the following cast.”

[Update: According to Bob Denham, Frye means to say Lillian Gish rather than Lillian Russell.  Gish did indeed play the prostitute in O’Casey’s Within the Gates in 1934.]

[82] This combined with the banning of Freud makes me wonder if we are in for a wave of prudery as a defence against the licentiousness of war. That is, it puts me in a gloomy state of mind in which I wonder. I hope we’ll continue the tendency to greater frankness and less bother about it which the popularity of, say, The Grapes of Wrath, would seem to indicate. But as people instinctively do the sillier things, there’s the danger of the huge wave of sullen prurience pouring over us again, welling up from the deep and bitter hatred of culture in our middle-class.

1950: Out with Oxford chum Rodney Baine to see a production of The Alchemist:

[574] Rodney [Baine] celebrated finishing his thesis tonight by taking us over to Tufts College to see the Oxford Players put on the The Alchemist. A group of very young people — the ages were all carefully given in the programme and the oldest was twenty-eight — were attractive (Dol Common made even Elizabethan prostitution seem attractive) and full of life and bounce.

Tomorrow: Dieppe; the rhythm of Beowulf

Re: The Vicar of Bray


A very interesting note from Craig Walker regarding Frye’s enigmatic diary entry on this date (see the post below).

Today I was discussing with a group of students the Shaw Festival production of Bernard Shaw’s “In Good King Charles’ Golden Days” (1939), the title of which comes from the satirical ballad, “The Vicar of Bray,” in which the Vicar’s opportunistic flexibility in the matters of politics and religion allows him to retain his position throughout all the vicissitudes of that era (of Civil War and Restoration). I suppose Frye means here that readiness to compromise clearly will only take a person so far and no further; but it is interesting that Shaw (an early hero of Frye’s) takes a somewhat different view, not only seeing King Charles II as a Vicar of Bray type, whose adaptability ensured his survival, but seems to present this as an essential quality of mind for us to embrace in the modern era (where, as Shaw implicitly offers by way of example, Newtonian physics have had to make way for the quantum revolution). In that context, I’m sure that Frye would agree with Shaw: see his essay “Science and Religion”

Today in the Frye Diaries, 25 August


1942: Merely this enigmatic entry:

[80] The Vicar of Bray never got to be a bishop.

[Pictured above as a Royal Doulton figurine.]

1950: Frye wonders if his hay fever is a psychosomatic illness.

[573]… My disease encourages me to sleep in even later in the morning. Today I gave up entirely & read a book on psychosomatic medicine by Helen Flanders Dunbar. I don’t see how she can be the same person as the author of that book on Dante’s symbolism, but the coincidence of names is curious. [Ed. She is in fact the same woman.] She doesn’t say much about hay fever, but she says the emotional pattern behind asthma is often one of repression due to a sense of neglect: if people can manage to break down and weep their asthma gets better. I’ve been told that mother was very sick at my birth & that I was consigned to a nurse who kept me doped with soothing syrup. The strong and irradicable resentment I feel against mother, and especially my feeling that most of her illnesses were due to a morbid mental conditon in which self indulgence predominated, is doubtless fed from some such infantile springs. I can even remember resenting her sleeping half the afternoon. But I doubt very much than any knowledge of my infantile feelings will stop my blood from curdling when the ragweed busts loose, nor does the Dunbar woman suggest that it will. There’s also a strong introverted resistence to duty behind all my illnesses of course.

Tomorrow: expurgated texts; wartime “prudery”