Category Archives: Frygiana

Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn

The first edition of Huckleberry Finn, 1885.

Yesterday was Mark Twain‘s 176th birthday. Huckleberry Finn seems to have been a treasured text from Frye’s youth. He noted that his personally favorite archetypal theme was katabasis, or descent, and Tom Sawyer (the protagonist for whom Frye appears to have had an abiding distate) along with Huckleberry Finn provide a powerful rendition of it. There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal but still interesting in itself, that Frye as a first year undergrad at Victoria College wrote home to have his copy of Huckleberry Finn shipped to him because the copy he had didn’t fall open at the right places.

There are any number of quotes to be culled from Frye on the novel, but this one from National Consciousness in Canadian Culture,” is especially resonant, with Twain’s birthday in mind:

Everyone quotes the penultimate line in Huckleberry Finn about lighting out for the Territory, but less attention is paid to the even more significant last sentence: “I been there before.” There can be no creative return to the past; the past is absorbed into the future. . . .

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”)

Northrop Frye Gold Medal Cabernet Merlot

My husband Mike gave a talk last week to incoming U of T students associated with Victoria University.

The frosh cheered heartily when the Frye quotation Mike used flashed on the screen.  The quotation was, “What [the university] does stand for is the challenge of full consciousness.”

He was given a bottle of Northrop Frye wine. On the back of the bottle, it says:

“From its founding, Victoria was steadfastly dry. In 1971, a motion
to apply for a liquor license was brought to the Board of Regents,
whose chairman said he would resign if it passed. Legend has it that
members sat on their hands until Northrop Frye (Vic 3T3, Emm 3T6)
raised his in support. The Board passed the motion and the rest

This wine seems to be available for purchase through Victoria University Hospitality Services.

Two Books from Frye’s Childhood Home

I recently acquired two books from Earl Johnson, a man now living in Nova Scotia who as a boy lived next door to the Fryes in Moncton, New Brunswick, from 1937-1943.   Earl is the source of some previously acquired items, including a typewriter Frye probably used during his high school years, now on display at the Moncton Library.  (Post here.)

The signature inside the first book, Lorna Doone, looks to be Frye’s when I compare it to the signature inside my autographed copy of The Great Code.  The “y” is the same, and the upward slope to the right is also the same.  Below the signature is written “Grade XIA,” suggesting that this must be Frye’s signature while still in high school.

The second book is Melbourne House by Elizabeth Wetherell (pen name for Susan Warner), and inside is a dedication to Frye’s older sister from their father, Herman: “To Vera Frye, from Papa.  Christmas 1910.”

There are enlarged photos of both books after the jump.

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Picture of the Day: Frye’s Clown Nose

This is the elusive photo of Frye wearing a clown nose at a party for Morley Callaghan.  That’s Morley’s son Barry Callaghan standing next to him.  The photo (along with Frye’s blurb) appears on the back cover of Barry’s Fifteen Years in Exile, his memoir about his years at the Exile Quarterly. The very pleasant circumstances in which the photo was taken are described in this post from last year.

Making Literature Out of Frye


Frye appears in "The Pajusnaya Consignment" (above, July 1984) in Marvel's New Defenders series

In addition to Amis’s The Rachel Papers Frye has made his way into a number of poems, plays, novels, and discursive texts.  An earlier post catalogued his appearance in contemporary poems.  As for the other genres, one of the central characters of David Lodge’s Changing Places (1974) refers humorously to the perpetual motion of an elevator, “a profoundly poetic machine,” as symbolizing Frye’s theory of modes in Anatomy of Criticism (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1975; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 212–13.  Professor Kingfisher in Lodge’s Small World (1985), a sequel to Changing Places, is a fictionalized version of Frye.  In Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water Dr. Joseph Hovaugh is modeled on Frye.  Here are further examples:

•  The following bit of dialogue occurs in Frederic Raphael’s play, Oxbridge Blues, from Oxbridge Blues and Other Plays for Television (London: BBC, 1984).  Victor is a serious writer.  Wendy is his wife:

Victor:  I didn’t think you felt like discussing it.

Wendy:   I don’t even know what “it” is.  What is it?  I know you’re ridiculously jealous of Pip and you can’t even bring yourself to accept his generosity without looking as though you’d much sooner be reading the collected works of — of — of — oh — Northrop Frye.

Victor:  I would.  Much. The Anatomy of Criticism, though flawed, was a seminal work in some ways.  Why did you happen to choose that name?

Wendy:  I wanted someone with a silly name.

Victor: I don’t find Northrop particular silly.

Wendy:  Well I do. I find it very silly indeed.  Not as silly as you’re being, but still very silly.

•  From Gail Godwin’s The Odd Woman (New York:  Knopf, 1974), 257–8:

Was Gabriel’s project quixotic?  For almost two years, she had vacillated between thinking him a nearsighted fool and a farsighted genius.  How could she tell?  Surely there must be a way to measure it, but how?  After the fact, it became a bit simpler.  For instance, in the field of literature, of literary criticism, she knew Northrop Frye was a genius—even though some respectable scholars like Sonia Mark’s husband detested Northrop Frye.  Frye’s ideas made sense; they rested on valuable hypotheses; they lit up the entire realm of literature for you.  After you had read Frye, you thought of your favorite books as parts of a large family.  You not only saw them as you had before, but you saw behind them and in front of them. It was like meeting someone, forming an opinion about this person, then being privileged to meet the person’s parents and grandparents, as well; and then being privileged to meet the person’s children, and grandchildren!  Of course, someone like Max Covington would say, The person himself, alone, should be judged.  What do parents have to do with it?  What do his children have to do with it?  They only confuse and diffuse you from the proper study of the object, which is:  the object itself.

She had tried to lift her assurance about Frye—as one might gingerly try to lift an anchovy from its tin and place it, undamaged, on a plate—and transfer it toward her wavering confidence in Gabriel.  Surely, during the forties and fifties when Frye was painstakingly filling his wife’s shoe boxes with notecards for Anatomy of Criticism, Mrs. Frye had had an occasional qualm.  Or had she? After all, Frye had done Fearful Symmetry first.  She had that to build on.  She knew that her first closetful of shoeboxes had come to something.  Whereas, with Gabriel, there was only the queer, eccentric little monograph, published half a lifetime ago!

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