Category Archives: Memoir

Frye’s References to McLuhan in the Correspondence

From Northrop Frye: The Selected Letters, 1934-1991, ed. Robert D. Denham (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Co., 2009)

Letter to Robert Heilman, 29 October 1951

. . . I am very deeply obliged to you for being responsible for my having a wonderful summer.  I have seldom enjoyed a summer so much.  We topped it off with ten days in San Francisco and two weeks in New York—one at the English institute, which turned out to be a very good one.  I got Marshall McLuhan down to give a paper [“The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry,” in Alan Downer, ed., English Institute Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 168–81; rpt. in The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan 1943-1962, ed. Eugene McNamara (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 91–7].

Letter to Richard Schoeck, 24 November 1965

You may know that Marshall and Ernest have asked me to do a collection of comments on myth and criticism as one of the Gemini books.  I gather that their original idea was to collect contemporary essays on the subject, but I thought it might be more interesting and useful to go back into the history of the tendency.  Things like Raleigh’s History, the opening of Purchas, Camden, Reynolds’ Mythomystes, Bacon’s Wisdom of the Ancients, Sandys’ Ovid, from that period; some of the “Druid” stuff from around Blake’s time; some of the material used by Shelley and Keats, and so on down to Ruskin’s Queen of the Air, but without incorporating anything much later than The Golden Bough and the turn of the century.  An introductory essay would of course indicate the relevance of this to what came after Frazer.  I’ve spoken about this to Marshall and he suggested that I might consult the other editors.  [Frye wrote a preface for the proposed collection, but the project was for some reason aborted.  His preface was published forty years later in CW 25:326–8.]

Letter to John Garabedian, 12 September 1967 [In reply to an letter by Garabedian (1 September 1967), a feature writer for the New York Post, wanting Frye to expand on a comment quoted in an article in Time magazine that hippies were inheritors of the “outlawed and furtive social ideal known as the ‘Land of Cockaigne.’” The Time article also referred to Frye as a disciple of McLuhan.]

Thank you for your letter.  I am not sure that I can be of much help to you, as I did not have hippies in mind when I spoke of the Land of Cockaigne as one form of Utopia.  The association was due to the Time writer, and I doubt very much that the Land of Cockaigne is really what the hippies are talking about.  Neither was it correct to describe me as a disciple of McLuhan, although he is a colleague and a good personal friend.

Letter to Walter Miale, 18 February 1969

. . . Korzybsky was, because of his anti‑literary bias, a person I was bound to have reservations about, but there was still the possibility that he might be, like Marshall McLuhan today, probing and prodding in directions that might turn out to be useful.

Letter to Walter J. Ong, S.J., 28 March 1973

. . . I saw Marshall [McLuhan] the other day at a meeting on Canadian Studies, where we were discussing the question of how difficult it is for students in this bilingual country to acquire a second language when they don’t possess a first one.

Letter to William Harmon,  13 August 1974

Harmon had requested (8 July 1974) the source of Joyce’s referring to Eliot as “the Bishop of Hippo,” which Frye quotes in his book on T.S. Eliot (pp. 67–8).  Frye replied that he wasn’t certain as he was quoting “orally from someone who had been working in the Joyce papers at Buffalo.”  Harmon responded with a note of thanks, which prompted Frye to write again to say “Marshall McLuhan was present when this tag from Joyce was quoted, and his memory of it may be more accurate than mine.”

Letter to Richard Kostelanetz, 7 January 1976

. . . Please don’t make me an enemy of Marshall McLuhan: I am personally very fond of him, and think the campus would be a much duller place without him.  I don’t always agree with him, but he doesn’t always agree with himself.

The statement of Colombo’s on page 16 strikes me as curious, but it’s your article. [John Robert Colombo had said that “McLuhan and Frye are Canada’s Aristotle and Plato.  McLuhan is the scientist, and Frye the mystical theorist, with the eternal paradigms and everlasting forms” (qtd. by Kostelanetz, Three Canadian Geniuses, 131).]

Letter to Andrew Foley, 20 April 1976

. . . I think psychologists are now moving away from the Freudian metaphors about an unconsciousness buried below a conscious mind, and are thinking more in terms of the division in the brain between the hemisphere controlling a linear and verbal activity and the one that is more spatially oriented.  It seems to me that the most important aspect of McLuhan is his role in the development of this conception.

Letter to Fr. Walter Ong, December 1977

. . . I saw something of your student Patrick Hogan this year, but he left early.  I don’t know whether he was disappointed in what we did or didn’t do for him.  He was very keen, and one of his proposals was that he and Marshall and I should form a seminar to discuss Finnegans Wake, which hardly fitted my working schedule or, I should imagine, Marshall’s.


Letter to Barrington Nevitt, 20 September 1988

This is in connection with your letter about your proposed book on Marshall McLuhan.  I am sorry if I am unhelpful on this subject, but I doubt that I have anything very distinctive to say on the subject.  What I could say I said at the teacher’s awards meeting you referred to [Distinguished Teacher Awards, December 1987], but unfortunately I had no text for that talk.  I think I remember saying that Marshall was an extraordinary improviser in conversation, that he could take fire instantly from a chance remark, and that I have never known anyone to equal him on that score.  I also feel, whether I said it or not, that he was celebrated for the wrong reasons in the sixties, and then neglected for the wrong reasons later, so that a reassessment of his work and its value is badly needed.  I think what I chiefly learned from him, as an influence on me, was the role of discontinuity in communication, which he was one of the first people to understand the significance of.  Beyond that, I am afraid I am not much use.

Frye on McLuhan, McLuhan on Frye

I heard B.W. Powe’s paper on Frye and McLuhan at this year’s Frye Festival in Moncton. It covered a lot of ground and was powerfully rendered. On a couple of occasions Powe seemed to suggest that Frye was in some way envious of and threatened by McLuhan. He cited this anecdote from George Steiner:

Many years ago, one evening in Massey College, I sat with Robertson Davies, Norrie Frye, Kathleen Coburn (the world’s greatest Coleridge scholar), when there walked in a very much younger Marshall McLuhan. Astounded, and without thinking, I turned to Professor Frye, and said, “There’s Marshall McLuhan.” I cannot hope to reproduce the air of sardonic melancholy which immediately invaded Norrie’s features. He had a long look, and said, “So the man alleges.”

If I understood Powe’s point in citing this passage, a display of envy does not seem to be the best interpretation of it. Frye’s references to McLuhan in the Collected Works are evidence of his consistently frank and even-handed appraisal of McLuhan. I think his often repeated concern that McLuhan’s celebrity compromised his full potential as a scholar offers a better read on what Steiner describes as Frye’s “sardonic melancholy.” Frye’s response, “So the man alleges,” similarly recalls his frequent dismissal of the “McLuhan cult” (or as he more pungently puts it at one point, “the McLuhan rumour”) in order to maintain at least some distinction between the scholar and the media guru.

Thanks to the nearly twenty thousand words related to McLuhan that Frye committed to paper, we can see that Frye confidently read him, confidently saw beyond the misguided “nitwit McLuhanism” he inspired, and confidently disagreed with him for reasons he was always willing to articulate in detail. Frye often cites and lucidly critiques McLuhan’s characterization of the “global village” and his distinction between “linear” and “simultaneous” perception. At the same time, he is also characteristically generous wherever McLuhan might be effectively cited (and, again, there are scores of such citations amounting to thousands of words), even if he remained vigilant wherever he thought McLuhan might be reasonably challenged. Throughout it all, Frye regards McLuhan as a scholar first. He in fact observes a number of times that McLuhan was celebrated for the wrong reasons in the 1960s and then ignored for the wrong reasons in the 1970s. Perhaps most tellingly, there is no indication of any sustained personal hostility toward McLuhan himself, whatever their professional differences. In an interview after McLuhan’s death, Frye refers to him as “my beloved colleague.”

If there is any manifest expression of resentment, and even paranoia, in this relationship, it appears to have come from McLuhan’s side. According to Philip Marchand‘s biography, Marshall McLuhan: the Medium and the Messenger, he had a long held belief that he had been targeted by a worldwide Masonic conspiracy. Frye was at least peripherally implicated:

McLuhan had sense enough not to express these views in public, and by the 1960s he pretty well kept quiet about the Masons even with friends and colleagues at St. Michael’s, although, appalled by the post-Vatican II changes in the church, he occasionally voiced the suspicion that some prelates of the church, including Toronto Archbishop Philip Pocock, were secretly Masons. He seems never really to have abandoned his thesis about a Masonic conspiracy and even wondered occasionally whether some of his own employees at the Centre for Culture and Technology (established at the University of Toronto in 1963) might be Masons.

He certainly never abandoned his belief that his great rival in the English department at the University of Toronto, Northrop Frye, was a Mason at heart, if not in fact. (114)

McLuhan seems to have possessed an aggressive personal animosity toward Frye. According to Marchand, McLuhan considered him an “enemy” early in their careers together in the English department at the University of Toronto, and then in later life Frye is referred to as his “old enemy.” McLuhan’s enmity was evidently a longstanding one. The other references to Frye in Marchand’s book do not vary much from this theme.

As already promised, I will be writing a longer paper in which I will provide a more extended and detailed account of Frye’s reading of McLuhan.

Frye on Privacy, Cont’d

“The whole appeal of Sherlock Holmes,” Frye writes, “was connected with his ability to notice ordinary details. Here again is the dialectic between the all-seeing eye of God & of the spy of the state with his ‘telescreen.'” In Anatomy of Criticism Frye links the telescreen with the “humiliation of being watched by a hostile or derisive eye,” a theme in the tragedies of such figures as Prometheus and Milton’s Samson.

I’m reminded of two stories from Frye’s early life, one more or less innocent, the other malicious.

When he was a student circuit rider on the Saskatchewan prairies, he reported that whenever his horse Katy “broke into a trot you had to stand straight up in the stirrups and let the saddle come up and caress your backside at intervals. I remember something that I found later in a Canadian critic, I think it was Elizabeth Waterson, who spoke of the prairies as the sense of immense space with no privacy. And I found that on top of Katy, who naturally stimulated one’s bladder very considerably. I realized that I couldn’t get off in that vast stretch of prairie because everybody was out with opera glasses, you see, watching the preacher on top of Katy. That was what people did. They all had spy glasses. They weren’t doing it with any malicious sense. It was just that their lives were rather devoid of incident, and naturally they liked to see who was going along. It wasn’t their fault.”

And now the sinister tale, recorded by Frye in one of his diaries:

“I often wonder about intuitive racial-stereotype thinking: a lot of it’s balls. For instance, there’s a big good-natured German in Moncton called Lichtenberg 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. Recently the Gestapo combed his whole house over, in response to some silly anonymous ‘tip,’ & one of them found two large knobs in a dark closet. ‘Aha!’ he said, stepped into the closet & gave one a twist, thinking of course it was a private transmitter set. It was an extra shower he’d installed. Incidentally, he’s a naturalized Canadian citizen, but married before that, so his wife, who belongs to one of the oldest Maritime families, is an enemy alien. Well, Dad’s friendship for Lichtenberg has come in for much unfavorable comment in that stinking little kraal Moncton, & the stinkers point out gleefully that ‘Frye’ is really a German name, & that I look just like a German. It’s a beautiful theory, only it just happens to be wrong.”

Hermann Hesse


The conclusion of the “experimental” (that is, disastrous) 1974 film adaptation of Steppenwolf

Today is Hermann Hesse‘s birthday (1877-1962).

Frye in Notebook 44:

When I was in Japan I visited a Buddhist temple, several buildings all dignified, rather sombre, and in exquisite taste. At the top of the hill it was on was a Shinto shrine, incredibly gaudy, as though it were made of Christmas candy, the bushes around having rolled-up prayers tied to every twig, like women with their hair in curlers. My immediate feeling was that it was good-humored and disarming: I had no hostile or superior feelings about it all. So why did hostile and superior words, like “superstitious” and “vulgar” start crowding into my mind? Did God tell me he thought it was superstitious and vulgar?

I was reminded of this when I started reading Steppenwolf. I started that in the sixties, when every fool in the country was trying to identify with Steppenwolf, and abandoned it after a few pages. I couldn’t stand the self-pitying whine of someone totally dependent on middle-class values but trying to develop his self-respect by feeling hostile and superior to them. I was hearing the whine all around me at the time. The next stage, also obvious in Hesse’s text, is when you try to raise your opinion of yourself by despising yourself. Like the wrestler: “I got so fuckin’ tied all up I could see was a big arse in frunna me, so I takes a bite out of it, and, Christ, it was me own arse.”


Footnote on Steppenwolf: what I said about it over the page [para. 437] was utter crap, and I didn’t abandon it after a few pages. I read it through, and, as my marginal notes show, with appreciation. Funny how screen memories work: I resented the student hysterics so much in the sixties, and some of them (at Rochdale, e.g.) made a cult of Hesse. So the remark about the wrestler biting his own arse comes home to roost. Not that I think now that Steppenwolf is really a great or profound book, but he’s aware of his own irony. (CW 5, 197-99)

Frye Shakespeare Anecdote

This absolutely ludicrous cover for the first edition of On Shakespeare is one of my most treasured possessions. It is of course based upon the Droeshout portrait. The publisher apparently did not know that Frye mischievously said of this portrait that it depicts “a man who is clearly an idiot.”

Here’s a Frye anecdote it’s never occurred to me to relate here before.  I took his undergrad Shakespeare course, which he taught that year with Julian Patrick.  The arrangement was that they would each give a one hour lecture per week, the third hour reserved for tutorials. Each also attended the other’s lectures. As the end of the second term approached, Patrick made reference to the fact that our final exam was to be April 23rd. “Shakespeare’s birthday,” he said encouragingly. Frye piped up: “Also the day he died,” which brought a roar of laughter from the class of about two hundred students. I’m glad to say we gave him a sustained round of applause at the end of his last lecture, which, as he left the stage, he paused to acknowledge with a small but pleased smile.

Fulford Reviews Denham’s “Remembering Northrop Frye”

Robert Fulford’s review of Bob Denham’s Remembering Northrop Frye: Recollections By His Students and Others in the 1940s and 1950s, here.

An excerpt:

By 1946, when he was 34 years old, he stood at the centre of a circle — “We were a coterie,” as one member put it. Doug Fisher, one of many war veterans who came to university on a federal grant, took five Frye courses and edited the college literary magazine with Frye as faculty adviser. Fisher became a socialist politician and made his name in 1957 by unseating C.D. Howe, the most powerful minister in Ottawa; he later moved to journalism and after 40 years retired as dean of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

In the 1940s, Fisher noticed that Frye had more graduate students than any other professor, the largest audiences for his lectures and a claque of followers that no other teacher could equal. Fisher listened carefully to Frye’s words and for the rest of his life cherished them. Even after 50 years he would sometimes feel the need of fresh stimulation and dig out his Frye lecture notes on a subject like the Book of Job or Thomas Carlyle.

I’m quoting from Fisher’s remarks in a new book edited by Robert D. Denham,Remembering Northrop Frye: Recollections by His Students and Others in the 1940s and 1950s, published by a North Carolina firm, McFarland ( Denham, a professor at Roanoke College in Virginia and an expert on Frye, edited his diaries years ago. While working through Frye’s hasty journal entries, he wrote to many students and friends for help explaining them. Remembering Northrop Frye brings together letters from 89 of the people who responded.

They were all Frye-ites, the term one of them uses in his reply. Others called them Fryedolators. Irving Layton invented the term Frygians, suggesting they were cold and academic, like their leader; later he changed his views. Many of them, of course, knew each other long ago, which gives this book the feeling of a reunion.

Frye Doffs “the Shitty Garment” of Fundamentalism

Vintage postcard of Aberdeen High School, Moncton

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, died on this date in 1791 (born 1703).

John Ayre in his biography provides this now famous anecdote of the young school boy’s first epiphany.  In Frye’s words, he was

walking along St. George St. to high school and just suddenly the whole shitty and smelly garment (of fundamental teaching I had all my life) just dropped off into the sewers and stayed there. It was like the Bunyan feeling, about the burden of sin falling off his back only with me it was a burden of anxiety. Anything might have touched it off, but I don’t know what specifically did, or if anything did. I just remember that suddenly that that was no longer a part of me and never would again. (44)

Patrick J. Keane: Frye in Sligo

From “Convergences: Memories Involving The Waste Land Manuscript,” an essay by Patrick J. Keane in Numéro Cinq


“. . . But to return to the summer of 1968: That August, I was in Sligo, Ireland, a student at the Yeats International Summer School. Along with my enthusiasm for Yeats, I bore greetings from one great scholar of Romanticism to another: from one of my current teachers, David Erdman, author of Blake: Prophet Against Empire, to the keynote lecturer at that year’s Yeats gathering, Northrop Frye, at the time the most celebrated literary critic in the world, and the author of an equally formidable study of Blake, Fearful Symmetry. After Frye delivered his magisterial lecture on the imagery of Yeats, entitled “The Top of the Tower,” I was one of those who flocked to the podium. But I stayed at the periphery, too shy to approach the great man. Later that evening, when Frye, followed by a small entourage, entered the dining room of the Imperial Hotel, he noticed me at a table and walked over.

“You wanted to ask me a question this afternoon,” he said. A fundamentally shy man himself, he had been sensitive enough to spot me on the fringe of the crowd after his lecture, and gracious enough to follow up. I stammered out my greeting from Professor Erdman. “How is David?” Frye asked. I assured him he was well, and was amused when Northrop Frye made a comment symmetrical to that of David Erdman. Each declared the other’s Blake study indispensable and each said he would not have been capable of writing the other’s book. Later that evening, Frye’s shyness was confirmed when I noticed him tenderly holding his wife’s hand under the table during a dramatic performance, in a pub, of Brian Merriman’s bawdy 18th-century poem, The Midnight Court. And five years later, he would confirm his graciousness by allowing me to print “The Top of the Tower,” free of any permissions charge, in a collection of criticism on Yeats I edited for a volume in McGraw-Hill’s Contemporary Studies in Literature series.”


This image of the rotation of Pluto is generated from images captured by the Hubble Telescope

Pluto was discovered on this date in 1930.

From Denham’s Northrop Frye Unbuttoned:

I’ve noticed a curious form of e.s.p in me: whenever I dream of writing something in fiction somebody else who really does write get the idea instead.  This has happened to me so often that it was no surprise to me after thinking about a historical novel situated in Trebizond, to find that Rose Macaulay had the same idea.  (In my childhood I dreamed of becoming a great astronomer & discovering a new planet beyond Neptune that I was going to call Pluto.)  (84)

Frye on Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home in Great Village, Nova Scotia.  The parlour in which “First Death in Nova Scotia” is set is to the right.  The skylight is over Bishop’s tiny bedroom: it was there as late as 1998 and may still be there.

Further to Michael’s earlier post: Frye does have this reference to Bishop in one of his sets of autobiographical notes:

Elizabeth Bishop and the left hand drive—roads hardly wide enough to have two sides. The red, blue and yellow roads, the last a dirt track through the bush. Still, variety of makes of cars, words like Willys-Knight can still throw me into a nostalgic trance. (CW 25, 30)

The “left-hand drive” reference is explained in one of Frye’s reminiscences in the talk he gave at Moncton’s Centennial Celebration a few months before his death:

I was at a dinner at Harvard University seated beside a poet named Elizabeth Bishop, who was a New Englander with a summer cottage in Nova Scotia. She spent half her time in Nova Scotia, so much so that one or two Americans suggested Canadians really ought to make her Canada’s national poet. I think it was a bit of a problem for her too to decide whether she was Canadian or American, and she finally solved the problem by going to live in Brazil. However, she came back to Harvard. She was a very shy person and was very chagrined at being put beside me, because she was frightened by strangers of all kinds. She said, ‘I haven’t read any of your books.” I said, “Well, I haven’t read them either. I’ve only proofread them.” Then she stared at me a while longer, and she said, “When was it that New Brunswick changed over from a left hand to a right hand drive.” “Well,” I said loudly and confidently, “September 1920.” I realized afterward that I had almost certainly got the date wrong. But what I do remember was the fact happening and my mother’s comment that they were going to have trouble with the horses, especially the milk team horses. In any case, whether I got the date right or not, it must have been around that time that the province discovered that there was a difference between the left hand and the right hand on the road.

So far as I remember in 1919 or 1920, there were no paved roads in the province, and the roads were really paths through the woods. They were not exactly blazed trails, but you followed the road by tracing the colored bands that were painted around the telephone poles. The Red Band Road went down the St. John Valley through St. John to Moncton and from there to Sackville and Cape Tormentine. The Blue Band Road started here at the corner of Main and Botsford and went up the east coast around Tracadie to Campbellton. And the Yellow Band Road started at St. Andrews and went northeasterly through Fredericton and Newcastle to Bathurst. Later on, when I acquired a bicycle, I found myself tracing other of these paths through the woods, exploring what were at the time practically nothing but trails––the McLaughlin Road, roads in Albert County––and going out to the gorge and other outlying parts of Moncton. It was a solitary exercise, but it was by no means lonely, because each road was an adventure, and it had the feeling of a kind of Hansel and Gretel exploration about it. Naturally, as a city grows, more and more of its residential areas turn into commercial areas––things like Trans Canada Highways and airports and so on make the old paths through the woods totally obsolete. (CW 25, 48-9)

(Photo via The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia)