Category Archives: Memoir

Elizabeth Bishop


Elizabeth Bishop reading “The Fish”

Today is Elizabeth Bishop‘s birthday (1911-1979).

I am lucky enough to have been in her childhood home in Great Village, Nova Scotia, and her mountainside villa in Ouro Preto, Brazil.  In both instances, her bedroom was the smallest room in the house.

Frye never wrote about Bishop. (See Bob Denham’s correction in the post above.)  But he did meet her at Harvard in 1975, when she was writer-in-residence and he was the Charles Eliot Norton lecturer (those lectures later became The Secular Scripture).  According to John Ayre, they were seated together at dinner one night and “swapped tales” of their Maritime upbringing, she in Nova Scotia and he in New Brunswick. (Northrop Frye: A Biography, 347)

After the jump, “First Death in Nova Scotia.”

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Mordecai Richler: Reposted


Because the CBC doesn’t see fit to allow non-Canadians to watch material they post on YouTube, for crying out loud, I’ve moved the CBC clip I posted earlier after the jump.  Replacing it above is an excerpt from an upcoming documentary on Richler, “The Last of the Wild Jews,” premiering on Bravo! in March.  For good measure, I’ve added another clip after the jump in which Richler takes a swipe at Canada for being so Canadian (we’re nice and all, but, sheesh, he’s got a point).  Sadly, because it too is a CBC clip, it cannot be viewed by non-Canadians.

Today is Mordecai Richler‘s birthday (1931-2001).

Here’s a little anecdote from Richler’s On Snooker:

When Northrop Frye discovered that my friend Bob Weaver golfed, he was appalled.  “I had no idea you engaged in executive sports, Bob,” he said.  (83)

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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.

“Remembering Northrop Frye: Recollections by His Students and Others”

Regarding the earlier post about a collection of letters called Remembering Northrop Frye: Recollections by His Students and Others in the 1940s and 1950s:

The context for Remembering Northrop Frye is Frye’s diaries, which he kept intermittently from 1942 until 1955.  Altogether there are seven diaries, or at least seven different books in which he recorded his daily activities, typically at the end of each day.  In the early 1990s I began transcribing the diaries, which form a substantial body of writing––more than a quarter million words altogether.  They were published as The Diaries of Northrop Frye (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.  Collected Works of Northrop Frye, vol. 8).  In the course of this project I sought to identify the more than 1,200 people who are mentioned by Frye.  I corresponded with a number of them, most of whom were his students at Victoria College in the 1940s and 1950s.  To take one year as an example, I wrote to seventy‑eight people who made an appearance in the 1949 diary: fifty‑nine responded.  I would ordinarily inquire of all those I wrote whether they remembered the occasion mentioned by Frye, and I would usually invite them to provide some biographical information about themselves and to share their memories of Frye as a person and teacher.  I often requested the correspondents to help identify others mentioned in the diaries.  I was interested in learning specific details in order to annotate the diaries, but my invitation to the correspondents to reflect on their experiences with Frye and on the Victoria College scene at the time would help me, I hoped, to reconstruct the social landscape on campus during the seven years covered in the diaries.  I received two unsolicited letters, sent to me at the urging of other correspondents.  All were generous in their responses.  Altogether the replies I received, many quite extensive, provide a rather remarkable body of reminiscence, and that is what is the reproduced in the eighty‑nine letters in Remembering Northrop Frye, scheduled to be released by McFarland and Co. early in 2011.

One motif that runs throughout is the power and generous presence that Frye had as a teacher.  Here is a sampler of the correspondents’ tributes:

• Northrop Frye was the greatest single influence in my life.  His view of things permanently altered the shape, not only of literature, but of life as I saw it.  And even now, though inevitably modified––& I fear sometimes distorted––Norrie’s view of literature and the world still shapes my own. (Phyllis Thompson)

• My own memories of Frye are filled with respect and gratitude.  What incredible  luck to have been “brought up” by him!  I remember the excitement of his first lecture every fall. There was a ping of the mind, like a finger snapped against cut glass.  You came back from your grungy summer job and then there it was, the whole intellectual world snapped into life again, the current flowing. (Eleanor Morgan)

• I still cannot believe my good fortune in having been taught so many stimulating courses by a person of such brilliance and compassion.  His ideas were electrifying, encyclopedic, and revolutionary. . . . Each year when I returned to the university, the hinges of my mind sprang open, and my brain pulsed with the excitement of Frye’s thinking, his eloquence, and his wit.  But what keeps his influence on my life vivid and profound to this day is that he enabled us to translate the leaps of intellect we experienced in his lectures into the emotional underpinnings of a way to look at the world and one’s place in it––in short, to be in the world, yet not of it. (Beth Lerbinger)

• Frye would lecture without notes, yet the class rarely turned haphazard.  He asked questions constantly that required a knowledge not only of the Bible and classical mythology, but also of the major works in English and American literature.  No one could keep pace with all the references, but still the effect was to illuminate and give a structure to a rich and fascinating verbal universe.  And then, as an added bonus, just when you thought he had reached the conclusion his investigation was leading to, he would use that “conclusion” as the opening position in a new line of investigation. (Ed Kleiman)

• In short, the Frye course [Religious Knowledge] in one way made for a lot of fun at home.  In another way it changed our lives forever. (M.L. Knight)

• In 1950 while at library school there was no need for me to run hard at either studying or football so I and a classmate would range the campus auditing lectures and we found Frye had the largest, most intent crowds and the most graduate students.  Even now I take up my lecture notes, particularly on Job and Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, and find him stimulating. (Douglas Fisher)

• The outstanding lecturer, the one who made my university education a spiritual one, setting the mode for the rest of my life, was Northrop Frye. . . . My memories of Northrop Frye are fond and precious.  I still have the essays I wrote for him, with his comments on them.  I have a collection of almost all of his published books. . . .  I wrote to him a few times.  I recall that one letter, probably the one that occasioned his notation in his diary, was to thank him for what he had taught to me, because of the perspectives he gave me about life. (Jodine Boos)

• His shyness and genuine modesty, coupled with a witty self-deprecation, made him the quintessential Canadian.  Underneath all that, of course, was the finest literary mind in the Western world. (Don Harron)

• I really did not know Norrie as a teacher.  I was never in one of his classes, but in our interviews he taught me much & indeed he knocked a lot of fuzziness out of my head.  He could not make me into a scholar, but he did encourage me as a poet; I owe him a great deal, & I always felt friendly towards him. (George Johnston)

• I was in Philosophy & English and we had marvellous, thrilling courses with Frye on the Elizabethan period, Spenser & Milton, 19th Century Thought, The English Bible . . . They filled my thoughts for three years!  Frye was university for me.  Nothing else counted.  I couldn’t just take notes on his lectures, I had to try to write down every single word he said. . . . I got so spoiled listening to Frye that I couldn’t stand other lecturers. (Gloria Vizinczey)

• I expect a lot of people, when they heard he had died, said to themselves, “I may as well lay down my pen since there is no one in the world for whom I can now write, no one whose good assessment I crave.” (Catharine Hay)

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More on Mussolini

Further to Michael’s earlier post.

Frye writing to Helen Kemp, 22 June 1935, from Chicago, where he had visited the World’s Fair:

I have seen some more of the Fair.  The Italian exhibit is typical of a Fascist government.  You go into a big round hall with nothing in it but posters around the walls, commemorating various aspects of modern Italian industrialism.  One has a complete speech of Mussolini’s disfiguring the slate‑blue background.  Below the posters are some enormous snapshots of the Forum and similar views in Rome.  Back of this hall is a novelty shop full of cheap jewelry and pestiferous salesmen.  Some of the work‑‑mosaics and such‑‑is finely done, or appeared so before I retreated from importunate idiots behind the counters, but a trip through any of the big department stores in the Loop would be infinitely more rewarding.  I am told they have a good scientific exhibit in the Hall of Science.  But Italy!  Roma Caput Mundi, as one of their own posters said!  And cheap brooches!  God!

Then on 24 March 1937, Frye writes to Kemp:

We’re leaving the Vatican until after Easter. I don’t like Rome much—everything is the biggest and loudest in the world, and the Mussolini mentality is stampeding everything. I  wish I hadn’t come to Rome—I’d sooner have stayed in North Italy. Still, it’s all very good for me.  Of course Mussolini came back from Libya the day we arrived and Rome was a riot of flags and soldiers, which may have prejudiced me [Mussolini had paid a twelve‑day visit in March 1937 to Libya, where he had opened a new coastal highway to the Egyptian frontier].  Still, the same sort of mind put up the Colosseum and St. Peter’s.  And even Rome wasn’t as patriotic as Siena, which must have had at least a thousand pictures of his ugly mug on the walls.

Then on 5 April 1937 he writes to Kemp:

I forget exactly when or what I wrote last, but I was doubtless in Rome, registering dislike. Rome is horrible. I wasn’t quite prepared for the national monument to Victor Emmanuel II, but after I’d seen it it fitted in. Rome built that Colosseum barn, Rome built St. Peter’s with its altar canopy a hundred feet high and its elephantine Cupids in the holy‑water basin, Rome built that ghastly abortion already referred to, Rome produced a long line of tough dictators and brutal army leaders and imbecile Caesars and Mussolini. What Prussia is to Germany, what Scotland is to Britain, that Rome is to Italy—sterile as an egg and proud of it. Romans.  Romans stare and peer at you hostilely and sulkily in the streets where north Italians are merely interested in you; Rome is full of Germans where Florence is full of English and Americans; Rome gave me a disease that felt like the seven‑year itch but is gradually wearing off; Rome stunk; Romans gyp you; Romans break out in a rash of flags the day you arrive and welcome the return of their prodigal son Mussolini.

28 April 1937, from Florence:

It was hard to get out of Florence, though not so hard after the stinkers arrived. I believe they refer to themselves as Alpini—a regiment of Alpine soldiers, mostly war veterans, who came to Florence to get drunk. Still, they were harmless enough. We went out with a girl in our pensione who spoke English very well and met one of them in the Boboli Gardens. They sell these huge bronze plaques in Florentine art stores—you can buy one of the Pope for 3 lire, one of Jesus Christ for 5 lire, and one of Mussolini for 10 lire. This man had one of Dante. She asked him if he liked Dante and he said no, he’d never heard of Dante, but he had to have some souvenir to take back from Florence. . . . The rapprochement between Italy & Germany is being played up for all it’s worth—you see pictures of Hitler everywhere, Italian & German flags beside each other in posters, and anti‑Semitic books in bookstores. Of course the Italians made a great fuss over their Empire—Mussolini’s title is now “Fondatore dell’Impero,” the King is the King‑Emperor, and they’re frantically jealous of countries with bigger empires. There’s a comic newspaper that had a big front‑page cartoon showing a Union Jack over the Houses of Parliament with a big knot tied in one end. Now I’ve run out of paper and am going to the back of page one—the one that starts off with sweetheart—A spectator says, “What’s the idea of the knot?” and his friend says “Oh, that’s just to remind her of her great colonial empire.” Every cat in Italy is pregnant. Well, maybe every other cat—there are an awful lot of cats. They’re more loyal to Mussolini than the humans are—Mussolini announced in one of his speeches that Italians should drink more wine because it stimulates the begetting of children. Wonder why, if he’s always having parades, he doesn’t have one of pregnant women? When I got back to France, where Mussolini was allowed to have a mistress, who shot somebody else for some reason, the mistress was said to have had three hundred pictures of Mussolini in her room. She not only loved Mussolini, she understood him. [The mistress was the French actress, Mlle. Fontanges, whose real name was Magda Coraboeuf.  After she revealed her affair with Mussolini to the press, he forbade her to come to Rome; she thereupon shot and wounded the French ambassador, whom she thought was somehow responsible for her predicament, and served a year in prison as a consequence.]

Frye and Fairley


From Barker Fairley: Portraits (Toronto: Methuen, 1981): 48–9

Further on Barker Fairley and the refusal of U.S. customs to grant him a visa to lecture on Goethe at Bryn Mawr because of his leftist sympathies (he had supported a Soviet friendship organization), these passages from Frye’s Diaries:

“Poor old Barker still feels pretty blue: he was just beginning to start exploring U.S.A. & get some real recognition when they slammed the door on him & he has to pick up a trip to England as consolation prize, & of course he knows all about England.”  (20 March 1950)

“Barker [Fairley] is taking the C.P.R. [Canadian Pacific Railway] train to St. John that goes across Maine, so he says he’ll have a chance to piss on the United States.  Just the same Barker has been deeply hurt by his exclusion.  I wish the Americans didn’t do all the silly things the Communists expect them to do and know in advance how to take advantage of.”  (9 April 1950)

The lectures that Fairley was to give at Bryn Mawr were later published as Goethe’s Faust: Six Essays (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953).  Fairley incidentally painted Frye’s portrait in 1969, which is reproduced above.

About his subject, Fairley has this to say:

I first ran into the name of Northrop Frye when, returning to Canada in 1936, I read an article by him in The Canadian Forum about that delightful dance troupe “The Ballet Joos.”  They acted, or rather danced, scenes from social life.  I remember particularly “The City,” which conveyed both gregariousness and loneliness and gave me a pleasure greater than any I got from classical dancing.  Does he remember this too with the same vivid pleasure, I wonder?

He now switches my mind back to the University of Toronto as it was then.  It seemed to me in those days that University College with its undenomina­tional freedom was carrying the torch of the humanities ahead of the other colleges.  This was a pardonable illusion, which any of the four colleges was entitled to.  But what with Northrop Frye and his mastery of the whole field of literature as we know it and his colleague, Kathleen Coburn, with her com­mand of the Coleridge battalion — to say nothing of her very special autobiog­raphy In Pursuit of Coleridge — it appears now that I was wrong and that Victoria is in the lead as taking the University’s name more effectively abroad than I ever expected.

My portrait of Northrop Frye is a third attempt after two ignominious failures.  I was with Aba Bayefsky the first time.  He succeeded — more than succeeded — and I collapsed.  After a second collapse I said, “Norrie, let me try again.”  He agreed.  And sure enough, that inscrutable face of his yielded at last, and his gentle nature came through to my great delight.

Margaret Atwood: “Northrop Frye saved me from dying young and poor in a Paris garret!!”


Yes, tabloid headline writing turns out to be as exciting as it is easy — like jumping off the roof into the pool.

Here’s what Margaret Atwood actually had to say recently about Frye’s influence on her career as writer:

She decided to get a degree and teach English. After that, her plan was to run away to France, “become an absinthe drinker,” get tuberculosis and die young like Keats, having written works of staggering genius in a garret.

She was talked out of that, she said, by one of her professors, Northrop Frye, the famous literary theorist, who said, “Why don’t you go to graduate school? You would probably get more work done that way.”

He turned out to be right, she said.

Frye and War Literature


Manitoba Cemetery, Somme, France, where Frye’s brother Howard (killed in action 18 August 1918) is buried.  It is worth noting that Canada’s last known First World War veteran died just this past week — John Babcock, who enlisted at age 15 and died aged 109.

Responding to Peter Webb’s post and a subsequent exchange in the Comments:

Peter, I don’t by any means think that Frye’s biography explains the general absence of attention to war stories in his writing, but his own painful experiences might have caused him to cast his glance elsewhere.

In 1944 he did review Joseph Schull’s I, Jones, Soldier, a narrative poem, about which he said: “describe[es] the thoughts in the mind of an officer just before zero hour. Jones is a sensitive soldier, and is not content to go into action with a merely physical integration; he wants a spiritual one, too, and some insight into the fundamental faiths which are the laws of his own being and consequently the causes of his being there. He reviews his military career up to that point with a good deal of detachment and humour, and rejects the ready-made formulas—patriotism, justice of one’s cause, product of a Depression generation, and the rest—with a sharp insight. When he gets down to his mental bedrock, he finds ‘one earth, one Man, one Truth’ [48]: perhaps in answer, though the poet does not say so, to the ‘Ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Führer’ with which he is challenged by his enemy. These are of course inarticulate ideas, and he talks very vaguely about them, but fundamental ideas usually are inarticulate, and the poem does not lose its narrative logic.”

Frye reviewed as well, also in 1944, Karl Shapiro’s V-Letter and Other Poems. Shapiro, Frye writes, “is not a ‘war’ poet: he is simply a poet who happens to be in the army, and because he is a poet patterns go on forming and metres go on clicking in his mind, regardless of what else is happening [vi]. Sometimes, of course, the war enters the poetry—most poignantly, perhaps, in the poem on the amputation [The Leg]—but on the whole Mr. Shapiro makes no attempt to ‘interpret’ the war to us by composing metrical editorials.”

I think the only time Frye glanced at war from the Nazi point of view was in his review of Ernst Jünger’s On the Marble Cliffs (reprinted in Northrop Frye on Modern Culture), but it’s clear that he doesn’t know quite what to make of Jünger’s allegory.

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Bob Rodgers: Getting to Know Northrop Frye


Bob Rodgers is a documentary filmmaker, TV producer, and writer, currently developing a web-based series titled “The Bible and Literature with Northrop Frye.”

I am fresh from the West when I join Northrop Frye’s graduate class at the University of Toronto in 1959. I know his reputation: Fearful Symmetry is twelve years old, Anatomy of Criticism barely two. Frye is already approaching canonization in the world of literary criticism and celebrity status at the University of Toronto. What comes as a shock is his appearance. He enters the room so unobtrusively it is as though he simply materializes from behind the podium, one eye eagle sharp as it surveys the room, the other with a slightly drooping eyelid as if out of shyness. Or is it irony? Setting Blake’s Collected Works, his only prop, on the podium and gazing at us through glasses that seem to be the wrong prescription, he falls short of the glamorous figure I had anticipated.

Then moments after he begins speaking I forget where I am. I am hearing things as if in a foreign language, yet I seem to understand. As one startling idea follows another I am dazzled by the reach of his mind. At the end of class I haltingly approach him and am granted an interview to discuss my proposal for a term paper. I’m nervous. It is one thing to sit in the relative anonymity of a classroom, quite another to sit across from him face to face.

The doorway between the marble hallway and the hardwood floor of his office in old Emmanuel College has a slightly raised sill I fail to notice. I catch my toe on it and trip. In an effort to regain my balance, I lunge forward, stopping just before crashing into his desk. He looks up in alarm, rising half from his chair as if to fend off a tackle. It is an unpropitious beginning for my proposed topic: William Blake and the Dynamics of Energy and Order.

The imposing yet aloof man I met that day (once he settled back in his chair) was nothing like the man I am coming to know all these years later as I read away at U of T Press’s mammoth publishing enterprise, The Collected Works of Northrop Frye. I am especially interested in the diaries and letters and notebooks that bring out his personal side, and not just one side but many—the self-confessed physical coward, the self-confessed genius, the frustrated novelist and unfulfilled composer, the reluctant introvert and what many would call the dangerous heretic. Most of all I was surprised by his liberal use of what he playfully called dirty words, which would have shocked his orthodox Methodist family and no doubt did shock some of his Victoria College contemporaries. I remember when I was young feeling the same surprise when I learned that Roosevelt had a mistress.

The published works seem certain to establish Frye’s reputation as one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest humanists. The voice is distinctive but impersonal. Only in the previously unpublished writing do we come into contact with the inner man, by way of an unceasing self evaluation in which nothing personal is censored. How many writers would hazard a remark like this that so notoriously troubled Harold Bloom:

Statement for the Day of my Death. The twentieth century saw an amazing development of scholarship and criticism in the humanities, carried out by people who were more intelligent, better trained, had more languages, had a better sense of proportion, and were infinitely more accurate scholars and professional men than I. I had genius. No one else in the field known to me had quite that.

Could these be the words of a braggart? Given what I remember as a student and what I’m learning of the man today as I go through the notebooks, all I can do is applaud him for acknowledging his gift and having the courage to declare it. Nietzsche was right. It is impossible to be a genius and not know it.

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Mervyn Nicholson: On the Death of Northrop Frye


I remember where I was when Norrie died.  My wife cried out something or other, and told me she had just heard on the CBC the news, that “Northrop Frye is dead.”  It was definitely a shock.  He was, I was going to say, so young.  By today’s standards, he wasn’t that old.  But he was gone, and that wonderful voice of wisdom and of unparalleled scholarship was gone, too.  The conference planned to celebrate his 80th birthday became a conference of retrospection on his career.

But Northrop Frye had already been dead for some time.

Not dead physically, of course, but dead in terms of his reputation, in terms of influence, in terms of his place in the intellectual world.  And nowhere was his reputation more collapsed than in the country of his birth and that earlier had been proud to claim him as his own, Canada.

Frye, as Bob Denham has reminded us, was for a time one of the most cited thinkers.  For a period he had remarkable influence in the academy—and not just in the academy, but in society more generally, especially Canadian society.  After all, nobody had more influence on the formation of Canadian literature as a discipline, and Canadian studies more generally, than he did.  He was a “public intellectual,” consulted by the Trudeau government, appearing on television, even consulted in the development of Expo 67 in Montreal.  But Frye’s influence vanished astonishingly rapidly.

Outside of Blake studies, his influence was intense but brief, beginning more or less with the publication of Anatomy of Criticism, and abruptly ending in the mid 70s in the centres of academic power, where it counts.  Bloom’s A Map of Misreading, basically a repudiation of Frye, is the indicator that the academic establishment would no longer tolerate Northrop Frye.  He was out.  Derrida was in.

Viewed more closely, Frye was always more popular with students than with academics.  For academics, there was always something uncomfortable and even unacceptable about Frye, and that explains, in part, why his reputation dwindled and disappeared as rapidly as it did.  Now, if you cite Frye favourably in a conference paper or an article or in some other academic setting, the likely reaction of your audience will be disbelief, if not open ridicule.  Canadianists have long since repudiated his ideas about Canada, and the once-famous Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada is now treated as colonialist bric-a-brac.  I hope I am exaggerating.

Yes, Frye is dead, in more than one sense.  True, there is a group of what Professor Denham calls “keepers of the flame,” but apart from a rather small (older) group, interest is feeble.

Last spring, at Carleton University, I met with Joseph Adamson and Michael Happy at the annual Social Sciences / Humanities Congress.   We wanted to find a way to stimulate interest in Frye, to bring back a focus on his work that would actually do justice to this vital thinker.  For years I’ve been wanting to start a journal on Frye-related concerns.  I wanted to get young people interested in Frye—really, to acquaint a new generation with this powerful and interesting thinker.  I wondered if a society should be formed.  Joe and Michael had similar ideas and wishes, and Michael had the brilliant idea of starting a blog, which you see here, and which has thrived mightily under the direction of Michael and Joe.

What I wanted, and what I believe they wanted, too, was not just a memorializing-biographical-bibliographical approach to Frye, but a forum which would stimulate interest in the sort of ideas that Frye worked with, that would develop and apply, and explicate in a fair and creative way, what Frye did, what Frye thought.  Frye has been so misrepresented, so caricatured and distorted, that the actual content of his ideas has rarely been discussed or given a real hearing.  In my own work, as his last Ph.D. student, I have always intended to follow his lead in developing the sort of ideas he pioneered, and my books Male Envy and 13 Ways of Looking at Images, though superficially very different from Frye, are yet, in my view, in the direct line of his thought.

To me, the extraordinary defacement of Frye’s thought is in itself a subject of deep interest.  Why is Frye not accorded the proper attention that a thinker of his depth and originality deserves?  I have always believed that there is something actually threatening about Frye, especially in the academy.

I wonder if others share this view.  And I wonder what we can do about it.  Bring on the new generation!