Category Archives: Memoir

Frye and I, A Skinny Chinese Guy: On the 19th Anniversary of His Death Jan. 23, 2010


Among my family and friends, Northrop Frye, Canada’s greatest thinker, is the forbidden four letter F-word.

No small talk, gossip or conversation begins or ends without my mentioning his name. Back from the cottage? Frye says you re-enacted the Exodus story, escaping the city for your promised land. A fan of the Dougs, Flutie or Gilmour?  Frye calls them the classic David/Goliath, underdog story. The success of The Blair Witch Project? Frye sees it as the ironic unhappy reversal of the Hansel/Gretel story, complete with witch, forest, trail of stones, and house. The demise of hockey czar, Alan Eagleson? Frye says life imitates literature, as Eagleson exploited players just like Bluebeard exploited his wives, until one dared to bring him down. My Ukrainian wife, Leah’s surprise “that the man of my dreams turns out to be a skinny Chinese guy”. Frye says beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, as my competition, the”tall, dark, and handsome” archetype, is, thankfully, a mass media construction.

Outside of the boxed holdings at U of T’s Victoria College, Frye’s Alma Mater, one of the greatest collection of Frye paraphernalia — autographs, out-of-print books, tape recordings, photos, films, videos, lecture notes, juvenilia, short stories, caricatures, cartoons, reviews, t-shirts, interviews, newsletters — belongs to me, a skinny Canadian Born Chinese Guy (CBC for short; American Born Chinese are ABCs). Frye fanatics at Victoria College were dubbed Fryedolators or SmallFrye.  My best man, R. Bingham, christened me StirFrye.

So, why do I, and so many others, love Frye? The short and long answer: he takes us everywhere we want to go. And today, on the 19th anniversary of his death, after the tributes of more qualified and distinguished academics and writers, I have finally gathered enough nerve to pay tribute to the greatest 20th century literary critic, on behalf of his favourite audience — the non-specialist, reading lay public.

Like many readers, I first encountered Frye in ENG 101, in “The Motive for Metaphor,”  an essay I read out of patriotic duty, as he and Atwood were the only Canadians represented.  Reading Frye reminded me when I first read Revelations:  understanding little, but the incredible rush of striking metaphors — in an essay, no less — clustered in my brain like a drug-induced dream, a Frye high for awakened minds. That piece led me to the rest of The Educated Imagination and his works.

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In Memoriam


Frye in 1957, the year he published Anatomy of Criticism

Abbate, Gay.  “Frye’s Legacy: Scholarship, Loyalty, Humanity: Lighting a Path for Those Who Follow.”  University of Toronto Bulletin 4 February 1991: 6–7.

Abley, Mark.  “One of Canada’s Foremost Intellectuals Dead at 78.”  Whig‑Standard (24 January 1991): 3.

“Anatomising Literature”  The Guardian [London and Manchester] (25 January 1991): 39.

Atwood, Margaret.  Canadian Literature 129 (Summer 1991): 242–3.

________University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 4–5. Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 7.

________.  “The Great Communicator.”  Globe and Mail (24 January 1991): C1; rpt. in Journal of Canadian Poetry 6 (1991): 1–3.

________.  [Tribute].  Brick 40 (1991): 3.

Barber, David.  “The Formidable Scholar.”  The Whig-Standard Magazine (2 February 1991): 5. [Based on an interview with A.C. Hamilton.]

Barnes, Bart.  “Canadian Literary Critic Northrop Frye Dies at 78.”  Washington Post (24 January) 1991: D6.

Barilli, Renato.  “Frye, corsi e ricorsi della letteratura.”  Corriere della Sera (27 January 1991).

Bemrose, John.  “The Great Decoder: Northrop Frye Explored Culture’s Myths.”  Maclean’s 104 (4 February 1991): 51–2.

Bevington, David.  “Northrop Frye.”  American Philosophical Society, Proceedings 137, no.1 (March 1993): 125.

Bissell, Claude T.  The Independent [London] (26 January 1991): 12.  Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 10.

________.  “Northrop Frye Remembered.”  University of Toronto Magazine 18 (Spring 1991): 10.

________University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 8–9.

Brown, Gord.  “Norrie’s Wisdom Lives on in His Writings and Students.”  the newspaper [University of Toronto] (30 January 1991): 5.

Buckley, Jerome. “Northrop Frye Remembered by His Students.”  Journal of Canadian Poetry 6 (1991): 4.

C., G.  “Northrop Frye, dalla Bibbia alla civiltà della parola.”  La Stampa (25 January 1991).

C., R.  “É morto Frye l’innovatore.”  La Nazione (25 January 1991).

Chamberlain, Ted.  University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 9–10.  Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 11.

Christian Century 108 (20–27 March 1991):  321.

Cook, Eleanor.  “Northrop Frye as Colleague.”  Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 18.

Cooley, Dennis.  “The Educated Imaginer: Northrop Frye (1912–1991).  Border Crossings 2 (April 1991): 78.

Cosway, John.  “Changes.” The Sunday Sun [Toronto] (27 January 1991): 109.

“Critic Northrop Frye Dead at 78.”  Toronto Star (23 January 1991): 28.

Dahlin, Karina.  “ U of T Remembers Its Greatest Humanist.”  University of Toronto Bulletin (4 February 1991): 1–2.

Denham, Robert D.  “Northrop Frye: 1912–1991.”  Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly 24 (Spring 1991): 158–9.

Downey, Donn.  “Literary Scholar Regarded as Great Cultural Figure.”  Globe and Mail (24 January 1991): D6.

Fabiny, Tibor.  “Érdekeltség és szabadság” [“Concern and Freedom”].  Nagyvilág (December 1991).

Fisher, Douglas.  “A Frydolator Remembers.”  Toronto Sun (25 January 1991): 11.

________.  “Frye was Right about Quebec.”  The Sunday Sun [Toronto] (27 January 1991): C3.

Fletcher, Angus.  “In Memoriam.  Northrop Frye (1912–1991).”  New Vico Studies 9 (1991): 153–4.

Flint, Peter.  “Northrop Frye, 78, Literary Critic, Theorist and Educator, Is Dead.”  New York Times (25 January 1991): B14.

Foley, Joan.  University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 6.  Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 8.

Forst, Graham.  “Remembering Norrie, Critic and Teacher.”  Vancouver Sun (26 January 1991): D24.

“Frye, Herman Northrop.”  Current Biography 52, no. 3 (March 1991): 60.

“Frye’s Genius Recalled in Tributes.”  Toronto Star (24 January 1991): D1.

Fulford, Robert.  “Frye’s Soaring Cathedral of Thought.”  Globe and Mail (26 January 1991): C16.

Garrido-Gallardo, Miguel Angel.  “Northrop Frye (1912–1991).”  Revista de Literatura 53 (January–June 1991): 175–7.

Globe and Mail (25 January 1991): D8.

Guarini, Ruggero.  “Una vita per due gemelle, bellezza e verità. . . .”  Il Messaggero (25 January 1991).

Hamilton, A. C.  University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 10–11.  Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 11.

________.  “Northrop Frye: 1912–1991.”  Quill & Quire 57 (March 1991); rpt. in Journal of Canadian Poetry 6 (1991): 5–7.

Harron, Don.  “A Memory of Frye.”  Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 19.

Hartley, Brian.  “Life in the Resurrection: Remembering Northrop Frye.”  Herald (March, 1991).

Hoffman, John.  University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 2.  Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 4.

Jensen, Bo Green.  “Kritikeren, Northrop Frye, 78 †r.”  Weekendavisen [Denmark] (1 February 1991).

Johnston, Alexandra F.  University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 14–15.  Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 15.

________.  “In Memoriam: Chancellor Northrop Frye.”  Victoria College Council, Minutes of the Meeting of 11 February 1991.  Typescript. 3 pp.

J[ohnson], P[hil].  “A Tribute to Northrop Frye.”  Pietisten 6 (April 1991): 5.

Juneau, Pierre.  “The Power of Frye’s Words.”  The Financial Post (28 January 1991): 8.

________University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 13–14.  Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 14.

Kenner, Hugh.  “Northrop Frye, R I P.”  National Review 43 (25 February 1991): 19.

Kushner, Eva.  University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 12–13.  Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 13.

Laux, Cameron. The Independent [London] (30 January 1991): 13.

Lee, Alvin.  “Northrop Frye: 1912–1991.”  The McMaster Courier (12 February 1991): 5.

________University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 11–12.  Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 12.

Lee, Hope. “Tribute to Northrop Frye.” Presented on the CBC Sunday Morning Program, 27 January 1991. Typescript, 1 p.

“Literary Critic Dies.”  Richmond Times-Dispatch (24 January 1991): B2.

“Literary Critic Rode Subway Daily to Work.”  Niagara Falls Review (24 January 1991): 7.

Lombardo, Agostino, Baldo Meo, and Piero Boitani.  “Il Pagione [A Tribute to Frye].”  Broadcast on Italian Radio—RAI, 19 February 1991, at 4:30 p.m.

McBurney, Ward.  University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 6–7.  Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 89–9.

McGibbon, Pauline.  University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 4.  Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 6.

McIntyre, John P.  “Northrop Frye (1912–91).”  America 165, no. 1 (6 July 1991): 14–15.

Marchand, Philip.  “Frye Really Believed that Literature Could Save Society.”  Toronto Star (24 January 1991): D1.

________.  “Premier, Friends Pay Tribute to Northrop Frye.”  Toronto Star (30 January 1991): E1, E6.

Meo, Baldo.  “Northrop Frye e i nuovi furori della critica letteraria.”  l’Unita 25 (January 1991): 19.

Miller, Daniel.  “Northrop Frye Remembered by U of T.”  the newspaper [University of Toronto] (30 January 1991): 10.

Moriz, Andre.  “Northrop Frye Tribute Service Draws 800.”  The Varsity [University of Toronto] (31 January 1991): 12.

“La morte in Canada di Frye: critica e società.”   Il Gazzettino [Venice] (25 January 1991).

“É morto Northrop Frye teorico della letteratura.”  Corriere della Sera (25 January 1991).

“É morto il critico Northrop Frye.”  Il Giornale (25 January 1991).

“É morto il critico Northrop Frye.”   Il Tempo (25 January 1991).

“É morto a Toronto Northrop Frye risalì al ‘profondo’ dell’opera letteraria.”  Gazzetta del Sud (25 January 1991).

“Morto critico litterario canadese Northrop Frye.”  ANSA News Agency, Rome (24 January 1991).

Mulhallen, Karen.  “In Memoriam, Northrop Frye, 1912–1991, R.I.P.”  Descant 21–22 (Winter–Spring 1990–91): 7.

Newsweek (4 February 1991): 76.

“Northrop Frye.”  St. Louis Post-Dispatch (24 January 1991): 4C.

“Northrop Frye.”  The Daily Telegraph (25 January 1991): 19.

O’Malley, Martin.  “The Ordinary Side of an Extraordinary Man.”  United Church Observer (March 1991): 16.

Nolan, Nicole, and Hilary Williams.  “Memorial for Frye.”  The Strand [Victoria University] (30 January 1991): 1.

“Northrop Frye.”  Times [London] (26 January 1991): 12.

“Northrop Frye 1912–1991.”  Toronto Star (1 November 1992): 70.

“Northrop Frye.”  Toronto Star (24 January 1991): A26.  [Editorial].

Outram, Richard.  “In Memory of Northrop Frye.”  Globe and Mail (16 February 1991): C16; rpt. in Northrop Frye Newsletter 3, no 2 (Spring 1991): 36.

Pentland, Howard.  University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 15–17. Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 17.

Placido, Beniamino.  “É morto Northrop Frye.”  La Repubblica (25 January 1991).

Polizoes, Elias.  “Northrop Frye’s Legacy Pivotal.”  Varsity [University of Toronto] (25 January 1991): 12

Prichard, Robert.  University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 2–3.  Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 4.

Rae, Bob.  University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 3–4.  Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 5.

Reaney, James.  “Northrop Frye: He Educated Our Imagination.”  Toronto Star (24 January 1991): A27.

“Remembering Frye.”  Globe and Mail (26 January 1991): C10.

Saddlemyer, Ann.  University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 7–8.  Appears also in Vic Report 19 (Spring 1991): 9.

Sewell, Gregory.  “Literary Critic Northrop Frye Dead.”  Varsity [University of Toronto] (25 January 1991): 1.

Stefani, Claudio.  “Il molto reverendo Frye.”  Il Resto del Carlino (25 January 1991).

Stone, George Winchester.  “Herman Northrop Frye (14 July 1912–23 January 1991).”  PMLA 106, no. 3 (May 1991): 564, 566.

Stuewe, Paul.  “Northrop Frye, 1912–1991.”  Books in Canada 20, no. 2 (March 1991): 9.

Teskey, Gordon.  “Eulogy of Northrop Frye.”  Annual Dinner of the Milton Society, San Francisco, 28 December 1992.  Typescript. 4 pp.

Theall, Donald F.  “In Memoriam.”  Science Fiction Studies 18, no. 2 (July 1991): 288–90.

Thompson, Clive.  “Frye First and Foremost a Great Teacher.”  The Strand (30 January 1991): 5.

Time (4 February 1991): 61.

Toronto Star (26 January 1991): D7.

Tredell, Nicholas.  “Northrop Frye.”  PN Review 17 (May–June 1991): 8.

Vega, María José. “La Literatura como Orden: En la muerte de Northrop Frye.”  Revista de Extremadura (Segunda época) 9 (September–December 1992): 71–4.

Warkentin, Germaine.  “The Loss of Northrop Frye.”

Weinbrot, Howard.  “On Northrop Frye in Minneapolis, 1990.  A Memorial.” Johnsonian News Letter 50 (September & December 1991): 39–5.

Frye and the Supernatural


I’ve been mulling over Clayton’s comment about Frye’s antisupernatruralism. There are close to a hundred places in Frye’s writings where he uses the word “supernatural,” but I don’t get the sense from these references that he’s antisupernatural. Most often Frye’s use of “supernatural” does not point to some transcendent religious realm or being. For him, the supernatural is what is fantastic (ghosts, vampires, omens, portents, oracles, magic, witchcraft, and the like) or above nature––as in the heroes of myth in the Anatomy: superior to other people (superhuman) and to their environment (supernatural). The supernatural would include the “children of nature” (“the helpful fairy, the grateful dead man, the wonderful servant who has just the abilities the hero needs in a crisis,” Anatomy 196–7) that we find in folk tales and romances. For Frye the supernatural is not a term that is opposed to unbelief. It’s simply the antithesis of the natural. In his essay on Emily Dickinson he writes, “the supernatural is only the natural disclosed: the charms of the heaven in the bush are superseded by the heaven in the hand.” Sometimes Frye speaks of the supernatural as phenomena that are difficult to explain. He reports on this episode with his mother:

She has always regarded her mind as something passive, worked on by external supernatural forces, and is very unwilling to think that anything might be a creation of her own mind—besides, it flatters her spiritual pride to think of herself as a kind of Armageddon. She told me that once she was working in her kitchen when a voice said to her “Don’t touch the stove!” So she jumped back from it, and something caught her and flung her against the table. Half an hour later the voice came again, “Don’t touch the stove!” She jumped back again and this time was thrown violently on the floor. When Dad came home for dinner he found her with a black eye and a bruised shin. I have read a story by Thomas Mann in which he tells of seeing a similar thing in a spiritualistic séance [the episode involving Ellen Brand toward the end of Mann’s Magic Mountain—the section entitled “Highly Questionable” in chapter 7]: that story was the basis of the priest’s remark to the ghost in my Acta Victoriana sketch: “If you are very lucky, you may get a chance to beat up a medium or two” [“The Ghost”]. Mother has also heard noises like tapping and so on, and was tickled to get hold of a copy of a Reader’s Digest in which a writer describes having gone through exactly similar experiences [Louis E. Bisch, “Am I Losing My Mind?” Reader’s Digest, 27 (November 1935), 10–14.] The best way to deal with mother is, I think, to get her books telling of similar things that have happened to other people: she’s not crazy, but might be excused for thinking she was if she didn’t realize that such things are more common than she imagines. She was delighted with my Acta story, and I’ll try to get her that Mann thing and C.E.M. Joad’s Guide to Modern Thought, which has a chapter on those phenomena. (Frye-Kemp Correspondence, 13 August 1936).

In Fearful Symmetry Frye speaks of the supernatural as the human creative power: “All works of civilization, all the improvements and modifications of the state of nature that man has made, prove that man’s creative power is literally supernatural. It is precisely because man is superior to nature that he is so miserable in a state of nature” (41). Frye’s reaction to natural religion, with its premise of the analogia entis [anology of being], is almost always negative. Both Word and Spirit, he declares in his Late Notebooks, can be used without any sense of the supernatural attached to them.

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Who Was Elizabeth Fraser?

Fraser's ullus.2

Illustration by Elizabeth Fraser

In mid‑October 1936 Frye has a chance encounter with Elizabeth Fraser, a Canadian graphic artist and book illustrator with whom he and Helen Kemp had had a passing acquaintance in Toronto and who was living in London and (sometimes) in Oxford.  “We parted with expressions of esteem,” Frye writes to Helen, “and promises to come together later.  I may give a tea for her and [Douglas] LePan soon.  She looks interesting.”  But before he can send an invitation, Fraser asks him over for a meal, which he accepts, showing up at her place two weeks later.  Thus begins the most intriguing relationship Frye has during the year.  Fraser, a pipe‑smoking free spirit who is twelve years older than Frye, is trying to survive in Oxford by illustrating books, always living on the brink of insolvency.  One of her projects, described in some detail in Frye’s letter of 3 November 1936, mystifies him because he cannot imagine why she is drawn to the turgid prose of the text.  Fraser completes twenty or so extraordinary drawings for the book, which turns out to be Plato’s Academy: The Birth of the Idea of Its Rediscovery by Pan Aristophron, published in 1938 by Oxford University Press.  Frye says that Fraser is “a very remarkable girl” and is attracted to her ideas, which he says “have been gradually developing the way mine have on Blake, into a more and more objective unity all the time,” as well as to her drawings, which he sees “as sincere as the book is faked, and as concrete as the book is vague.”

Aristophron says nothing at all in his preface about Fraser’s drawings, which are identified only by her stylized initials—EF—tucked away in the corner of several of the illustrations.  The book was printed by John Johnson, “Printer to the University” and also a friend of Fraser’s.

Fraser was also interested in preserving wall paintings in medieval churches, and so she and Frye would go to churches in and around Oxford and sketch the paintings, which are in various states of disintegration.  They share each other’s company on a number of occasions during November and December 1936, having tea together, going on a “pub‑crawl,” hiking to the countryside and surrounding villages on numerous occasions, and seeing plays and movies together.  “God knows what one can make of the girl,” Frye tells Helen. “Her relief at finding someone who wouldn’t blush and look the other way when she powdered her nose and who wouldn’t think she was a fallen woman if she wanted to go find a bush in the course of the walk suggested that she had been making rather a fool of herself in front of Englishmen recently—I suspect she has a genius for that.”  They continue to see each other frequently throughout the 1937 Easter term.  Toward the end of the term Frye writes to Helen that Elizabeth is “a lonely girl with lots of courage, pride and sensitiveness, but she is a swell girl.  She hits hard and rubs people the wrong way, in a way I think you understand, after six years of me, but she’s more honest and straightforward than I am and has more guts.  You’ll love her when you meet her.”  Both Frye and Fraser frequently borrow money from each other, and each is attracted to the other’s creative bent, even though Frye hardly knows how to respond to some of her illustrations and designs.

After completing his examinations at the end of his first term at Oxford, Frye finds himself miserable and penniless, waiting to receive the next instalment of his Royal Society grant so he can go to London for the Christmas vacation.  But his spirits are lifted by the arrival of ₤50 from the Royal Society and by “a fairly concentrated dose” of Elizabeth Fraser.  On 19 December he escapes to London for the holidays, staying with Edith and Stephen Burnett, friends of Kemp through Norah McCullough, the educational supervisor at the Art Gallery of Toronto.  Elizabeth Fraser shows up in London on 26 December for a five‑day visit, and she and Frye attend two performances of Murder in the Cathedral. (Fraser gets sick at the first performance and has to be hauled home in a taxi). They also wander out to Hampton Court to see a painting by Mantegna.

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Frye as Teacher


In the course of editing Frye’s Diaries––more than a decade ago now––I sought to identify the more than 1,200 people whose names crop up in the diary entries.  I corresponded with a number of these people, 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.  The correspondents were generous in their responses.  The more than one hundred replies I received, many quite extensive, provide a rather remarkable body of reminiscence.

One leitmotif that runs throughout the letters I received 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. (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)

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Don Harron: My Frye, His Blake

Don Harron

Some years ago one of Frye’s former students, Don Harron, sent me a copy of My Frye, His Blake, saying that it had been rejected by a university press because it was not academic enough.   Harron’s summary of Frye’s Fearful Symmetry, however, was intended not for an academic audience but for the common reader.  Harron calls his 279‑page summary a down‑sizing of Frye’s complicated and sometime difficult exposition of Blake’s prophecies.  My Frye, His Blake is an abridgement of Fearful Symmetry.  It is not so much an effort to simplify Frye as to make him more accessible to the nonspecialist by presenting, in Pound’s phrase, the “gists and piths” of Frye’s book––a concentrated form of its argument, combining his own summaries with Frye’s words.  I’m hopeful that it might yet find a publisher.

Here’s Harron’s preface:


To deal first with that somewhat presumptuous and proprietary title: I am one of Northrop Frye’s former students, but can lay no special claim to him.  Like James Hilton’s fictional “Mr. Chips,” he and his wife Helen remained childless throughout their lives, but bred thousands of devoted, surrogate progeny like myself, who considered them both as role models during that green island in our lives we call college days.

I was heartened by the announcement that all of Frye’s literary output is to be re-issued in a thirty‑volume collection.  At the same time I worried that his legacy might be confined to academic circles, and miss the larger public he freely sought during his lifetime.  This attempt of mine to summarize the first of his many books may be construed by some as a kind of Blake for Dummies, but that is not my intention.

The origin of My Frye, His Blake stems from the first essay I ever wrote for the great man back in 1946.  I forget the subject of my paper, but I will never forget the mark he gave me.  It was a C‑minus.  He added the words: “This is mostly B.S. , but you do have a gift for making complex ideas simple.”  The latter half of that cryptic statement is the reason for this book.

I was a freshman at Victoria College, University of Toronto, in 1942, but since I was enrolled in a course known as Sock and Fill (Social and Philosophical studies), I didn’t have any lectures with Northrop Frye that first year.  It was months before I got to hear him in a public lecture on “Satire: Theory and Practice.”  I sat beside two nuns from St. Michael’s College who rocked back and forth with delight as Frye quoted Pope and Swift and Dr. Johnson and added more than a few ripostes of his own.  They nearly rolled in the aisle when he quoted Dante reaching the dead center of evil and passing through the arse of the Devil to the shores of Purgatory.

When I returned to Vic in 1945 after two years’ undistinguished service in the RCAF, it was general campus knowledge that the book Northrop Frye had been thinking about and writing for more than ten years was on the English poet and engraver William Blake (1757–1827).  Fearful Symmetry is considered by many to be the most complex of Frye’s writings.  It was his second book, the Anatomy of Criticism written ten years later, that gave him his international reputation as a literary critic.  When I took courses with him in Spenser and Milton during my undergraduate years 1945–48, he was in the throes of preparing the Anatomy, and a good deal of that book came out in his lectures to us.

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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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Gloria Boyd: Norrie dans le metro


As it’s the eve of Thanksgiving, this poignant little memoir published in The Globe & Mail eight years ago seems appropriate.

FACTS & ARGUMENTS ESSAY from the Toronto Globe and Mail, April 25, 2001.

Escalating insight into a subway friend. Probably the big reason he enjoyed talking to me was that I didn’t know and didn’t care who he was.


I took a French literature course at the University of Toronto 22 years ago.  Since parking was difficult, I would take the bus and the subway to class.  Every time I tried to get off the bus, the exit was blocked by an elderly, portly gentleman dressed in a dark coat.  I would brush past him with a swift, “Excuse me,” and run down the subway stairs, only to find that there was no train.

Eventually, the old man ambled down and gave me an amused look, as if he wanted to say, “You see, there’s no point in rushing.”  Three times a week I would stand on the platform, anxiously looking to the left to see if a flickering light emerging from the tunnel would announce the approaching train.  Afterwards, I would turn my head in the opposite direction to watch the old man walk down the stairs.  He walked slowly and patiently, distributing his weight evenly over each step with precision and determination.  The train must have known to wait for him, as it always pulled in obligingly as he reached the platform.

After a while he started to smile at me and I smiled back.  Then the smiles turned into “Good morning,” and one day he sat down beside me and we started to talk.  We never bothered to introduce ourselves and talked about impersonal subjects—the theatre, cinema and travel.  He told me that he was going to take his wife to Australia, and I talked about my impending visit to my native Hungary.  I began to look forward to my subway rides with the old man.  Looking back now, I realize that I did most of the talking and he listened patiently to my incessant silly chatter.

Then one day I had to tell him, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you today.  I have to analyze a poem.”  I explained that I was taking a French literature course at the University of Toronto and added, “I don’t know if you know anything about poetry, but I find it most confusing.”

The old man didn’t answer, and sat silently beside me as I read and re-read a poem by Rimbaud.  It wasn’t until I closed my book that he turned to me and asked, “What seems to be your problem?  Is it the French?”

“Oh, no. My French is fine.  It’s just that poetry is taught so differently now from the way it was when I went to school, and all those metaphors and similes drive me crazy.”

The old man said he would like to recommend a book which might help me.  He didn’t strike me as someone who knew much about literature, but I wasn’t going to hurt his feelings, and obediently wrote down the title of the book.  After I left him, I realized he hadn’t told me the name of the author.  I went back to him as he was coming up the escalator and said, “You didn’t tell me who wrote the book.”

I did,” he replied quietly.

A little surprised, I asked “So, what’s your name?”

He answered shyly, almost inaudibly, “Northrop Frye.”

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Reply to Jonathan Allan: Invasion of the Body Snatchers


I was intrigued by Jonathan Allan’s description of graduate studies at the University of Toronto. It is probably similar to the experience elsewhere for many students, certainly at McMaster. Clayton’s comments about being in the classroom capture it beautifully: a rhetorical dance, a danse macabre I am afraid, the dance of the death of logic. Little wonder Clayton fled into computer science. His description of it as a rhetorical performance void of argument strikes me as very apt.

At the risk of descending into testimonial, I would like to share my own experience, mid-seventies to mid-eighties, just as the the new critical theories were beginning to take hold. French theory had begun its invasion, and I was then a graduate student, like Jonathan, in Comparative Literature, the “House of High Theory,” as he puts it, at the University of Toronto. Comparative literature departments at the time were the advance-guard of literary theory, particularly deconstruction and post-structuralism. Those were heady days and the new wave moved swiftly, and seductively, and soon broke down the walls of last resistance, English departments, which were of course as much opposed to Frye in many cases as they were to the new theorists (Frye has been controversial from the beginning). At the time, comparative literature students were regarded with great suspicion by professors in English, since we were known to be the hosts, the vectors that threatened the establishment with the disease called deconstruction. But it wasn’t long before many of them succumbed as well, though Toronto, given its conservatism, was certainly the last bastion to fall.

As is usual with such things, the new theorists first protested that they simply wanted the freedom to pursue their own work without prejudice, but once the tide turned it quickly became an imperial enterprise and the tune changed: now that they were the establishment, it was their sacred duty, in the name of the revolution, to ensure that the new approaches become the only work that young scholars be exposed to. By this time post-structuralism had paved the way, via Althusser and Foucault, for New Historicism and the ideologically militant Cultural Studies.

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Barry Callaghan’s Memoir of Norrie and Morley (and a little Alice Munro too)


Lest this blog get too serious, here’s a little episode from Barry Callaghan, Barrelhouse Kings (Toronto: MacArthur and Co., 1998), pp. 551–7. [The ellipses are Callaghan’s.] A briefer account of the Frye/Gale episode is recorded in an interview with Callaghan by Roger B. Mason in Books in Canada 22, no. 5 (July 1993).

The supper to launch A Wild Old Man on the Road –– a story about two writers, a meditation on the nature of celebrity, youth and age, fathers and sons, betrayal and love— was given at George Guernon’s Le Bistingo by General Publishing, his new house headed by my old friend and first publisher, Nelson Doucet. There were some seventy people there . . . the one writer in the country that Morley [Barry’s father] truly admired and felt affection for — Alice Munro — and the premier, David Peterson, and Zachary flew in from Saratoga, and Peter Gzowski and Greg Gatenby, Robert Fulford and Northrop Frye all had a chair. In charge of chairs, I had mischievously put the actress Gale Garnett beside Frye on a banquette. The great scholar, whose public manner was often “shy reluctance” (masking an enthusiasm for the scatological), eyed her ample cleavage. People kept interrupting with “Good evening, Doctor Frye” and “Very pleased, Doctor Frye,” until Gale—a forthright literate woman of gumption, beauty and wit, a trouper in the finest sense (schooled as a girl by John Huston, a star in Hair, a companion to Pierre Trudeau, a journalist for The Village Voice, novelist and a mature actress in fine movies, including Mr. and Mrs. Bridge), said, “Doesn’t anyone ever talk to you like a human being?”

“Not often,” Frye said.

“I’ve a cure for that,” she said, taking two red sponge balls out of her purse. She squeezed one, it opened, and she clamped it on his nose. She damped the other on her own nose and the two sat side-by-side beaming, clowns on a banquette.

A film producer from Amsterdam cried, “Norrie, how are you?” Frye stood up and clasped his hands, saying, “Fine, fine.” Gale handed out a half-dozen clown’s noses and soon Greg Gatenby and Francesca Valente, director of the Istituto Italiano, and Premier Peterson were posing with Frye for snapshots, all clowning, happily wearing red noses.

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