Category Archives: Teaching with Frye

Northrop Frye and the Social Function of Literature

I recall that in the earliest days of the blog we had a discussion about a possible course on Frye’s theory of literature and criticism and the ways in which they relate to wider culture, existential concerns, and social vision: Frye’s brand of “cultural studies” in short. I have put together an outline for a graduate course on just that subject and thought I might post it in the hope it may stir some discussion. I won’t be teaching the course until the winter terms of 2013 and I’d appreciate any helpful ideas or suggestions readers of the blog might have (a jazzier title might help catch the eye of theoretically jaded grad students). Here it is:

Northrop Frye and the Social Function of Literature

This course will explore the work of Northrop Frye’s mid to late career, after the publication of Anatomy of Criticism (1957). It was during this period that Frye’s attention turned more fully to the social function of literature and the exploration of its particular authority in society. In what ways do literature and the arts relate to social and existential concerns? What role does the study of literature have in education? What is the particular authority of literature, the humanities, and the arts and sciences in society? In what way does literature, as one of the liberal arts, exert a critical, liberalizing and even prophetic influence in a society? In what way is literature the expression of a particular historical culture, regional and national, and in what way does it have a more universal and trans-historical range of communication?

Frye remains today arguably the most important intellectual this country has produced, and yet many aspects of his thought have not yet received the engagement they deserve, largely because of the impact of Anatomy. And yet the latter is only the second of over twenty books he subsequently published, many of them with titles (or subtitles) such as “Essays on Criticism and Society,” “An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism,” “On Education,” and “Essays on Canadian Culture.” His final body of work, now fully represented in the thirty volumes of The Collected Works, contains an enormous amount of writing devoted to social and cultural criticism, much of which–most notably the fascinating material in his notebooks–was never published during his lifetime.

Along with a teasing out of the most important concepts and schemes of Frye’s thought, I hope the course will provide a lively forum to engage the ways in which Frye’s ideas about literature and society challenge many of the very different conceptions that have gained ascendency over the last twenty-five years. As a way of encouraging such a discussion, I am proposing, as a test case, to set Frye’s ideas against Jean-Paul Sartre’s landmark “What is Literature?” and Other Essays (1947), an essay which in many ways anticipates the issue-oriented, ideological, and politically committed critical theory that now represents the mainstream in literary studies.

Texts:  The texts listed below will be supplemented with selections from other collections of essays and books.

Northrop Frye: The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Criticism and Society (1970); The Critical Path: An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism (1971); Divisions on a Ground: Essays on Canadian Culture (1982); Creation and Recreation (1980);The Double Vision (1991)

 Jean-Paul Sartre: “What is Literature?” and Other Essays (1947)

Video of the Day/Quote of the Day: “Malice and stupidity usually go together”


I follow Sarah Palin closely because she is a pathological liar and a dangerously ignorant and self-serving demagogue who also happens to be virtual leader of the Republican party.  (Thank you, John McCain. Whatever became of that guy anyway?)  Every once in awhile you get a glimpse of the snarky, mean-spirited bully she is; as in this video taken yesterday in Homer, Alaska (where the divine Sarah claims to be commercial fishing, but as she hasn’t been issued any of the necessary licences, she may be lying about that too).

In any event, this clip speaks for itself.  Homer resident Kathleen Gustafson has put up a banner reading “Worst Governor Ever.”  Instead of letting it slide, Palin confronts her.  Gustafson is dignified and direct in her responses while Palin is sarcastic throughout (“Oh, you want me as your governor?  I am honored!)”  The two burly dudes trying to block the filming, causing the cameraman to engage in a tango of evasion between them, are husband Todd and a private bodyguard.  Note that they are doing so on private property, and it’s not their private property they’re on.  (Not that it makes any difference: Palin thinks the First Amendment is to protect her from the press, and not the other way around.)  Pay special attention to the exchange at 1.10 where Palin asks Gustafson what she does.  She replies, “I’m a teacher.”  Palin’s mama grizzly response is caught in all its unmistakable grisliness: a knowing groan, an eye-roll, a smirk to her daughter Bristol, and — through that unrelentingly nasty grin — a dismissive grimace.

After the filming stopped a Palin supporter pulled down the banner.  Again, on private property.  But when you’re messing with Palin, you forgo your rights.  Because only those who qualify as “mavericks” or “patriots” or “real Americans” as determined by Palin and her crew are protected by the Constitution.

Frye on teachers in “The Beginning of the Word”:

At his trial Socrates compared himself to a midwife, using what for that male-oriented society was a deliberately vulgar metaphor.  Perhaps the teacher of literature today might be called a kind of drug pusher.  He hovers furtively on the outskirts of social organization, dodging possessive parents, evading drill-sergeant educators and snoopy politicians, passing over the squares, disguising himself from anyone who might get at the source of his income.  If society really understood, there would be many who would make things as uncomfortable as they could for him, though luckily malice and stupidity usually go together.  When no one is looking, he distributes products that are guaranteed to expand the mind, and are quite capable of blowing it as well.  But if Canada ever becomes as famous in cultural history as the Athens of Socrates, it will be largely because, in spite of indifference or philistinism or even contempt, he has persisted in the immortal task granted only to teachers, the task of corrupting its youth.  (On Education, 20-21)

Teaching with Frye (1)


With this post, I am inaugurating a series documenting a year of teaching English, in which I plan to highlight the part played by Northrop Frye’s ideas.  For me, Frye has always been more important for my teaching than for my scholarly research and critical writing.  I am beginning now, rather than in September, because I have already had to do some thinking about my courses for the next academic year, which were assigned late in 2009.  Entries for the department Handbook were due last week, and that means I had to decide on at least the main focus and the assigned textbooks for the courses that I will be teaching.  If I find I have enough to say, and the energy and commitment to keep it up, I will post in this series until the end of classes in April, 2011.  (Academic life certainly keeps you planning ahead!)

First, a few words of introduction.  Teachers often keep journals for personal use, and there have been numerous publications such as James Phelan’s Beyond the Tenure Track: Fifteen Months in the Life of an English Professor (1991), a detailed account of events both professional and personal in the life of a professor moving into the mid-career phase. More recently, many students, professors, deans and other administrators write blogs in which academic life is a major focus.  I was partly inspired to start this series by the example of Rohan Maitzen’s regular feature “This Week in My Classes” at her blog Novel Readings. I do not plan to write a detailed diary about my teaching, and I will not provide regular commentary on what goes on in the classroom.  The plan is to write about some of the decisions I make, especially about what texts I choose and how I teach them.  In so doing, I will consider in what ways and to what extent Frye is a vade mecum for my work as a university teacher of English.  I hope that these occasional journal entries will be of some interest and use to other teachers and to students in the discipline.

To set the scene, I teach at Saint Mary’s University, a former Jesuit college that is now a medium-sized public university.  (I once taught Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist in a panelled classroom that had formerly been the Jesuits’ dining room).  We have an English department of 19 full-time members and offer a wide range of courses for a department of our size.  In 2010-2011, I am scheduled to teach a section of the first-year Introduction to Literature, the second-year survey course English Literary Traditions (6 hours), a third-year course on British literature from 1900-45, and an advanced course on the novels of the Brontë sisters.

In the survey course, along with the usual Norton anthology, I have decided to teach Measure for Measure, Sense and Sensibility, Frankenstein, and Hard Times.  These are all comfortable choices for me, and usually popular with the students.  The British course is a new one.  Thinking about my plans, I realize that they involve historical context and cultural studies to a fairly large extent, and also the dialectic between modernism and realism.  In spite of my love of at least some of the masterpieces of modernism, I have a fondness for the alternative poetic tradition that was championed by Philip Larkin, and for the English tradition of fictional realism that continued through the modernist period.  I will be teaching novels by E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Graham Greene.  Frye’s discussion in the Anatomy of realism and symbolism as two opposing literary poles will be useful in mapping the literature of the first half of the twentieth century, along with David Lodge’s The Modes of Modern Writing.  The influence of Yeats and Eliot, and then of Auden, can also usefully be described in the terms set out by Harold Bloom in his books on poetic influence.  As for the Brontës, another new course – thank goodness I am on leave at the moment! – my entry for the Handbook does little more than list the books, noting that there were three sisters, not two, and that Charlotte wrote more than just Jane Eyre.  The psychological and the sociological will figure prominently in this course, I expect, as will a kind of comparative phenomenology of the sisters’ novels.  Of course, I will go back to Frye on romance, and I recall a number of entries on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley in the notebooks.

That’s it for my first entry, and I imagine that I will add to this journal infrequently until late in the summer, when preparations for the academic year begin in earnest.