[This book was written in a three-month frenzy in the early months of 1972—38 years ago. Its original form was a dissertation, and it naturally reveals all the limitations of that genre. My original intent was to subject Frye to an Aristotelian four-cause analysis in order to uncover the features of his critical theory. The book focuses on “method” as I had come to understand that term from my Chicago mentors. Wayne Booth admonished me to read Frye on his own terms, and that is what I tried to do. This means that the book is mainly expository. It has many faults, one of the more obvious being the absence of context. It also has a good measure of naïvetè, immaturity, and other flaws, including sexist language. If it has any virtues, one may be in its effort to explain how Frye’s mind worked.—RDD, February 2010]

To Rachel

© 2010 Robert D. Denham. All rights have reverted to the author.

Originally published in 1978 by The Pennsylvania State University

Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication Data

Denham, Robert D.
     Northrop Frye and critical method.
Includes bibliographical references and index. 1. Criticism. 2. Frye, Northrop. 3. Title. PN81.D39 901’.95’0924 78–50001 ISBN: 0-271-00546-7

Page numbers in curly braces refer to the PSUP edition.


The criticism of Northrop Frye represents one of the most impressive achievements in the recent history of critical thought. He is “probably the most influential critic writing in English since the 1950’s,” according to Walter Jackson Bate. “Certainly in the English speaking world,” he says, “Frye’s importance since 1957 (the date of his Anatomy of Criticism) is unique.”1 Murray Krieger remarks that Frye “has had an influence—indeed an absolute hold—on a generation of developing literary critics greater and more exclusive than that of any one theorist in recent critical history.”2 Frank Kermode says that the Anatomy is the one book published within the previous decade that he finds himself returning to most often, adding that Frye has “the best mind in the business except for William Empson’s.”3 Harold Bloom observes that Frye “has earned the reputation of being the leading theoretician of literary criticism among all those writing in English today.”4 And the editors of a recent anthology of modern criticism refer to Frye as an indispensable critic, linking him with Eliot, Pound, and Richards as the major critics of our age. “More than any other modern critic,” they say, “he stands at the center of critical activity.”5 These are typical expressions of the respect Frye’s work commands. His importance as a critic need not be argued: it is one of the givens of modern critical discussion. Although many have disagreed with him, especially with his attempt to formulate a comprehensive and systematic theory of criticism independent of value judgments, few within his own field have ignored him.

But though he has been read, discussed, and debated for a generation, no one has undertaken a systematic and comprehensive study of his work as a whole. The commentary continues to grow, but even the best accounts are limited in one of two ways. On the one hand, students of Frye who have chosen to examine a single topic in his work have provided us only a partial view. On the other hand, when the interpreters’ aims have been more universal and inclusive, general statement and summary have preempted detailed analysis. Thus, while a number {viii} of commentaries have contributed to our understanding of Frye’s work, none has been at once detailed and comprehensive. My own study is based on the conviction that the whole of his criticism merits a closer analysis than has yet been attempted. I have tried therefore to go beyond what others have said about Frye by placing the details of his argument in the context of his total view of literature and criticism.

Frye’s work has been subjected to a variety of mistaken interpretations and judgments. These range from distortion at one extreme to a failure of understanding at the other. Lying somewhere between are the many oversimplifications which do injustice to his work in one way or another. My own study does not atone for all the inadequacies. In the first place, although I have aimed at a comprehensive analysis, I have had to be selective at some points. This is especially true of my treatment of Frye’s practical criticism. But I have tried to do justice to each area of his work—to his theoretical, his practical, and his cultural or social criticism. In any case, an attempt to account for all of Frye’s writings would be a monumental and unrealistic task. He has been extraordinarily prolific, having written now some fifteen books and more than 330 essays, reviews, and contributions to books.6 There are doubtless times when I too have oversimplified, distorted, and failed to understand Frye. I hope that these are few and that I have at least minimized the partial and the erroneous views.

The chief reasons, then, for this study are three: Frye is eminent enough as a critic to deserve a thorough investigation, and the treatment he has thus far received has been either incomplete or misguided. A third reason is personal, springing from my fascination with the quality of Frye’s mind and from a desire to know what makes it work. His speculations about literature raise most of the important critical issues: he asks the right questions; and even when his answers are unsatisfactory or unconvincing, the additional questions he forces us to ask are never trivial. His theory is complex and subtle, intricately designed and expansive in scope, forever moving outward from the literary work into a broad series of contexts. It is like a Gothic cathedral, and to ask about the mind of its architect is to ask about the method behind the theory. How can we make clear what Frye has said and, more important, his reasons for saying it? These questions underlie what follows. By examining the problems Frye is trying to solve, the nature of his particular subject matter, the principles and concepts of his critical language, and his mode of reasoning, we can arrive, I think, at a special kind of understanding of his work. These are the four issues I have tried to keep in mind throughout.7 

Any discussion of Frye which hopes to do justice to his critical theory as a whole must account for Anatomy of Criticism. I have taken {ix} this as the chief document to be explained. My first four chapters attempt to trace its argument, one chapter being devoted to each of the four theories developed there—the theories of modes, symbols, myths and genres.

In chapter 5 I examine Frye’s ideas about critical and literary autonomy, the scientific nature of criticism, value judgments, and the social function of the critic, all of which are important theoretical questions raised in the Anatomy and elsewhere. Chapter 6 is an effort to see how Frye puts his own theories to work. It includes analyses of his practical, historical, and social criticism. In particular, I examine his writings on Milton, his essay on “the age of sensibility,” his study of English Romanticism, and The Critical Path.

The dangers I have sought to avoid in each of these chapters are the Scylla of the prejudiced opponent whose bias precludes objectivity and the Charybdis of the dogmatic disciple whose exuberance inhibits understanding. The moderate course between these extremes is a proper combination of sympathy and disinterestedness, and that is what I have aimed for. In the final chapter, which is an “essay” in the original sense of the term, I point out some of the problematic areas of Frye’s criticism, pose several alternative solutions, and discuss the powers and limitations of his method.

Everyone who has read Frye knows that he is a schematic thinker. The diagrammatic form of his thought, with its multilateral symmetries, has been the object of both praise and censure, and sometimes even of fun. Meyer Abrams remarks, not altogether facetiously, that Frye’s division and subdivision of the various modes, symbols, archetypes, and genres “is reminiscent of the mediaeval encyclopaedic tables designed to comprehend the omne scibile; instinctively though in vain the reader looks for an appendix that will open out into a square yard of tabular diagram.”8 We should not be misled by the tone here, for the schematic design of the Anatomy is clearly an integral part of Frye’s purpose and method. He has said, in fact, that he did have specific diagrams in mind when he wrote the Anatomy,9 and he has commented on the similarity between his view of literature and the mandala vision, the mandala being a projection of the way one sees.10 For these reasons, I have from time to time produced the kind of schematic model Abrams calls for. Because diagrams necessarily oversimplify and suggest a rigidity of thought which is foreign to the whole tone of Frye’s work, I offer them only as expository aids.

This book would not have been possible without the encouragement and helpful advice of Wayne C. Booth and Elder Olson. My introduction to criticism came by way of the Poetics in the classroom of Elder Olson, and to him I owe a large intellectual debt. It was under {x} the direction of Wayne Booth, however, that this study first took shape, and to him I owe a number of special debts, for helping to provide me with tools of analysis and ways of thinking, as well as all the nameless, unremembered acts. To both teachers I acknowledge my gratitude. I am also grateful to Lawrence I. Lipking, Robert Scholes, and W.T. Jewkes, who read earlier versions of the book, for their astute comments and helpful suggestions.

I express my deep appreciation to Northrop Frye for his generous responses to my inquiries over the years and for granting me permission to quote from his works. To discover and keep track of his long, still-growing list of writings would have been infinitely more difficult without his kind and attentive replies to my queries.

I also wish to thank Emory & Henry College and the National Endowment for the Humanities for research grants which enabled me to complete this study.

Portions of the book have appeared elsewhere in slightly different form. I am grateful to the editors of the following journals for permission to reprint my own work: Connecticut Review, South Atlantic Bulletin, Xavier University Studies, Centrum, South Carolina Review, and Canadian Literature. The preface and the final chapter incorporate some material from the “Introduction” to my Northrop Frye: An Enumerative Bibliography (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974). Portions of chapters 1, 2, and 7 appeared in the “Introduction” to Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature: A Collection of Review Essays, ed. Robert Denham (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978). I wish to thank the editors of these two presses for permission to use some of my own words again.


1. {233} Criticism: The Major Texts (enlarged ed.; New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), pp. 597, xiv–xv.

2. “Northrop Frye and Contemporary Criticism,” in Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism, ed. Murray Krieger (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), p. 1.

3. American Scholar 34 (1965): 484.

4. “Northrop Frye Exalting the Designs of Romance,” New York Times Book Review, 18 April 1976, p. 21. Bloom’s opinion is echoed by Gregory T. Poletta, Issues in Contemporary Criticism (Boston: Little Brown, 1973): “Northrop Frye . . . is the foremost theorist of literature writing in English since the 1950’s” (p. 6). While Frye’s work is of course best known among English and American readers, the Anatomy has been translated into German, French, Italian, and Spanish, and there have been ten translations of his other books into these languages as well as Japanese.

5. Lawrence I. Lipking and A. Walton Litz, eds., Modern Literary Criticism: 1900–1970 (New York: Atheneum, 1972), pp. viii, 180.

6. A complete listing of these through June 1973 can be found in my Northrop Frye: An Enumerative Bibliography (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974). This volume includes a list of Frye’s writings, an annotated account of writings about his work, and a list of the reviews of his books. A supplement to the bibliography is in the Canadian Library Journal 34 (June 1977): 181–97, and (August 1977): 301–2.

7. These “four causes” of criticism derive from the observations underlying R.S. Crane’s argument for a pluralism of critical methods, an argument which provides an analytically powerful framework for the understanding and critique of critical systems. See my “R.S. Crane’s Critical Method and Theory of Poetic Form,” Connecticut Review 5 (April 1972): 46–55.

8. “Anatomy of Criticism,” University of Toronto Quarterly 28 (1959): 191.

9. See Mary C. Tucker, “Toward a Theory of Shakespearean Comedy: A Study of the Contributions of Northrop Frye” (Ph.D. dissertation, Emory University, 1963), p. 42.

10. “Expanding Eyes,” Critical Inquiry 2 (Winter 1975): 212; reprinted in Spiritus Mundi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), p. 117. Hereafter cited as SM. In Anatomy of Criticism Frye observes that “very often a ‘structure’ or ‘system’ of thought can be reduced to a diagrammatic pattern. . . . We cannot go very far in any argument without realizing there is some kind of graphic formula involved” (pp. 335–36).