Denham Outline: CW 10, Literature and Society

Preface and Introduction to Northrop Frye on Literature and Society

Robert D. Denham

[from Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, 1936–1984: Unpublished Papers. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. Collected Works of Northrop Frye, 10]


This volume of Northrop Frye’s Collected Works is drawn from his previously unpublished essays, talks, reviews, papers, and, in three cases, contributions to books that were never published. They span some fifty-three years of Frye’s long writing career: the earliest, a paper on The Canterbury Tales, was written during his student days at Oxford and the latest was for the occasion of his receiving his thirty-sixth honorary degree in 1989 from the University of Bologna. The Chaucer paper has been transcribed from a holograph manuscript. All of the other pieces, save one, have been reproduced from typescripts in the Northrop Frye Fonds at the Victoria University Library, University of Toronto. The copy-texts for the series of reflections Frye wrote for the Canadian Radio-Television Commission are typescripts in the CRTC archives. The headnote to each piece gives, so far as I have been able to determine, the provenance and date of the work.

I have not emended Frye’s texts in any substantive ways, though I have regularized his use of quotation marks, italicized his underlinings, corrected obvious typographical mistakes, and added an occasional punctuation mark. As Frye did not intend to publish most of these papers, I have followed the general procedures I used in The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp and Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks. I have not, in other words, edited them according to the practices adopted for his previously published works. This means that, except in the case noted above, I have not changed his punctuation to make it conform to a single set of conventions; nor have I regularized his spellings according to either Canadian or U.S. practice. Frye himself was little concerned with such regularity: the reader will thus find such spellings as “centered” and “centred” within a single paper. I have, however, incorporated the holograph changes that Frye made to his typescripts, such as spellings he himself corrected and individual words he cancelled, but I have not noted these. I have, however, recorded in the notes a number of cancelled passages, most of which Frye seems to have deleted in the interest of saving time for oral presentation. All editorial additions have been placed in square brackets. Frye’s own square brackets have been replaced with braces: {}.



The major essay in this collection is Frye’s long introduction, which I have entitled Rencontre, to a never published anthology of English literature. I place it at the beginning because of its uniqueness in the Frye œuvre: it represents the only example we have in his writing of a sustained, continuous encounter with an entire literary tradition. Frye wrote a number of essays, many of them on individual writers and some on historical periods, that could well take their place as chapters in a literary history of English or American literature. But even though the first essay of Anatomy of Criticism contains his well-known theory of literary history, the actual writing of literary history was not something to which Frye devoted substantial attention. None of his books, except perhaps A Study of English Romanticism, is a literary history in any conventional sense. But writing such a history was a longstanding desire, going back to his university days in the 1930s, and the urge became formalized throughout his notebooks as one of the parts of what Frye called his “ogdoad.” This was the private code that Frye used, sometimes rather obliquely, to give shape to his writing projects. The ogdoad was essentially an eight-part framework, born of an ambition when Frye was quite young to write eight concerti and then, as a teenager, eight novels. When he was in his twenties, the focus became centred on eight works of criticism or scholarship. Michael Dolzani has given us a lucid account of the various permutations that the ogdoad took throughout Frye’s career.[1] Frye’s notes called “Work in Progress,” now a part of The “Third Book” Notebooks, provide a fairly succinct account of his own reflections on the status of the project in 1972. Dolzani suggests that Frye’s four major books, Fearful Symmetry, Anatomy of Criticism, The Great Code, and Words with Power do, in a way, constitute the first half of the eight-book project. But Dolzani’s more penetrating observation is that each of the eight books represents for Frye “an abiding preoccupation or focus of vision, not a subject matter; put another way, they are mental configurations that informed his writing, but not, or not necessarily, the actual content of specific volumes.”[2]

What can be said about the ogdoad in the present context is that its fourth octant, which Frye called Rencontre, was for many years associated in his mind with the historical displacement of myth. It grew out of his fascination with Spengler’s Decline of the West, which was one of the two or three most influential books Frye read as an undergraduate, and it was related to the essay on Romanticism he wrote during his fourth year at Victoria College.[3] When he was immersed in Blake in the 1940s, he conceived of Rencontre as a study of Romanticism and its after-effects, Romanticism being for Frye the most revolutionary movement in all of Western cultural history. In the mid-1940s he records his reaction to reading one of the notes in Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism, saying that the cornerstone of Rencontre, if he ever gets around to writing it, will be “invasion of secular literature by religious or mystic emotion, & so a secularization of the inner life.”[4] In Notebook 34, from about the same time, he writes:

I have been recurrently seized with the ambition to make my life’s work a history of all or part of English literature. I certainly have ideas about such a project, but I wonder if the passion for ideas it would entail wouldn’t be part of an intellectual indolence I don’t possess. I have a feeling that certain essential values in all the writers I deeply care for become staled & cheapened under historical treatment: I know how instinctively, in my fantasies of such a book, I dodge around Blake & my Rencontre ideas run up against the same thing. (par. 29)

Whatever permutations Rencontre takes in subsequent notebooks, they are almost always associated with history; and by 1972 the fourth book had become clearly focused in Frye’s mind as an essay in literary history: “Rencontre, I’ve just realized, is to be a history of English literature, following the general outline of the sketch I’m doing for the Harcourt Brace anthology.”[5] At this point, then, Rencontre does appear to have settled into becoming the actual content of a specific volume.

The Harcourt Brace project was a textbook survey of English literature, for which Frye was general editor. The series was intended to replace, or at least provide an alternative to, the same publisher’s two-volume anthologies of major British writers, the second edition of which had been circulating for more than a decade.[6] Frye’s task was to write a general introduction to the survey, the five other editors being responsible for the separate periods of English literary history. The project was aborted about five years after its conception.[7]

Whatever Frye had in mind for his “sketch,” what he produced was a 184-page typescript. In “Work in Progress” he gives an outline for what he proposes to write: an introduction with five parts—English Poetry, English Prose, The Imagery of Space, Displaced and Conceptual Imagery, and The Imagery of Time.[8] What he in fact wrote corresponds fairly closely to this plan, even though he didn’t complete the manuscript. When he was well into part 4 of his general editor’s introduction, ‘The Imagery of Space,” he wrote, having already produced 179 pages, “The hell with it. I’m getting bored.” He then proceeded to give a brief summary of six additional points he wanted to develop, followed by a three-page summary of part 5, which had now become a ‘Retrospect.” What began as a “sketch” had now expanded into a narrative of fifty thousand words, complete with subheadings for the first three parts. Had Frye finished the project he outlined, the result would have been a typescript of well over two hundred pages, sufficiently extensive for a small book in itself. Frye sent the present manuscript to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and the other editors on 12 December 1972, accompanied by this comment:

Naturally [the draft] shows increasing signs of haste and impatience as it goes on. I have begun by dividing it into relatively short sections, each with a heading of its own, and in the final version I shall carry this scheme through the whole essay.

This introduction may be much longer and more elaborate than anything we originally had in mind. I certainly did not realize myself when I began that it would come out in any shape like this. On the other hand, it does attempt to express what I take to be the particular gimmick of our anthology, that English literature is a linguistic and typological unity from the beginning to the present, and I think there is enough co-ordination of critical principles in it to make it of some value to the anthology as a whole, even commercially. There are of course many sketchy and breathlessly allusive references which I would hope to smooth out in rewriting.[9]

What might have possessed Frye to think that the editors at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich would have permitted such an expansive essay to preface their survey? If the typescript were not entitled “General Editor’s Introduction” and if we didn’t have the first two paragraphs, where Frye speaks to his audience of students and teachers about the intent of his introduction, we would be inclined to think that, once the project was abandoned, Frye simply took his introductory “sketch” and expanded it into what he wanted to do all along—write Rencontre. What he produced would clearly have given the average undergraduate a typically Frygian perspective on the continuity of English literature, providing a good measure of instruction and delight along the way. But what is baffling is the sheer length of the introduction. Frye did not actually write Rencontre, just as he did not write the other five big books that are outlined in the ogdoad, but what he did write was, as he says in Notebook 10, the “core” of the book (par. 10). It was a fully developed and polished draft of what he would have written, perhaps in a somewhat expanded version, had he had world enough and time. Frye calls his introduction an effort to provide “a coordinated critical overview of the whole of English literature,” to note “the transitional figures and movements that link one age with another,” and “to give some notion of the unity and coherence of what has been achieved by the writers of over a thousand years.” As we might expect, the overview takes its fundamental principles from those Frye had developed in Anatomy of Criticism, primarily from the Fourth Essay: genre distinctions (here they are primarily poetry and prose), rhythm and other patterns of sound, oral and rhetorical forms of writing, radicals of presentation, spatial and temporal imagery, cosmological myths and metaphors, conservative and radical literary movements, and the like. What follows from these principles is a continuous history, even though not quite complete, that is learned, far-ranging, ingenious, attentive to the significance of lesser-known writers, and more fully illustrated than anything else Frye ever wrote.


Because all of Frye’s writing had its place in his own order of words, it would be possible to organize the remaining pieces in this collection using the ogdoad scheme. “Shakespeare and the Comedy of Humours,” for example, could be placed in the octant Frye called Tragicomedy, his shorthand for the book that would centre on drama, especially Shakespeare’s. “The Literary Meaning of ‘Archetype'” could be seen as part of what Frye called “Liberal.” The essays that treat the role of criticism and society could come under the heading of Anticlimax, all those conceptual displacements of myth that so preoccupied Frye from the mid-1960s until the end of his career. Here too we could place the pieces having to do with leisure and education and communication. But such a grouping would become overly cumbersome, so I have adopted a much simpler plan. After the anthology introduction is a group of eight pieces having to do with literature, followed by ten that in one way or another go beyond literature to engage other aspects of culture. These are followed in turn by five reviews and three convocation addresses. Within these sections the various pieces are arranged in chronological order, as best the chronology can be established.

Frye’s essay on The Canterbury Tales (no. 2), the earliest in the present collection, dates from his first year at Oxford, when he wrote three papers for his tutor Edmund Blunden. The other two—on Chaucer’s early poems and on Troilus and Criseyde—were incorporated into “A Reconsideration of Chaucer,” a talk Frye presented to the Graduate English Club at the University of Toronto in 1938, and published in Northrop Frye’s Student Essays. He felt good about the tutorial with Blunden. On 3 November 1936 he wrote to Helen Kemp that “Blunden threw flowers at my feet yesterday, I think because my paper was clever, vague and short—Canterbury Tales. Told me I’d made a real contribution to criticism, etc. etc.”[10] The problem that Frye tries to solve in his essay is why The Canterbury Tales does not measure up to the unified vision he had discovered in Troilus and Criseyde. He first proposes that Chaucer simply got tired of his elaborate scheme and just quit. But this, as he recognizes, is hardly a satisfactory answer, so he proposes a better hypothesis—that Chaucer was unable to bring together the two chief attitudes in the poem: the irony in the separate tales (an attitude rooted in The House of Fame) and the sententiousness embodied in both The Parson’s Tale and those portions of the poem that Chaucer had given to himself, including the “Retraction.” It is the absence of an argument, Frye feels, that leads to the absence of a unity. Chaucer tried to provide an argument in the Retraction, but it is so unconvincing that we are left with little but a series of discrete tales. The tales are dramatic in themselves, but they lack the unifying vision. By characterizing his essay as “vague” Frye apparently meant that it lacked sufficient illustration, but his argument about unity is presented clearly enough. It is perhaps worth noting that the assumption Frye made throughout his career about the essential unity of form in all literature is at work in this early paper. As for cleverness, Frye does show off a bit for Blunden with his joke about the hinder part of the she-ape and the like. But for a twenty-four-year-old student who had just begun as a freshman all over again, this essay, especially when put beside Frye’s other Chaucer papers, shows considerable insight into Chaucer’s world.

Frye’s talk on Orwell (no. 3) was aired on CBC radio in 1949 or 1950. Frye had earlier reviewed Orwell’s Animal Farm, which he did not find to be a very searching satire on Russian Communism.[11] He had a much higher opinion of 1984, which he later wrote about on two separate occasions.[12] He considered 1984 as more successful because of the wider view it took of human folly, as well as the incisive way it depicted the nightmare vision of a police state and satirized the tyranny of an entrenched minority. Drifting away from his position on value judgments, Frye wrote in his 1950 Diary, “George Orwell’s 1984 presents a real hell, not just one we happen to be more scared of, & his book is morally an infinitely better book than the Inferno. Surely this moral superiority has some relevance to critical standards.”[13] In fact, Frye was so taken by the simplicity and honesty of 1984 that he called it “one of the greatest [novels] the twentieth century has yet produced,” [14] a judgment that is echoed in the opening sentence of his CBC talk. 1984 became for Frye a stock example of the dystopian vision (it is cited in Anatomy of Criticism as an illustration of sixth-phase irony, the phase of unrelieved bondage and social tyranny),[15] and Orwell’s “Newspeak” became for him a stock example of the perversion of language.[16] Orwell struck a chord with Frye early on, and he was still calling attention to 1984 throughout the 1980s.[17] If a good measure of Frye’s politics did not actually derive from Orwell, he at least agreed with Orwell on the nature of the enemy. One of Frye’s critics, who is drawn to the opposition between criticism and creativity, sees Orwell and Frye as moving in altogether different directions, Orwell in the right direction and Frye in the wrong one.[18] But such a view does not take account of what Frye has repeated over and over about the social value of both criticism and literature, one aspect of which shines through in the peroration of his little talk on Orwell: “the real value in [Orwell’s] showing us how easily the world could turn into hell in our own lifetime is to give us a concentrated picture of what we don’t want either for ourselves or our children. Mr. Orwell doesn’t tell us what to fight for, but he gives us a terrifyingly clear impression of what we should fight against. And what we should fight against, according to him, is not Russia or China, not Eurasia or Eastasia, but the evil tendencies in our own minds, our own weak and gullible compromises in a contempt of law and a contempt for truth. I hope Mr. Orwell’s hell-fire sermon will have the influence it deserves.”

“Shakespeare’s Comedy of Humours” (no. 4), presented at Radcliffe College not long after Frye had arrived at Harvard in 1950 to begin his Guggenheim year, covers what in retrospect is familiar territory. A number of the ideas in this talk would find their way into his theory of comedy, “The Mythos of Spring,” in Anatomy of Criticism. The paper echoes certain ideas Frye had developed two years earlier in “The Argument of Comedy,”[19] and some of the material on comic characters in the humours paper appeared three years later in “Characterization in Shakespearean Comedy.”[20] In the present paper Frye begins his study of dramatic comedy, as he would frequently do, by placing it in the context of Roman New Comedy. But his fundamental assumption is that one cannot understand characterization in Shakespearean comedy “without relating characters to their dramatic function, and this cannot be done without some knowledge of the genres of drama, and of the structures peculiar to those structures.” Most of Frye’s paper, however, is devoted not to genre but to character types. He moves away from Jonson’s theory of humours as a basis for his analysis, turning instead to the Tractatus Coislinianus, an obscure Greek treatise that lists in brief compass the three types of comic characters that Frye, more than anyone else, helped to popularize: the alazon (the ridiculous and self-important imposter), the eiron (the self-deprecator), and the bomolochos (the buffoon). In “The Argument of Comedy” Frye had glanced at certain character types, such as the senex iratus or heavy father (an alazon) and the tricky slave (an eiron), though without using the Greek names from the Tractatus. But “Shakespeare’s Comedy of Humors” is the real blueprint for the examination of comic characters in Anatomy of Criticism, though in order to achieve the symmetrical pairs that are omnipresent in that book Frye adds a fourth character type, the agroikos (the churl or rustic), which he borrows from Aristotle’s Ethics.[21] Frye was not the first to draw attention to the character types in the Tractatus Coislinianus: Lane Cooper had done that thirty years before in An Aristotelian Theory of Comedy.[22] But the popular acceptance of the comic character types (one can find alazon and eiron in any number of handbooks of literary terms) can be traced back to Frye’s 1950 paper.

In his 1950 Diary, Frye wrote, “Robert Weaver at lunch: he wants me to do a series of four talks on the radio on poetry generally. I suggested Donne, Milton, Blake & Yeats just to get the range, & he seemed to think it a good idea. It’s not cleared with the mighty yet, but should be soon. I’d like it, as it would be a good way to pick up some extra dough without too much work. Also it would tend to establish me as a radio personality, & I think I’d make as good a one as Roy Daniells or Art Phelps.”[23] As it turned out, Frye did present four talks in “The Writer as Prophet” series for CBC Radio (no. 5), though Donne and Yeats were replaced by Swift and Shaw. Frye’s talks hardly installed him as a radio personality, but except for the first talk (on Milton), which he postponed writing until the last minute,[24] he appears to have expended more effort on these manuscripts than he did on the papers he wrote for academic audiences.

“The Literary Meaning of “Archetype'” (no. 6) was written in 1952, the year after Frye’s frequently reprinted essay, “The Archetypes of Literature,” had been published in the Kenyon Review, and that essay was an early version of Frye’s theory of myths, developed in the Third Essay of Anatomy of Criticism. The present paper is an early version Frye’s theory of symbols, developed in the Second Essay of the Anatomy.[25] Archetype was, of course, a central category in Frye’s thinking. His use of the word derived, by his account, not from Plato or Jung, but from a footnote in James Beattie’s Minstrel, an unfinished poem in Spenserian stanzas that follows the development of a poet in a primitive age.[26] In the present talk Frye is concerned with the archetype as it relates to a theory of meaning, and he begins his talk, just as he was to begin Words with Power thirty-eight years later, with Dante’s conception of polysemous meaning, archetypal criticism corresponding to Dante’s moral or tropological level. He goes on to outline, as he does in the Anatomy, the kinds of criticism associated with Dante’s first three levels of meaning, and his talk turns out to be an abstract of the Second Essay of the Anatomy. What were to become familiar assumptions are all here: literature as total form, genre as a key principle in such a view of form, mythos and dianoia (and their attendant analogues) as essential principles for literary understanding, the relation of archetypal symbolism to ritual and dream, and universal symbols as the goal of human work. What is absent from the present talk is the anagogic level of meaning, but as Frye penciled in “anagogic section” in the margin beside the sixth paragraph, it seems clear that he had in mind the next step to be taken. He likely had the present paper in front of him as wrote the Second Essay of Anatomy of Criticism.

In “Literature and Language” (no. 7), a 1974 address to a comparative literature group, Frye’s gambit is briefly to search for some principle that would give “comparative literature” a special place in literary study. He finds none, except “the rarefied aspect of translation,” which means that comparative literature must, in practice, be reserved for graduate programs. Once he has concluded that there is no difference between a theory of comparative literature and a general theory of literature, he sets out to sketch some of the principles of the latter. These are, to begin with, the two principles involved in reading literature: its narrative movement (mythos) and its structure of images (dianoia). We then get an explanation of centripetal and centrifugal meaning. This is all territory that Frye had traversed in Anatomy of Criticism. What is less familiar, however, is his relating the Aristotelian and Platonic conceptions of language and thought to the Bible. Here we see Frye moving in the direction of The Great Code, and what we get in the concluding paragraphs is an embryonic version of the complex theory of language that appeared eight years later in the first chapter of that book.

The form of the commentary on Blake’s Jerusalem (no. 8) is unique in Frye’s work: he never engaged in a line-by-line commentary on literary works, and even among his extensive writings on Blake there is nothing comparable to the exposition of the images in a Blake poem that we get here—all one hundred plates of Jerusalem. Of the several dozen articles Frye wrote on Blake only one, “Blake’s Biblical Illustrations,” is devoted to Blake’s pictorial art, but even that essay is principally an exposition of Blake’s mythology, the understanding of which, Frye argues implicitly, is a prerequisite for entering fully into Blake’s composite art. Frye’s most extensive commentary on Jerusalem is, of course, in Fearful Symmetry (chap. 11), but that is a commentary focusing on the text. In the present talk the focus is on Blake’s images. Only five of Blake’s plates have no text (1, 26, 51, 76, and 100), and none of the plates is completely devoid of illustration, even if only a marginal flourish. There are a dozen plates that have only these flourishes, and Frye does refer to these textual plates as a way of providing some connective tissue to his exposition, in addition to occasionally quoting a phrase from the text. But Frye’s talk, presented at the Ontario College of Art, is largely a visual performance. The ideal way to read “Blake’s Jerusalem,” then, is with a facsimile edition of the poem at one’s side.


In his preface to The Stubborn Structure (a title that comes from Blake’s Jerusalem), Frye writes, “As some of those who write about me are still asserting that I ignore the social reference of literary criticism, the sub-title [Essays on Criticism and Society] calls the attention of those who read me to the fact that I have written about practically nothing else” (x). The essays in part 2 of the present collection provide further evidence for the claim. “The Present Condition of the World” (no. 9), a radical critique of American society, was written at a time (1943) when most appraisals of the world social order were directed toward Nazism. But Frye’s focus is on the enemy within, and the roots of this enemy are American civil religion (a natural and rational faith that Frye calls deism), with its passivity, lack of creative power, Philistinism, self-righteous morality, utilitarian values, and latent Fascism. Nowhere else in his work does Frye adopt as prophetic a voice and attitude as he does in this essay, and the peroration, had he developed it, would have called for the revolutionary force of revealed religion to liberate a world torn by war.

“Leisure and Boredom” (no. 10) is a critique of an aggressive, uncreative, acquisitive society, which produces and is produced by boredom. The proper response to such a society is leisure, the development of individual powers and interests by way of education. Leisure actually turns out to be for Frye a mental attitude that shapes an identity:

Our television sets and highways are crowded on weekends with people who are not looking for leisure but are running away from it. Leisure goes to a hockey game to see a game: distraction or boredom goes to see one team trample the other into the ice. Leisure drives a car to see the country: boredom drives it to get in front of the car ahead. Leisure is not afraid of solitude, quiet, or unplanned stretches of time; boredom has to have noise, crowds, and constant panic. Leisure goes to a movie to see a play; boredom goes to get enough of a sexy or violent or sentimental shock to forget about real life for a while. Leisure doesn’t feel put upon when asked to take some civic responsibilities; boredom never contributes anything to society: it can’t think or create or help others; all it can do to is try to forget that job that comes back on Monday morning.

Frye distinguished servile work, or drudgery, from the kind of creative work which, because it makes a genuine social contribution, leads away from boredom. Creative work and leisure are practically the same thing psychologically, a point that Frye develops in his review of Joseph Pieper’s book on leisure (no. 23). The development of leisure can never occur if our educational programs focus on social adjustment. In “Criticism and Society” (no. 11), Frye takes a somewhat different approach to education as social adjustment: instruction in social mythology is, he recognizes, an important part of all instruction. But he makes a further distinction between closed mythologies, the kinds of theoretical and practical structures of belief that we find in, say, Marxism, and open mythologies, which, by way of the liberal arts, reveal areas of possible belief and imaginative discussion. Frye’s goal in “Criticism and Society” is to defend criticism as a social enterprise. Criticism, therefore, must provide a critique of both closed mythologies and the prefabricated ideas of open mythologies—the clichés and stock responses having to do with “the American way of life.” Always the great optimist, Frye believes we may be on the brink of understanding criticism as a unified cultural activity, and he continued to develop the theses introduced here, notably in his most important work of social criticism, The Critical Path.

Frye conceived of criticism, of course, as a structure of knowledge, and he spent his entire career teaching, not literature, which in his terms is an object of knowledge, but criticism, a subject of knowledge. This distinction between subjects and objects of study was one Frye introduced in the Polemical Introduction to Anatomy of Criticism. His talk on “Articulate English” (no. 12) begins with this distinction, and it contains a number of other principles that are laid out fully in the Anatomy and in The Educated Imagination, which Frye referred to as a “pocket-sized Anatomy.”[27] These principles include the relationship between spoken and written style, the continuity of literary education, the centrality of myth and metaphor in a coherent theory of literature, the significance of rhythm in language, the pervasive allusiveness of literature, and the displacement of archetypes.

Similarly, “Tradition and Change in the Theory of Criticism” (no. 13) includes a number of familiar Frygian themes, beginning with the argument that criticism should be self-contained, deriving its principles from literature itself rather than from some external discipline, such as psychology or history. Frye gives a brief history of the external or deterministic view of criticism from its beginnings through Sidney’s Defence, which is based on a rhetorical conception of literature, and he then argues, as he does more extensively in The Critical Path, that Shelley’s defence takes us back to the more primitive and more adequate theory of poetry: “in criticism all change takes the form of a recovery of some aspect of tradition.” But Frye’s central interest here, as it was in a number of essays he wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is on the social function of literature, and its ultimate function is to deliver us from the anxieties of concern and belief, while at the same time revealing, through the imagination, what life can be like. This is all a part of what Frye calls in “The Social Uses of Literature” (no. 14), our “mythological conditioning,” which literature, better than anything else, can make us aware of.

The next three papers derive from Frye’s work as a part-time commissioner for the Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC) from 1968 until 3 April 1976.[28] He first met with the research department of the commission in December 1968 and again in July 1969, having lengthy discussion with two members of the department, Rodrigue Chiasson and André Martin, about the media, technology, Canadian identity, censorship, Canadian art, and a host of other topics. Part of their discussion was motivated by the archetypes of Frye’s “Logos Diagram,” with its Adonis, Eros, Prometheus, and Hermes quadrants.[29] Frye’s role on the commission, outside of being the resident intellectual, was not well defined, but in late 1970 he met with the commission again, and from that meeting emerged the two brief papers included in the present volume, one on “Canadian Identity and Cultural Regionalism” (no. 15) and the other on “Icons and Iconoclasm” (no. 16). Frye eventually assumed the responsibility of viewing television programs and writing reports on them for the research department. He went to Ottawa on 5 November 1971 to screen with members of the research staff (Martin, Chiasson, and Patrick Gossage) a wide range of television shows, including news stories, “talking heads,” musical programs, and documentaries.[30] Following the screenings Frye wrote his reviews of eight programs, entitled “Reflections on November 5th.” Back in Toronto he continued to view programs through March 1972, sending the research department more reflections, twelve of which have been preserved in the CRTC archives. The staff prepared program notes for the viewings, referred to as “the Frye diet,” and often issued memos in response to Frye’s written reports.[31] The twenty reflections are collected here under the title “Reviews of Television Programs” (no. 17). Martin and Chiasson were also involved with Frye in a project to edit the unfinished manuscripts of Harold Innis (1894–1952), the well-known pioneer in communications studies. The project never came to fruition, but Frye’s essay on Innis (no. 18) was to have been an introduction to one of the projected volumes.

Frye was a prolific reviewer in the 1940s and 1950s, contributing scores of reviews to the Canadian Forum and to literary quarterlies, such as the Kenyon Review, for which he wrote fourteen review essays in the 1950s, and the University of Toronto Quarterly, which published his extensive reviews of Canadian poetry during the same period.[32] Frye was also a reviewer for CBC Radio during the early 1950s. Four of his CBC reviews have been preserved, and they are included in the present volume (nos. 19–22), along with his review of Josef Pieper’s book on leisure, already mentioned.

The first and last of the three convocation addresses that conclude the present volume are separated by a period of twenty years. The convocation address was a familiar genre for Frye, who often delivered such talks on the occasion of his receiving honorary degrees—as was the case for all three of the addresses collected here. Frye almost always focused such talks on the ends and means of education, as he did in the addresses at Acadia (no. 24) and McGill (no. 25). But he used the occasion at the University of Bologna (no. 26) to compose an essay on the public and private forms of communication and their relation to technology, drawing many of his examples from the Italian cultural tradition. A good deal of what Frye wrote about higher education during the late 1960s and early 1970s was in reaction to the student demonstrations of the time, which he had witnessed firsthand when he was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley during the spring semester of 1969. He sympathized with a number of the goals of the student activists but he could not countenance their tactics. One of Frye’s several critiques of the student movement is in his convocation address at Acadia University (no. 24), delivered in May 1969.

The reason for including Frye’s address on “The Social Context of Literary Criticism” in an appendix deserves a brief explanation. The argument of this essay was eventually expanded into several sections of The Critical Path. As Frye explains in the Preface to that book, The Critical Path “was a farce in the etymological sense: a fifty-minute lecture stuffed with its own implications until it swelled into the present monograph. In the spring of 1968, while visiting the Society for Humanities at Cornell University, I gave a public lecture, which in turn engendered another lecture, ‘Mythos and Logos,’ given at the School of Letters in Indiana University that summer. These lectures form the basis of the present third and fourth sections.” Frye does not mean that the Cornell lecture expanded into section three of The Critical Path and the Indiana lecture into section four, for the two lectures are quite similar. The opening paragraphs of “Mythos and Logos,” published by Indiana University and later reprinted,[33] differ from those of “The Social Context of Literary Criticism,” and the Indiana talk contains several paragraphs not in the Cornell address. But the substance and most of the wording of the two talks are essentially the same. I include it in the present volume because, even though “Mythos and Logos” will appear in one of the volumes of Frye’s previously published work, “The Social Context of Literary Criticism” represents the earliest material that Frye eventually “stuffed” into The Critical Path and is therefore important in understanding the genesis of that book.

In “Articulate English” (no. 12) Frye remarks, “For good writing there must be a working relationship between the spoken and the written style; otherwise what one writes is a dead language, an academic exercise with no real relationship to the writer’s actual mental processes. The most natural way to learn to write is to imitate one’s own speaking style, provided one has learned to talk.” He adds that “rhythm is the first principle of good prose, and that such rhythm is, like one’s handwriting, a distinctive expression of one’s personality.” One always has the impression in reading Frye that one is listening to a speaking voice and that the rhythm of Frye’s prose does express his personality. The writing collected here, spanning some fifty-three years, extends our sense of that personality. Frye seeks here, as he always sought, to find the proper verbal formula for his exceptional ideas, and he expresses them with elegance, grace, and integrity.


[1] “The Book of the Dead: A Skeleton Key to Northrop Frye’s Notebooks,” in Rereading Frye: The Published and Unpublished Work, ed. David Boyd and Imre Salusinszky (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 19–38. See also Dolzani’s introduction to The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 1964–1972: The Critical Comedy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001). Cf. my briefer outline of the ogdoad in the introduction to Northrop Frye’s Notebooks, 1982–1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), xl–xlv.

[2] “The Book of the Dead,” 27.

[3] See NB 1.9–10. NF’s Romanticism essay is in Northrop Frye’s Student Essays, 9–83.

[4] NB 3.30.

[5] “Work in Progress,” The “Third Books” Notebooks, 000.

[6] Major British Writers, gen. ed., G.B. Harrison, 2 vols. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1959).

[7] For the several reasons the project was abandoned, see ” Rencontre,” n. 1, below.

[8] “Work in Progress,” 000.

[9] Letter in NFF, 1988, box 57, file six.

[10] The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 2:623.

[11] “Turning New Leaves,” Canadian Forum, 26 (December 1946): 211–12; rpt. as “Orwell and Marxism” in NFCL, 204–6.

[12] “George Orwell,” Canadian Forum, 29 (March 1950): 265–6, rpt. in Reading the World, 399–401; and “Foreword” to 1984 (Don Mills, Ont.: Bellhaven House, 1967), vii–xii. NF’s “Foreword” was also a CBC talk.

[13] Diaries, 000 [1950, par. 41].

[14] “George Orwell,” in Reading the World, 400.

[15] Anatomy of Criticism, 238.

[16] See, e.g., Anatomy of Criticism, 331.

[17] See WP, 280–1, 309; The Eternal Act of Creation, 14, 20; and Myth and Metaphor, 80, 177, 300, 301.

[18] P.J.M. Robertson, “Criticism and Creativity VI: George Orwell and Northrop Frye,” Queen’s Quarterly, 92 (Summer 1985): 374–84.

[19] This essay appeared in English Institute Essays: 1948, ed. D.A. Robertson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), 58–73.

[20] This essay was published in Shakespeare Quarterly, 4 (July 1953): 271–7.

[21] See AC, 172–6. See also Notebook 8.288.

[22] Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1922. The Tractatus, which exists in a tenth-century manuscript, has been dated as early as the first century B.C. It takes its name from de Coislin, the French nobleman who owned it.

[23] Diaries, 000 [30 May 1950, par. 384].

[24] NF intended to devote the entire day to the writing of his Milton talk, but he was interrupted in the morning and did not get down to writing until after lunch. “I worked very hard all afternoon on the paper,” he wrote in his 1950 Diary, “but my writing remains obstinately slow. I must never do this again. Of course, I find working over Milton again in a broad public way a good deal of a bore, but writing is invariably slow & painful for me no matter what it is. I wish I could rearrange the exits in my brain, which now is like the C.P.R. Hamilton station, where the trains have to leave the main line and back in” (Diaries, 000). He finished typing his 2,500 words five minutes before he was to leave for the broadcast studio.

[25] During this period NF wrote two other essays that he drew on for his theory of symbols in AC: “Levels of Meaning in Literature,” Kenyon Review, 12 (Spring 1950): 246–62, and “Three Meanings of Symbolism,” Yale Review, 9 (1952): 11–19.

[26] NF encountered Beattie’s poem when he was “reading around,” as he says, in the period of Blake in the 1940s (“Varieties of Eighteenth-Century Sensibility,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 24 [Winter 1990–91]: 157). In “Myth, Fiction, and Displacement,” however, NF does say that “archetype” is a “word that has been connected since Plato’s time with the sense of a pattern or model used in creation” (Fables of Identity, 25). The commentary on NF’s understanding of archetype is large, but see especially Eugene Williamson, “Plato’s Eidos and the Archetypes of Jung and Frye,” Interpretations, 16 (Fall 1985), 94–104; and Thomas Willard, “Archetypes of the Imagination,” in The Legacy of Northrop Frye, ed. Alvin A. Lee and Robert D. Denham (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 15–27.

[27] Late Notebooks, 613.

[28] The CRTC had been created in 1968. It was renamed the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in 1976.

[29] The unedited transcripts of these two discussions are in the CRTC library in Ottawa. The transcripts have been typed and inserted in a black notebook binder, along with the minutes of the meeting of 19 December 1968. The transcripts of the discussions with NF, called “interviews,” exist in three different typescripts (122 pp.). A second black notebook, entitled “Conversations about Canadian Fundamentals,” contains 103 pp. of excerpts from the material in the first notebook.

[30] For an account of NF’s work on the CRTC, see Ayre, 329–31, 351–62.

[31] The agenda sent to the research committee for the gathering on 5 November indicated that the meeting would be a discussion of the “first ingestion of Dr. Frye’s ‘diet.'” The collection of papers for this part of the research committee’s work has been collectively given the title “The Frye Diet” in the CRTC archives.

[32] NF essentially abandoned reviewing in 1960, writing only two reviews after that time.

[33] “Mythos and Logos” was published in a booklet entitled The School of Letters, Indiana University: Twentieth Anniversary, 1968 (Bloomington, Ind.: N.p., 1968), and rpt. in the Yearbook of Comparative Literature, 18 (1969): 5–18.

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