Herman Northrop Frye
H. (“Norrie”) Northrop Frye CC, BA, MA, LLD, DD, DLitt, D de l’U, LHD, DCL, FRSC (14 July 1912 – 23 January 1991) is Canada’s greatest literary and cultural theorist.
Born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, he was the third child of Herman Edward Frye, a son of seventeenth-century Puritan and Loyalist descent, and Catherine Maud Howard, daughter of a Methodist preacher who held strong Tory and anti-American views. His parents’ non-conformist Bible-oriented lifestyle implanted in Frye the intellectual matrix upon which he would build his unique and internationally celebrated critical system. Accordingly, an emphasis on the inner spiritual life, the cultivation of societal compassion, and a conviction that personal vision and epiphany are the most powerful forces shaping an individual’s imagination infused Frye’s writings and his fifty-year teaching career at Victoria College in the University of Toronto.
In 1919, Herman Edward’s failing hardware business transplanted Frye and family from their comfortable life in Sherbrooke to a somewhat more penurious existence in Moncton, New Brunswick. In this predominantly railroad town, Herman worked as a travelling salesman and contractor for hardware and manufacturing equipment. Eventually settled in the upper flat of a duplex at 24 Pine Street, his son “Norrie,” at age seven, was already a precocious boy and avid reader. He longed for a study of his own where he could peruse his favourite books, an unlikely prospect for the small space that had also to house his parents, his brother Howard (later killed in the First World War), and his sister Vera.
Moncton proved to be a place of developing contraries in the emerging scholar’s experience. Frye describes his early formal education, first at Victoria School (a dispiriting 1890s-vintage building) and later at Aberdeen High, as “penal servitude” dominated initially by “screaming spinsters” (qtd. in Ayre 34-5). Nevertheless, he excelled in history, literature, and geography, performing poorly in mathematics and the sciences. His deeper education in the humanities was assured by his own advanced reading abilities and by the disciplined efforts that his mother brought to his home study of the classics (Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes: or Greek Fairy Tales for My Children was in the household library, as was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress). In addition, he was constantly exposed to the Bible, both at home and through the liberal-thinking preachers he encountered at Wesleyan Memorial Church on Cameron and St. George Streets. Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible was also regularly read in the Frye household. Thus, by at least age seven, he had been introduced to the two principal Western tropes—Greek myth and biblical narrative—that he was later to synthesize in his greatest critical work, Anatomy of Criticism (1957). His mother’s own eclectic reading (Thackeray, Dickens, Scott, and Milton) coupled with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics (a textbook Frye encountered in the eleventh grade that acquainted him with the condensed rhetoric of seventeenth-century English Metaphysical poets like Donne, Herrick, Marvell, and Vaughan) further expanded his literary horizons and, again, laid a foundation for the intricately ordered structure of Frye’s critical thought. During his career, he lectured on and wrote about every one of these poets with groundbreaking insight.
In 1927, at age fifteen, Frye worked as a volunteer book-checker at the Moncton Library on Archibald Street; there, other dimensions were added to his literary repertoire. He devoured the collected edition of George Bernard Shaw’s prefaces and plays, assimilating the Irish playwright’s biting wit and informal, almost colloquial, expression. Shaw’s direct, often ironic style would later become his own. He also made acquaintance at the library with the American poet, Wallace Stevens, and deepened his exploration of the engravings and poetry of an artist he had already fruitfully encountered: William Blake. About these difficult poets no one has written more insightfully than Frye, whose structuralist work, Fearful Symmetry (1947), set Blake criticism on a new track.
But before his preoccupation with literature and verbal structures, Frye was engaged with equal commitment to another aesthetic passion: music. Lessons begun in Sherbrooke at age four developed into a lifelong mastery of the piano. Neighbours observed that his style was mechanical but extraordinarily precise, and he eventually mastered a classical repertoire as advanced as the Beethoven sonatas. At age twelve, he subscribed to the music connoisseur’s magazine, The Etude, and promptly started digging through its Romantic archive in order to expand his musical knowledge and skill. In the same year, he attracted the interest of Moncton’s most renowned musician: George Ross, organist at St. John’s United Church and pupil of Sir Hubert Parry, composer of Blake’s hymn, “Jerusalem.” Ross considered Frye so skilled that he told him he could make a career in music. Probably unconsciously, Frye responded to the encouragement by sublimating his knowledge of harmonics, cyclical, and fugal rhythms into the ordered and repetitive structures of his mature critical theory.
Frye thought big during his decade in Moncton. In 1926, fusing both his literary and musical interests, he conceived (but never actually wrote) a series of seven novels in historical sequence patterned on the categories of Comedy, Romance, Tragedy, and Irony, which he was later to synthesize in the Anatomy. Simultaneously, he toyed with the idea of creating his Opus 2, “a series of eight concerti—a sequence of eight masterpieces [all] in the same genre” (qtd. in Ayre 38). Blake’s technique of uniting contraries was, it seems, incessantly at work in Frye’s later consciousness. In fact, what Frye was working on instinctually throughout his Moncton experience was his theory of the imagination, a theory derived from Blake, refined in Fearful Symmetry, and later expanded throughout his career in the Anatomy, Spiritus Mundi (1976), The Great Code (1982), Words With Power (1990), and consummately, The Double Vision (1991).
The archetypal source of this imagination-theory was the Bible, and especially the apocalyptic image of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21. One of the most fascinating elements of Frye’s thought was his preoccupation with the idea of the Bride-City descending in order to create “a new heaven and a new earth.” In his earliest years he had explored Sherbrooke’s streets and imaginatively reconstructed them into the pattern of an ideal city. In Moncton he badgered a bicycle out of his near-indigent father, exploring the highways and byways of Albert County, perhaps again transfiguring the countryside into something like Eden. At the north entrance to his old high school, now the Aberdeen Cultural Centre, is a posthumously placed brass plaque inscribing a little-known adage that is a perfect synopsis of this peripatetic thought: “Between imagination and belief there is constant traffic in both directions.”
The essence of that spiritual-imaginative life is perhaps most significantly embodied in an epiphany that Frye experienced in Moncton at age sixteen. It cleared his mind and instantly prepared the way for a literary career occupied with the themes of imagination, inspiration, and vision. He “remembered walking along St. George Street to high school and just suddenly that whole shitty and smelly garment (of fundamentalist teaching I had all my life) just dropped off into the sewers and stayed there. It was like the Bunyan feeling, about the burden of sin falling off his back only with me it was a burden of anxiety. . . I just remember that suddenly that was no longer a part of me and would never be again” (qtd. in Ayre 44).
Frye’s high academic ranking at Aberdeen High School at graduation in 1927 earned him a scholarship at Moncton’s Success Business College in stenographic training, where his remarkable typing skills (up to 85 words per minute) qualified him for the National Typing contest in Toronto in 1929. The city was both an escape from the parochial Maritimes and an entry into his soon-to-be illustrious career. In September 1929, he enrolled at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College in one of the finest undergraduate liberal arts programs in North America. He would later graduate with honours in Philosophy and English. In the library at Hart House, he discovered another volume that would expand his imagination and determine the encyclopedic scope of his critical method. Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West envisioned Western civilization and art as a single vast organic structure assimilated into perennial rhythms of growth and decay. In its use of the seasons as a similar operative device, Frye’s Anatomy would follow Spengler’s use of an organic structure.
Probably heeding the Methodist impulses of his imagination, Frye next studied theology for three years at Emmanuel College (an adjunct of Victoria College) and was ordained in the United Church of Canada in 1936. A year of itinerate preaching in Saskatchewan, often on a horse, discouraged him from further ministry. In 1937, he married Helen Kemp, a student of international and Canadian art whom he had met at Victoria College. Theirs was a dedicated relationship of almost fifty years, Helen dying in 1986 while accompanying him on a lecture tour in Australia. Temporarily leaving his wife in 1938, Frye set off for Oxford where he earned an MA at Merton College in 1940 (his thesis was on Blake). He joined the Department of English at Victoria College in 1939 where he remained for the rest of his professional life.
Recognized as “the foremost living student [and theorist] of Western literature” (Forst 141), Frye was constantly in demand on the international lecture circuit. His ever-growing reputation took him to universities in the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Japan, and to other countries into whose languages his writings were translated. (Currently there is a developing interest in Frye’s thought in China.) Recognition of his status as a world-scholar resides in his delivering the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard in 1974-1975. His lectures were published as The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance, their exploration of the literary genre of Romance capturing Frye’s career preoccupation.
Criticism in its true form, said Frye, is a creative act of the imagination. As such, it deals synoptically with the entire body of literature, assimilating it to “a total order of words” that illuminates human understanding and eventually transforms the shape of Imagination itself (Anatomy 17). In fact, literature is a “human apocalypse” (The Educated Imagination 22). This theory owes as much to the opening of John’s gospel, where the Word is the primary vehicle of creation, as it does to Blake, in whose works Frye discovered a series of archetypes (Zoas), demolished in the fallen world and reconstructing themselves into their Original Form in the Giant Man, Albion (Fearful Symmetry). His full theoretical system was worked out in the Anatomy where the constituent genres of literature (Comedy, Romance, Tragedy, and Irony or Satire) are conceived as a series of verbal epiphanies governed by the cycle of the (mental) seasons. Inductive analysis of literature—Frye affirms that Aristotle is his critical ancestor—confirms that the organized scheme of true critical thought is as much a science as an art form. Its intrinsic language is derived from the pre-literate, specifically forms of ritual, myth, and folk-tale whose symbols and archetypes are the real discourse within society: the basis of knowledge, imagination, and prophetic vision. Frye’s reading of the 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico’s The New Science confirmed his view that mankind’s recorded history and thought originated in these poetic and archetypal frameworks, and that the human creative imagination was more real than the externally perceived world.
In effect, Frye’s theory freed criticism from its former dependency on the dialectic of history, philosophy, and psychology. On “the assumption of total coherence” (Anatomy 16), he demonstrated that literature and its analysis were located within a verbal universe governed by its own laws and linguistic protocols. By understanding those laws, the student could observe how literature functioned as an agent for social transformation. The process was rather simple: first, critical inquiry proceeds centrifugally (inward toward the core of a text whose metaphorical pattern alters and transfigures the reader’s understanding) and, second, centripetally (outward toward the reader’s society whose moral and spiritual ignorance he is obliged to dispel). The trajectory of his criticism followed that pattern: following Blake, he posited that the Old and New Testaments were the “Great Code of Art.” His last books, Words With Power and The Double Vision (the latter published posthumously in 1991), developed linguistic forms (i.e., the metaphoric and the metonymic) that were intended to further liberate the imagination from distracting rhetoric and thereby to ground the transcendent in human thought.
Throughout a career yielding thirty seminal books and hundreds of articles and reviews that revolutionized the interpretation of written texts, Frye thus emerges as something of a cultural prophet of the twentieth century.
After almost a half-century’s absence, Frye returned to Moncton during the city’s Centennial Year in 1990. He lectured at l’Université de Moncton, was made an honorary citizen, became “the toast of the town,” and stated that the occasion had brought back “an avalanche of memories...of the best days of my life” (qtd. in Cohen 52).
Since his death in 1991, Frye’s influence on the exegesis of literature and the arts, and the recognition of such by his hometown, have not waned. The annual Frye Festival has brought several thousand scholars, academics, and writers to Moncton. This bilingual festival of ideas is a showcase for lectures, seminars, and round-table discussions of literary topics from international thinkers from North America, Europe, and Asia. The Festival even extends into high school classrooms, where scholars and writers share their admiration of Frye with students. If his legacy is cemented forever in intellectual circles—he was awarded thirty-eight honorary degrees in his lifetime—it is also cultivated in the streets where his imagination first roamed free.
Allen Bentley, Fall 2010
Bibliography of Selected Primary Sources
[The Collected Works of Northrop Frye is a long-term project, under the general editorship of Alvin A. Lee, that has been releasing Frye’s published and previously unpublished works. It is an initiative of the University of Toronto Press.]
Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1947.
---. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1957.
---. The Educated Imagination. Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1963.
---. Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963.
---. A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance. New York: Columbia UP, 1965.
---. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1967.
---. The Modern Century. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1967.
---. A Study of English Romanticism. New York: Random House, 1968.
---. The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Criticism and Society. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1970.
---. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Toronto: Anansi, 1971.
---. The Critical Path: An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1971.
---. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1976.
---. Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth and Society. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1976.
---. Creation and Recreation. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1980.
---. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brave Jovanovich, 1982.
---. The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1983.
---. On Education. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1988.
---. Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays, 1974-1988. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990.
---. Words with Power: Being a Second Study of “The Bible and Literature.” New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.
---. The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion. Toronto: United Church Publishing House, 1991.
Frye, Northrop. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” University of Toronto Quarterly 19 (October 1949): 1-16.
---. “Levels of Meaning in Literature.” Kenyon Review 12 (Spring 1950): 246-62.
---. “The Archetypes of Literature.” Kenyon Review 13 (Winter 1951): 92-110.
---. “Towards a Theory of Cultural History.” University of Toronto Quarterly 22 (July 1953): 325-41.
---. “The Language of Poetry.” Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication 4 (February 1955): 80-90.
---. “Myth, Fiction and Displacement.” Daedalus 90 (Summer 1961): 587-605.
---. “Literary Criticism.” The Aims and Methods of Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures. Ed. James Thorpe. New York: Modern Language Association, 1963. 57-69.
---. “Allegory.” Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Alex Preminger. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1965. 12-15.
---. “Mythos and Logos.” The School of Letters, Indiana University: Twentieth Century Anniversary, 1968. Bloomington, Indiana: N.p., 1968. 27-40.
---. “Vision and Cosmos.” Biblical Patterns in Modern Literature. Ed. David D. Hirsch and Nehama Aschkenasy. Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1985. 5-17.
Bibliography of Selected Secondary Sources
Ayre, John. Northrop Frye: A Biography. Toronto: Random House, 1989.
Bogden, Deanne. “Moncton, Mentors, and Memories: An Interview with Northrop Frye.” Studies in Canadian Literature 11.2 (Fall 1968): 246-69.
Balfour, Ian. Northrop Frye. Twayne’s World Author Series 806. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Cayley, David. Northrop Frye in Conversation. Toronto: Anansi, 1992.
Cohen, Reuben. A Time To Tell: The Public Life of a Public Man. Moncton, N.B.: Key Porter, 1998.
Cook, Eleanor, et al., eds. Centre and Labyrinth: Essays in Honour of Northrop Frye. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1985.
Denham, Robert D. Northrop Frye: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1987.
---. Northrop Frye and Critical Method. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1978.
Fennell, William O. “Theology and Frye: Some Implications of The Great Code.” Toronto Journal of Theology I.1 (1985): 113-121.
Forst, G.N. “Anatomy of Imagination.” Rev. of [Reissues of] Anatomy of Criticism and The Educated Imagination. Canadian Literature 195 (Winter 2007): 141-43.
Hamilton, A.C. Northrop Frye: An Anatomy of His Criticism. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990.
Krieger, Murray, ed. Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1966.
Lee, Alvin A. and Denham, Robert D., eds. The Legacy of Northrop Frye. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1994.
Riccomini, Donald R. “Northrop Frye and Structuralism: Identity and Difference.” University of Toronto Quarterly 49 (Fall 1979): 33-47.