Frye Revived

The pre-eminent literary theorist of the 1960s and '70s went out fashion -- yet never really went away. Scott McLemee looks into the afterlife of an original.

May 13, 2015
University of Toronto
Northrop Frye

“If you spend much time in libraries,” the late Northrop Frye wrote at the start of an essay from 1959, “you will probably have seen long rows of dark green books with gold lettering, published by Macmillan and bearing the name of Frazer.” These were the collected works of the Victorian classicist and anthropologist Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough (15 volumes) and a great deal else besides.

Frye’s remarks -- originally delivered as a talk on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio network -- were aimed for a much broader public than would have read his then-recent book Anatomy of Criticism, which made its author the most-cited name in Anglophone literary studies until at least the early 1980s. (Frye was professor emeritus of English at Victoria College, University of Toronto, when he died in 1991.) He told listeners that it would require “a great many months of hard work, without distractions, to read completely through Frazer.”

And the dedicated person making the effort probably wouldn’t be an anthropologist. The discipline’s textbooks “were respectful enough about him as a pioneer,” Frye wrote, “but it would have taken a Geiger counter to find much influence of The Golden Bough in them.”

And yet Frazer’s ideas about myth and ritual and his comparative approach to the analysis of symbolism exercised an abiding fascination for other readers -- in part through the echoes of them audible in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but also thanks to Frazer’s good sense in preparing an abridged edition of The Golden Bough in one stout volume that it was entirely possible to finish reading in no more than a year.

If you spend much time in libraries these days -- wandering the stacks, that is, rather than sitting at a terminal -- you might have seen other long rows of dark green books with gold lettering, published by the University of Toronto Press and bearing the name of Frye.

The resemblance between The Collected Works of Northrop Frye (in 30 volumes) and the Frazerian monolith is almost certainly intentional, though not the questions such a parallel implies: What do we do with a pioneer whose role is acknowledged and honored, but whose work may be several degrees of separation away from where much of the contemporary intellectual action is? Who visits the monument now? And in search of what?

Part of the answer may be found in Essays on Northrop Frye: Word and Spirit, a new collection of studies by Robert D. Denham, professor emeritus of English at Roanoke College. The publisher named on the title page is Iron Mountain Press of Emory, Va., which appears not to have a website; the listing for the book on Amazon indicates that it is available through CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, a print-on-demand service.

Denham has written or edited more than 30 books by or about Frye, including several volumes of notebooks, diaries, letters and works of fiction in the Collected Works, for which he also prepared the definitive edition of Anatomy of Criticism. The second of the three sections in Word and Spirit (as I prefer to call the new book) consists of essays on the Anatomy, examining Frye’s ideas about rhetoric and the imagination and brandishing them in the face of dismissive remarks by Frederick Crews and Tzvetan Todorov.

Frye’s relative decline as a force to be reckoned with in literary theory was already evident toward the end of his life; at this point the defense of Frygian doctrine may seem like a hopelessly arrière-garde action. (“Frygian” is the preferred term, by the way, at least among the Frygians themselves.) But the waning of his influence at the research-university seminar level is only part of the story, and by no means the most interesting part. The continuing pedagogical value of the Anatomy is suggested by how many of Frye’s ideas and taxonomies have made their way into Advanced Placement training materials. Anyone trying to find a way around in William Blake’s poetic universe can still do no better than to start with Frye’s first book, Fearful Symmetry (1947). Before going to see Shakespeare on stage, I’ve found it worthwhile to see what Frye had to say about the play. Bloggers periodically report reading the Anatomy, or Frye’s two books about the Bible and literature, and having their minds blown.

Northrop Frye is the rare case of a literary theorist whose critical prose continues to be read with interest and profit by people who are not engaged in producing more of the stuff. In the talk on Frazer, he noted that The Golden Bough appealed to artists, poets and “students of certain aspects of religion” -- which seems, on the whole, like a fair guess at the makeup of Frye’s own posthumous constituency.

What’s been lacking is the single-volume, one-stop survey of the Frygian landscape. The Collected Works have complicated things -- not just by being vast and intimidating (and too expensive for most of individuals to afford) but by adding thousands of pages of unpublished material to the already imposing mass of Frye’s work.

Denham is as responsible for adding new turns to the labyrinth as anyone. He is the scholar dedicated enough to have solved the riddle of the great man’s handwriting. Most of the lectures and papers in Essays on Northrop Frye: Word and Spirit draw on the private papers, which are of considerably more than biographical interest. Frye used his notebooks to think out loud and to explain himself to himself, working out the links among the work he’d published and things he wanted to write.

They reveal elements of his inner life that remained unstated, or at most implicit, in Frye’s public writings -- for example, his studies in Buddhist and Hindu thought. He also explored the whole gamut of esoteric and mystical writings from the Corpus Hermeticum and Nicolas of Cusa (respectable) to Madame Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley (shady but undeniably fascinating) to titles such as The Aquarian Conspiracy and Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati (“kook books,” as Frye called them). Connections existed between this material and his scholarship (you can’t study Blake or Yeats for long without picking up some Gnosticism and theosophy) but Frye also needed to understand his own religious beliefs and occasional experiences of the ineffable. He was interested in the cosmological side of the literary imagination, but also compelled to figure out his own place in the cosmos.

The drives were mutually reinforcing. But references to these interests in his published work were few and far between, and often enough too oblique to notice. With Denham’s close knowledge of Frye’s writings (scholarly and subterranean alike) Word and Spirit seems like the book that’s been necessary for some while -- the thread that can take readers into the depths of the Frygian labyrinth. So on those grounds, I can recommend it -- without guaranteeing you’ll find the way back out again.


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