More Northrop Frye on Marshall McLuhan


Herman Northrop Frye, literary critic, university professor, editor (b at Sherbrooke, Qué 14 Jul 1912; d at Toronto 23 Jan 1991). A professor of English at Victoria College at the University of Toronto since 1939, Frye achieved international recognition for his literary theories, expounded in his study of William Blake’s prophecies,Fearful Symmetry (1947), his grammar of mythic form, ANATOMY OF CRITICISM (1957), and his 2-volume study of how the Bible provided the symbolic underpinnings of Western literature, The Great Code (1982). These works, particularly Anatomy, made Frye one of this century’s leading literary theorists and resulted in his receiving honorary degrees from many of the major universities in the Western world. A particular honour was his appointment as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard for the 1974-75 year.

From the Northrop Frye/Educated Imagination blog published by someone at McMaster University library:-

I have finally put together a compilation of Frye references to Marshall McLuhan across twenty-three volumes of the Collected Works – almost 20,000 words worth. This was a very illuminating experience. Once I have proof-read the collection, I will post it. I will also put together a post providing an overview, which will be the basis of a much longer paper that I hope will be one of my contributions to the Frye centenary next year.

So, once again, here are a couple of quotes to prepare the palette: Frye’s first reference to McLuhan in his 1949 diary, and his last more than forty years later in an interview conducted in November 1990, two months before his death:

From the 1949 diary:

Norma Arnett came up to me last night & wanted to know why a poem she (and I remember to some extent) thought was good had not been considered even for honourable mention in the Varsity contest. . . I said the judge was just plain wrong (I think it was McLuhan, so it’s a reasonable enough assumption). (CW 8, 94)


From “Cultural Identity in Canada” (27 November 1990: interview with Carl Mollins):

Mollins: I suppose McLuhan has certainly acknowledged his debt to Innis and to you, I think?

Frye: Well to Innis, not to me [laughing]. I suspect a great deal of that—I think that’s something to give the critics to play with. Innis was a man who worked like a vacuum cleaner, picking up books everywhere, and he saw something very distinctive in McLuhan, and so he asked McLuhan for autographs, and they did exchange some correspondence. There was a bit of mixture there. I think McLuhan was just a coming person and, with no special reputation at that time, was very flattered by this (as he should have been), and the result was that you get a rather Innis-McLuhan link. But I don’t really see a great deal of influence from Innis on McLuhan.

Mollins: There is something in each of you—the use of the aphorism, the cryptic utterance which compels a reader to dwell upon a sentence.

Frye: It is true that both McLuhan and I are rather discontinuous, mosaic writers of very different kinds. It’s less true of Innis, although actually that book that Christian got out, The Idea File of Innis, does indicate that he thought aphoristically. That’s certainly true of me. I keep notebooks and write aphoristically, and ninety-five per cent of the work I do is putting them out on a line, and then you have a continuous rhythm. (CW 24, 1094-5)  

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