A Northrop Frye Retrospective at 100

15Apr12

Quotes Book Northrop Frye
Last year was the Centenary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth on July 21, 1911. This year it’s Northrop Frye’s turn; he was born on July 14, 1912 in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Great literary scholar that he was, Frye was also Marshall McLuhan’s rival in academic politics and scholarly influence at the University of Toronto during the ’60s and ’70s. The state of their attitudes towards each other is revealed in a comment made by literary scholar George Steiner about a visit he made to the University of Toronto:-
“Many years ago, one evening in Massey College, I sat with Robertson Davies, Norrie Frye, Kathleen Coburn (the world’s greatest Coleridge scholar), when there walked in a very much younger Marshall McLuhan. Astounded, and without thinking, I turned to Professor Frye, and said, “There’s Marshall McLuhan.” I cannot hope to reproduce the air of sardonic melancholy which immediately invaded Norrie’s features. He had a long look, and said, “So the man alleges.” This is to say what Toronto was at that moment – and perhaps will be again? – the absolute centre for the study of Letters and the Humanities, possibly in the world.” http://tinyurl.com/7s98eea
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For his part, McLuhan and his co-conspirator and Explorations Seminar research associate, anthropologist Ted Carpenter conspired against Frye’s influence and his ideas on literary archetypes and massive systematization of literature in his then very influential Anatomy of Criticism (1957). McLuhan biographer Philip Marchand writes: “They would refer in public … to a mysterious entity they named Hugo. This turned out to be a reference to their common enemy Northrop Frye, who at that time commonly signed himself H. Northrop Frye (the H standing, in fact,  for Herman) (The Medium & the Messenger, 1989, p. 125). Academic politics aside, one cannot but feel that each had a grudging respect for the other; academic politics can be a near blood sport.
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The following article from UofT Magazine provides a retrospective of Northrop Frye’s scholarship and influence:-
 SPRING 2012   –   Frye’s Anatomy   –   By Alec Scott

To his English students, Northrop Frye, the brilliant literary critic, was an intellectual god and a master lecturer. One-on-one, though, he could be difficult to read.

The advice gives a sense of how deeply Frye valued what the academy had to offer: discipline for the mind and fodder for the creative soul.

Certainly, he himself always flourished in academe – both as a student at U of T and at Oxford University during the Depression, and then as a professor. While teaching at U of T’s Victoria College from 1939 to near his death in 1991, he published many books and scholarly articles about the literary greats, modern and antique, parsing the likes of Shakespeare, James Joyce, Emily Dickinson, Baldassare Castiglione, T.S. Eliot and William Blake. He didn’t limit himself to a particular period, national literature or genre – he grandly took the whole of literature as his subject.

As if wrestling with the giants wasn’t enough, he also sought to reform the whole project of literary criticism, wanting to turn it into a quasi-scientific discipline. For this, he was called – sometimes reverently, sometimes not – the Einstein of criticism. His 1957 work, Anatomy of Criticism, sought to show how every story ever told could be fit into four essential moulds. Further, the book analyzed literature in light of psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s work with archetypes, arguing that certain common symbols and figures populate all of literature, from folktales and ancient myths to contemporary novels.

It sounds, perhaps, to the general-interest reader like difficult stuff – and it is – but Frye’s writing is at least not opaque. He made a religion of clarity and turned out lucid, stylish sentence after lucid, stylish sentence. The complexity was always in the thought, not the prose. “In a way that some academics are not, Frye was a writer,” says University Professor Emeritus Edward Chamberlin, a former grad student of Frye’s. Valente agrees: “I had to try to live up to his beautiful sentences when I was translating them.”

Perhaps partly on the strength of its eminently readable style, Anatomy sold well immediately, and for two decades became an inescapable text for English students, assigned by professors at universities around the world. Frye’s influence reached its height in 1978, when only Plato, Marx, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Lenin, Freud and Roland Barthes were more frequently cited by fellow academics. They even used an adjective – “Frygian” – to describe arguments inspired by him or young scholars following his lead.

During the postmodernist wave that began to wash over North America in the 1980s, though, Anatomy fell out of style, and many hip, young literature profs took it off their reading lists. But, by then, the never-still Frye had moved on to the project that would absorb his last decade: showing how the Bible was the bedrock on which all Western literature sits.

While his international reputation rose and fell, his standing on campus remained relatively constant. For most of the last four decades (of the five) he taught at U of T, he was considered an intellectual beacon for the university – one of the profs (with his contemporary Marshall McLuhan) who’d put U of T on the global radar.  Read the est at http://tinyurl.com/75v67t5 .
Watch an interview with Northrop Frye in 1973:-

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