A Major Review of B.W. Powe’s Marshall McLuhan & Northrop Frye: Apocalypse & Alchemy

26Nov14

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The November 9, 2014 issue of the venerable Times Literary Supplement (TLS) published a mostly positive review of B.W. Powe’s recent study of McLuhan and Frye, although I detect a measure of possibly colonial condescension from the literary voice of the onetime imperial global empire; that’s okay. They can’t yet shake the habit…………AlexK

Selected quotes:-

In his subversive  collaborative “anti-book” From Cliche to Archetype (1970), Mar­shall McLuhan described his University of Toronto colleague Northrop Frye as “like a hedgehog”, building “humourless, water-tight systems that instead of answering the problem or even illuminating it, block access to it”. He criticized Frye’s major work, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), for failing to acknowledge prel­iterate oral traditions or post-literate pop culture: “Working entirely from the medium of the printed word, Professor Frye has devel­oped a classification of literary forms that ignores not only the print process as it created a special type of writer and audience, but all other media as well”. Frye, for his part, wrote in The Modern Century (1967): ‘The McLuhan cult, or more accurately the McLuhan rumour, is the latest of the illusions of progress: it tells us that a number of new media are about to bring in a new form of civilization all by themselves, merely by existing”. He adds: “This is not all of what a serious and most original writer is trying to say, yet Professor McLuhan lends himself partly to this interpre­ tation by throwing so many of his insights into a deterministic form”.

Northrop Frye Bench Statue Victoria University

The Northrop Frye statue at Victoria College, University of Toronto

Powe studied under McLuhan and Frye in the 1970s. His long and intimate engagement with their work has culminated in a rich, subtly argued book which offers many first­ hand insights:

Yes, McLuhan was dramatic in his flair and verbal flourishes; Frye seemed passively genteel in comparison. But Frye could quietly and steadily compel the attention of hundreds  in a lecture hall ….They loved teaching others and passing on their readings and discoveries. Frye’s pride was ruled over by his exacting scholarship and pedagogical precision in the classroom. McLu­han’s pride was much more untrammelled. His dissident disposition led to endless upsets with perceived adversaries”.

He convincingly  proves,  though,  that the extent of their interaction has been underestimated. While McLuhan’s attacks on Frye are frequently cited, his praise for his colleague’s work tends to be forgotten. In 1967, for example, he commented in a public lecture that Frye was “extraordinary, with his frontiersmanship between the world of literature and the unconscious”. The two men influenced even as they resisted  each  other.

Marshall McLuhan on the right juxtaposed to James Joyce on the left, from the William McElcheran sculpture located outside the Kelly Library at St. Michael’s College.

Although Frye evidently found McLuhan’s style histrionic, he fully acknowledged the significance of his achievements, and worked to achieve recognition for them. Frye chaired the committee that awarded Canada’s most prestigious book prize, the Governor General’s Award, to McLuhan for The Gutenberg Galaxy in 1962. On a more personal level, he referred fondly in 1981 to “my late friend and much beloved colleague”.

Unfortunately the TLS only allows its reviews and articles to be read on its online site by subscribers, who require a login. But, you can read the entire review here: TLS_Review_ Powe .

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