Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was a Canadian literary scholar. His literary theories, which outlined a science of literary criticism based on a core of identifiable mythic forms, had unusual importance internationally, particularly in the late 1950s to late 1970s.

Herman Northrop Frye was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, on July 14, 1912. After the failure of his father's hardware business, his family moved to Moncton, New Brunswick, where he completed his primary and secondary education. His skill as a typist brought him to Toronto to compete in an Underwood-sponsored contest in 1929. He enrolled in Victoria College of the University of Toronto.

While still an undergraduate, he developed a deep fascination with the complex poetic prophecies of William Blake, particularly Milton, The Four Zoas, and Jerusalem, considered by many scholars to be the product of an eccentric, possibly insane, visionary. In Frye's first year of graduate work, in which he took concurrent training as a minister for the United Church of Canada (primarily Methodist), Frye decided to write a definitive book on Blake which would break Blake's difficult symbolic code. This near obsession sustained him through two unhappy years of graduate work at Merton College, Oxford, where he studied with poet Edmund Blunden in 1936-1937 and 1938-1939, after which he taught English at Victoria College for over four decades.


Ten-Year Labor on Blake

Heavily influenced by British scholars of myth, particularly James Frazer, he worked diligently on the Blake book from 1934 to 1945, finally producing Fearful Symmetry. Published in 1947, it is still considered the definitive reading of Blake. It shows that Blake's poetic universe was not psychotically personal but had close affinities with other major poetry. Basically Frye proposed that all literature fit into a grand apocalyptic pattern of heaven and hell. Aspects of literary expression such as tragedy (the Fall), irony (unrelieved hell), romance (resurrection), and comedy (communal reconciliation) form an interconnected circular pattern analogous to the Last Judgment or the wheel of fortune motifs common in medieval art.

Because Frye considered that the ideas he developed through Blake were unusually relevant to literary theory generally, he wrote a series of articles in the early 1950s suggesting how academic critics and students of literature could greatly improve their comprehension of their subject. He suggested the development of a standard symbolic and rhetorical terminology similar to that of musical studies. He spurned any evaluative, aesthetic factors as too subjective. Although Frye himself primarily studied Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, he considered all literature relevant, including folk tales, detective novels, and science fiction. He combined his ideas for the reform of literary studies in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), probably the most influential book of criticism written in English in the 20th century. It has been translated into many languages.


Shaped Literature Teachings

While important, the Anatomy of Criticism is a difficult book intended for professional scholars. Frye produced a much simpler book for general readers, The Educated Imagination, in 1963. He also developed a strong populist interest in the 1960s in reforming the way literature was studied and taught in the schools. A major New York publisher produced a series of readers for grades seven to 12, Uses of the Imagination, based on Frye's ideas. Two college anthologies were also developed.

Found Bible Influenced Literature

While Frye hoped to write a sequel to the Anatomy of Criticism, he became too busy with the practical implications of his ideas to concentrate on it. In 1971 he finally settled on a book on the Bible's influence on English literature as a third major work. As with his first two major books, he took a decade to produce The Great Code (1982), and, like the others, it was both controversial and best selling in university circles. It was even number two on the Canadian non-fiction best selling list for six weeks. Frye's basic point was that the Bible has provided the basic patterns of symbolism and imagery for nearly all of the literature of western cultures. As a result, the Bible must be carefully read and studied by all students of literature. Frye then began work on a sequel, Words with Power (1990), showing how English literature has heavily borrowed its structural forms from the Bible.

Words with Power was the last of forty books of literary criticism written by Frye. The work is a study of the relationship of Biblical language to the language and thought of mythology, literature, and everyday life. "In the course of this book, as he reverses direction from secularizing sacred scriptures to spiritualizing secular ones, his own language moves from the descriptive, the conceptual and the rhetorical to the language of proclamation and prophecy," wrote Steven Marx of Cal Poly University. "This confirms a sense that he is returning to his early vocation as a preacher and also suggests that like the authors he prefers, in interpreting the Bible, Northrop Frye is remaking it his owns."


Prolific in Later Years

In addition to Words with Power, a large volume of Frye's work met the public following The Great Code, including Divisions on a Ground (1982), The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare's Comedies (1983), Northrop Frye on Shakespeare (1986), No Uncertain Sounds (1988), Northrop Frye on Education (1988), Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays 1974-1988 (1990), Reading the World-Selected Writings 1935-1976 (1990), and The Double Vision (1991). A World in a Grain of Sand: Twenty-two Interviews with Northrop Frye was published in 1991.

Intellectual but Humane

Frye died in Toronto Jan. 23, 1991 of an apparent heart attack following a recent diagnosis of cancer. He was 78. Writing in America, July 6, 1991, on the occasion of Frye's death, former student John P. McIntyre remembered the professor's ability for "showing off his students, letting them know that they really were better than they knew.

"As a teacher, he basically made sense. Not only could he put things together effortlessly, but in the doing he easily persuaded us of its rationale." McIntyre seems to credit this to Frye's methodical approach to analyzing literature. "Frye, the teacher, insisted that the study of literature provided a structure of knowledge no less systematic than the multiplication or periodic table. He approached literature deductively by using myth, patterns of imagery and genres. But he also approached literature inductively by talking about stylistics."

Reviewer John Bemrose, writing in Maclean's on The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, discovered a side of Frye his students could not have known—that which nurtured the romance with his wife that lasted from their first meeting in 1931 until her death in 1986. "With their wit, robust energy, lovingness and playful brilliance, these love letters are among the most fascinating ever published in this country—and should banish forever the notion of Frye as an intellectual iceberg." Reviewing Northrop Frye: A Biography, also for Maclean's, Bemrose wrote, "Frye's works often seem so much the product of a brilliantly functioning mind that it is easy to forget there is a struggling human behind them."

To honor Frye and his work, The Northrop Frye Centre was established in 1988 at Victoria University in the University of Toronto. The goals of the centre are to encourage research in the human sciences and the dissemination of humanist scholarship. The centre offers a fellowship program as well as programs by which scholars may become visiting fellows or associates of the centre. The Collected Works of Northrop Frye is expected to be published by the University of Toronto Press in 32 volumes. Drawing on the vast collection of Frye's papers in the Pratt Library of Victoria College, the collection will include an extensive selection of unpublished works, diaries, letters, early essays, speeches, fiction, and notebooks.


Further Reading on Northrop Frye

While Frye was a notable prose stylist, his writing is conceptually dense and difficult. General readers can approach Frye best through The Educated Imagination (1963) or The Modern Century (1967). Robert D. Denham prepared a bibliography (1973) and wrote an analysis of Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye and Critical Method (1978).

Additional Biography Sources

Ayre, John, Northrop Frye: A Biography Random House, 1989.

Denham, Robert D., The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1932-1939, University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Adamson, Joseph, Northrop Frye: A Visionary Life, ECW Press, 1993.

Kirkwood, Hilda, "Frye at the Forum" The Canadian Forum, March, 1991, v69, n797, p15.