A large portrait of a seated Northrop Frye hangs on the walls of the Pratt Library Reading Room at Victoria College in Toronto. His image is a presence that looms over students. The canvas depicts the famous scholar hovering in midair above a wasteland setting of grey mountains and forbidding flat lands. He is neither up high nor down low. On this, the centennial of his birth, that floating presence is almost a metaphor for his current status.
Frye left an indelible mark on international literary scholarship, Canadian literature, education and culture. Yet to utter is his name today in university English departments evokes frowns and scornful remarks. What has been forgotten in the trendy world of literary criticism is that many of the current hot-button critics owe the foundation of their ideas to the scholar who, like Aquinas, perceived that the imaginative universe and the written word are realms that not only an express our dreams, but our most basic aspirations to be happy.
In The Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Frye broke with what had been the traditional role of the critic as exegete or explainer, and decided to examine the structures at work in literature. The texts that informed his map-making, however, were predominantly English and classic, works such as Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Bible – the canon of the Oxford English curriculum that only went as far as 1875.
What was missing from Frye’s criticism throughout his career, and what may be the source of the dismissiveness his name engenders today, was an awareness of works beyond the central English canon. He did not foresee how multiculturalism, post-colonialism, feminism or even queer theory would change the way we read literature, and his perception of the mythic structures and archetypes inherent in the Western tradition gave little scope to the broad and almost universal mythos that would express itself in the form of aboriginal literature. His contemporary, Joseph Campbell, foresaw the emergence of the new English literature, the broader spectrum, especially with regard to the hero in literature.
Frye’s definition of the hero in The Anatomy of Criticism, however, was a building block for future critics, and he could not have foreseen the evolutions that have taken place since. That said, Frye appears now to have been wrongly recast as an apologist for Eurocentric culture when what he was trying to do was illuminate the texts we read. Harold Bloom noted that the publication of The Anatomy of Criticism established Frye as “the foremost living student of Western literature.”
Frye was the complete critic, the likes of which this country has not seen since his death in 1991, a voice who could read not only literature but culture, and foresee with intelligent accuracy and acumen how trends will impact on us.
Frye perceived that we may not live in literature as much as we live in culture, and served as a member of the CRTC, a post he loathed. His arguments for Canadian-made broadcasting are still germane and are one of the reasons why we continue to protect the CBC. His ideas regarding Canadian culture were formed years earlier, when he was an editor of The Canadian Forum. And while any question of “national identity” is also a taboo subject in contemporary academe, Frye had a major hand in forging what little sense of national identity we may still possess.
It is easy to forget that literature, whether John Milton or Milton Acorn, comes from both the heart and the home. Perhaps his greatest contribution from a Canadian perspective remains somewhat of a footnote to his broader critical opi. In The Bush Garden (1974), a collection of essays he had written for journals such as The University of Toronto Quarterly, Frye asserted “the garrison mentality,” and in championing painter David Milne, attempted to define just who we are so we would have a mirror in which to recognize ourselves as unique. Cultures need this or they quickly become unrecognizably absorbed into the global blur.
At the conclusion of his 1975 NFB documentary, Journey Without an Arrival, Frye comments that Canada was on the cusp of an age driven by information and technology, perhaps a small nod to his contemporary, Marshall McLuhan.
What Frye likely foresaw was the breaking down of boundaries, and although his theories today seem rather rigid and, at times, exclusive, he did assert that the imagination was a wilderness waiting for us to venture in, a place of unfathomable and limitless ideas. This, in particular, was what he passed on to many of his students, such as James Reaney, Don Coles, Eli Mandel, Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lee, and it is through their writings about our living mythos that Northrop Frye’s voice continues to be heard.
Bruce Meyer is a professor of English at Georgian College. His most recent work is A Book of Bread.