“The Atlantic Ocean was something then. Yes, you shoulda seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”
Burt Lancaster waxed that bit of nostalgia for the 1940s while playing Lou, the aging small-time gunsel in the 1980 Oscar-nominated feature Atlantic City. It’s a sentiment with apt application to Toronto in the 1950s and ’60s when you coulda, shoulda seen Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan and Glenn Gould pacing the pavement. Titans all they were, as Yoda might put it, each then at the height of his respective powers, each with an influence rippling far beyond the shores of Lake Ontario.
They’re all dead now – Frye in 1991, McLuhan in 1980, Gould two years later. But were he alive, Herman Northrop Frye would be celebrating his 100th birthday on Saturday. The occasion already has been marked in Moncton, Frye’s home from about age seven to 17, with a barbecue and the unveiling Friday of a life-size bronze sculpture of the illustrious critic, writer and teacher outside the city’s main library. Victoria College at the University of Toronto, Frye’s intellectual home from 1929 until his death, will host a symposium in October to salute both his achievements and the recent publication of the 30th and final volume of his collected works.
Today the name Northrop Frye (“Norrie” to family and select friends) remains synonymous with “big brain” even as most of us likely couldn’t summarize just what that brain did, save, perhaps, to cite the titles of some of his most famous books – Fearful Symmetry, Anatomy of Criticism, The Great Code. Frye himself didn’t make it easy. While he could craft a nifty aphorism (“Americans like to make money; Canadians like to audit it.” “Good books may instruct but bad ones are more likely to inspire.”), he was no Marshall McLuhan whose “the medium is the message” and “art is anything you can get away with” seem perpetually au courant.
Moreover, as a professional literary critic, Frye worked in a discipline known for its fierce abstruseness, recondite vocabulary and the rapidity by which schools are created and concepts embraced, then discarded. Fryegianism may no longer count as much as it did in Frye’s lifetime but he still matters just as Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot still matter. Happy centenary, Mr. Frye.