Canadian intellectuals? Well, besides McLuhan there’s Northrop Frye
Canadian intellectuals? Well, besides McLuhan there’s Northrop Frye
ASIDE FROM Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian who is best known among intellectuals abroad is Northrop Frye. Frye has the less public reputation because it is founded on such theoretical works of literary criticism as Fearful Symmetry: A Study Of William Blake and Anatomy Of Criticism, while McLuhan has taken as his field the whole revolution in the mass media in the 20th century.
Northrop Frye lives quietly in Toronto where he is a professor at the University of Toronto. He is also professor-at-large at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. And, ironically, Frye — and not McLuhan — is a parttime member of the Canadian Radio - Television Commission, the body that regulates radio and television stations in this country.
Northrop Frye has just published a new book. The Bush Garden, a collection of “essays on the Canadian imagination,” gathers together various pieces he’s written about Canadian writers and painters during the past 25 years. Much of the book consists
of the annual poetry reviews that Frye contributed to the University of Toronto Quarterly during the 1950s; there are tributes to E. J. Pratt, who was Frye’s teacher and later his colleague at Victoria College in Toronto, and to painters David Milne and Lawren Harris; there is the brilliant summing-up that Frye contributed to A Literary History Of Canada in the mid-1960s; and there is a preface, which is worth at least the price of admission, in which Frye describes the book as “episodes in a writing career which has been mainly concerned with world literature and has addressed an international reading public, and yet has always been rooted in Canada and has drawn its essential characteristics from there.”
Northrop Frye’s own background seems so Canadian it’s hard to reconcile it with the image of the reserved intellectual figure whose concern is patterns and myths in world literature. He was born in Sherbrooke and grew up in Moncton. In the mid-Thirties he was ordained as a minister in the United Church.
He once said that he managed the traditional journey of the bright young man from the provinces to the capital (from the Maritimes to Upper Canada) because he was a champion typist. For a number of years he served as editor (unpaid) of The Canadian Forum. Frye mentions in his preface that the Forum' s “good-natured hospitality has helped so many Canadians to learn to write” (in Frye’s time as its editor I was one young Canadian who was grateful for the Forum's hospitality).
There are occasional hints in Frye’s writings that suggest to me a sympathy with traditional Canadian radicalism of a pre-NDP, CCF variety. It’s Canadian enough to make a maple leaf shed a tear of recognition, and yet an ultra nationalist recently lumped Frye with George Grant and Marshall McLuhan as “critics cornered by continentalism” — that is, sellouts to the United States. Frye might almost have been replying to that kind of generalization when he wrote in the preface to The Bush Garden: “The tension between (the) political sense of unity and the imaginative sense of locality is the essence of whatever the word ‘Canadian’ means. Once the tension is given up, and the two elements of unity and identity are confused or assimilated to each -other, we get the two endemic diseases of Canadian life . . . the empty gestures of Canadian nationalism ... the kind of
provincial isolation which is now called separatism.”
Frye’s old poetry reviews, written for the U of T Quarterly supplement Letters in Canada, might have been expected to be by now either dated or irrelevant, but that’s certainly not the case. They are still relevant, partly because Frye is such a good critic and partly because his reviews embraced such a wide range of poetry that, perhaps especially in retrospect, they provide a fascinating sense of the process through which a literature develops.
There are notes about early books by AÍ Purdy and Alden Nowlan, who developed into substantial poets after Frye’s period of reviewing for Letters In Canada was ended. There are notices of such fringe writers as the communist worker-poet J. S. Wallace and the author of popular newspaper verse, Edna Jaques. Frye discusses poets with whom he had an undisguised sympathy — E. J. Pratt, James Reaney, Jay Macpherson — and then surprises with another kind of sympathetic response to Raymond Souster.
But most interesting of all the Letters In Canada reviews are those in which Frye wrestles with the most recent book(s) by Irving Layton. Some of his opinions are at least heretical: “a gentle, wistful, lonely and rather frightened poet” (1951); “a poet whose conscious and creative minds are at odds, and the former has . . . concealed the fact that he is not only a serious poet but an unusually gifted one” (1954); “not a satirist at all, but an erudite elegiac poet” (also 1954). Layton, for his part, published in 1952 a not-exactly-elegiac poem which took note of the critic: “But alas: Mr Butchevo Phrye/Was born to pry/ Among old bones/And cemetery stones.” What greater tribute could a critic want?
Northrop Frye in his Canadian criticism has concentrated on the poets, but in the essay of summation he contributed to A Literary History Of Canada he dealt as well with our novelists and historians and the whole fabric of
Canadian society. This essay is a stunning piece of work, so well written, so well informed, and so broad in its sympathies and commitments. Reading it one wishes that Northrop Frye had undertaken a full-scale, formal study of Canadian literature and society. On the other hand, the fugitive pieces collected in The Bush Garden have the advantage of not being too formal, so that we can respond to the immediate perceptions of a subtle and literate critical mind.
In any case, the conjunction of our major critic publishing with a small firm such as the House of Anansi, which is mostly concerned with taking risks on the kind of young writers Northrop Frye was reviewing in Letters In Canada in the 1950s, makes us seem a better and more open literary society than perhaps we really are. The Bush Garden: Essays On The Canadian Imagination; by Northrop Frye; House of Anansi, $7.50. □
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