Choice and master spirit
Fame is pursuing Northrop Frye
If Canadians were told that one of their countrymen had a good chance to become an international television celebrity by the end of the decade, they could have trouble agreeing on a candidate. Most would probably select an actor or a pop singer, and few would consider that the man might be—to put it bluntly—an intellectual. Yet plans are well under way for the launching of one of the more unlikely prospects for TV stardom: a chunky, 65-year-old Toronto professor who is desperately shy and whose sheer brilliance often reduces his colleagues to tongue-tied incoherence.
Later this year, TV Ontario will film the first episode in a projected 13-part series on
the great heroes of literature. After looking at the early scripts, executives of the provincially funded educational network are quietly confident that either the CBC or the National Film Board will pick up part of the tab for the remaining programs, possibly in tandem with the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Public Broadcasting System in the United States. Sight unseen, both the BBC and PBS have already expressed strong interest in the series. For them, the great attraction is its star: Herman Northrop Frye.
It’s hardly a household name, even to Canadians. Yet Northrop Frye has all the credentials to follow in the footsteps of Sir Kenneth Clark, Jacob Bronowski and John Kenneth Galbraith: fellow pundits who blossomed in similar series which drew millions of viewers into loftier realms than those of the latest sitcoms. Frye is often called our greatest living scholar, at least in the humanities, and no Canadian in any field has a more solid international reputation. If he lacks the public recognition accorded to Galbraith and Marshall McLuhan—two of his coevals among Canadian-born scholars—it is partly because
he remains an intensely private person. (“I have unconsciously arranged my life so that nothing has ever happened to me and no biographer could possibly take the smallest interest in me.”) And it is partly because he disdains to be a showman.
It is late in the lecture and the dumpy man in the faded academic gown has been talking about the Book of Job for nearly an hour. Speaking without notes, he has already worked in references to Aristotle, King Lear, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein and the Vietnam War. Now he pauses to let the scribbling undergraduates keep pace. “I don’t expect you to understand very
much of this,” he goes on drily, “but write it down anyway.” As more than 60 students look up in sudden shock, you can feel the tremor of collective disbelief. Then, as they notice the smile, they break into nervous laughter. It’s all right, they decide.Professor Frye, that legendary but diffident scholar, hasn’t finally succumbed to temptations of grandeur. Professor Frye, it seems, was only having his little joke.
For nearly 40 years, Northrop Frye has been a teacher of English literature at Victoria College in the University of Toronto. That simple statement might seem to leave out everything that matters—the 16 books, the hundreds of essays, the 27 honorary degrees, the numerous medals and fellowships, and all the prestigious public and academic posts. Nor does it hint at the extraordinary eminence which Frye has achieved as a literary scholar and liberal humanist. But it is, one suspects, how Frye would choose to describe himself, less through false modesty than through a very
firm and old-fashioned set of priorities.
Frye likes to tell a story about his maternal grandfather, a Methodist preacher and circuit rider. A wealthy parishioner had died, and there was some shrewd concern as to which church was going to receive him into its bosom. The local Anglican minister was first to speak at the funeral service and began to intone: “I am the Resurrection and the Light...” At which point Frye’s grandfather elbowed his rival aside, trumpeting: “No! / am the Resurrection and the Light!” Although it is impossible to imagine the grandson acting so aggressively, Frye was himself ordained in the United Church. Soon, however, the university became his real church, and literature his gospel. Between terms at Victoria, he has logged hundreds of thousands of miles to deliver lectures throughout the world: a jet-age circuit rider in the service of his cause. In January he returned from giving a seminar in Guyana which drew over 400 eager students. “I seem to be stuck in this role of evangelist,” he remarked.
As an evangelist of literature, who asserts it is essential to the spiritual health of the individual and the nation, Frye has had a striking impact on generations of students, writers and academics. To understand him, you have to know something about Victoria College, his spiritual home for four decades. An architectural disaster, the main building is a huge, ungainly redstone structure which is eclectically embellished with arches, columns and gargoyles. Founded by Methodists, the college was meant to instill the virtues of honest toil, clean living and liberal enquiry: carved over the main door is the motto,The Truth Shall Make You Free. Traditionally Victoria has attracted white, Protestant, middle-class students, and sent out a large proportion of its graduates as high-school teachers. According to scholar Peter Buitenhuis: “In some ways it was the quintessence of the Ontario mind, bourgeois, austere, dry, with a tradition both strongly theological and liberal.”
That description also fits Frye, except that he was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and grew up in Moncton, New Brunswick. His ancestors were English Puritans who settled in Massachusetts: some moved north as United Empire Loyalists. Frye’s father was in the hardware business. His mother, the preacher’s daughter, encouraged his early reading, everything from Walter Scott to H. G. Wells. At school Frye was the only boy wearing glasses. Shy, and bad at sports, he soon earned the prophetic nickname of Professor.
Curiously, it was a typewriting contest which brought Frye to Toronto in 1929. He had become extremely proficient on the machine during a short business course in Moncton; performing on stage at Massey Hall under a New Brunswick banner he placed second in the novice class. Frye stayed on to enroll at Victoria, his maternal grandfather’s college, where he consistently topped his honors course in English and philosophy, and began to blossom as a debater, actor and editor. By the time he graduated in 1933, he knew his instincts were those of a teacher. But his many scholarships had been granted to him as a potential minister, so Frye felt duty-bound to complete the theological course at Emmanuel College: in 1936 he was ordained in the United Church.
Eminent persons who guard their privacy always foster a body of legend, much of it apocryphal. One of the most persistent stories about Frye concerns the summer he spent as a student preacher in Saskatchewan. There was a severe drought and the farmers asked their novice minister to pray for rain. According to the story, Frye obliged them with such eloquence that the heavens opened at the end of his prayer; terrified by this evidence of his extraordinary powers, he immediately vowed to pursue a less dangerous career. Today Frye denies the story flatly. Typically he resents it as a slur on the good sense of his parishioners: “They would never have asked me to do such a thing.”
It was a passion for literature, not a fear of preaching, which sent Frye to Oxford for his MA, and led to his appointment as a lecturer in the English department of Victoria in 1939. From that point the real Frye legend began to grow: within a very few years the word was out around the whole Toronto campus that a masterful teacher had emerged, and even engineers would pack his lectures on the Bible. Writer Christina McCall Newman recalls that when she entered Vic in the Fifties, she was skeptical that any professor could be so good. “By the end of his first lecture on Milton I was overwhelmed. His impact was electric. His mind was a perfect intellectual instrument.” Peering through his rimless glasses and speaking with slow deliberation, Frye grips his students with his sheer lucidity.
All the time he has been teaching, Frye has never stopped writing: for 40 years there has always been at least one book or essay in the works. “I’m like a squirrel storing nuts,” he says. “I’m always scribbling on subways, or wherever I can.” The books are the fruit of Frye’s prodigious reading. Few men anywhere can have such a vast knowledge of both classical and modern literature, as well as other disciplines. In one of the throw-away lines which enliven his essays, Frye remarks that he has never studied psychology, although he has read several hundred volumes on the subject.
Frye’s first book, which established his international reputation when it was pub-
lished in 1947, was Fearful Symmetry, his detailed study of William Blake. His most influential work, Anatomy Of Criticism, which came a decade later, attempts to establish a systematic framework for the study of literature. Frye asserts that every age has a structure of ideas and images which he calls myths. These myths express basic views of man’s destiny: moreover they become the recurring metaphors and plots of literature. In this view, any book or poem owes more to other works of literature than to the writer’s own life and times. It can be analyzed objectively, and without recourse to personal taste or to such other fields as history, political science and psychology.
Many of Canada’s leading poets, playwrights, novelists and critics have imbibed these theories directly. To outsiders, it often seems that CanLit has been taken over by a coterie of Frye’s former students, among them Margaret Atwood, James Reaney, Dennis Lee, Jay Macpherson, David Knight, Ronald Bates and George Johnston. Through jealousy, or through genuine disagreement, a lot of criticism and even abuse has been directed at Frye and the so-called “Frye-dolators.” An eminent Toronto professor used to tell his students: “It’s not Frye I’m afraid of, it’s the smaller fry.” One of the most persistent critics, poet Irving Layton, praises Frye’s scholarship and his sensitivity when he tackles individual works. But Layton
charges that Frye has been a baleful influence on writers by making them too cerebral: “Frye says poems are made from other poems. I say poems are made from living and experience.”
Although they are often linked with him, poets such as Atwood, Macpherson and Eli Mandel deny that there is any “Frye school,” despite their common use of mythic forms. “He doesn’t tell you what to write,” says Atwood. “His real influence on us was in the way he treats writing as a very serious occupation.” If Frye doesn’t determine the kind of literature we read, he does affect the way we read it. While Frye states that he neither wants nor trusts disciples, his thematic and mythic approach has become the dominant trend in Canadian criticism, as seen in the work of Mandel, D. G. Jones, W. H. New, John Moss, and in Atwood’s own Survival. In turn, these works have influenced thousands of university and high-school teachers. Lately, however, there has been a reaction on the part of critics such as Frank Davey, George Bowering and Dennis Lee, whose recent Savage Fields takes issue with the distinction between objective thinking and subjective evaluation.
Frye is also the target for political abuse from extreme nationalists, presumably because he treats literature in an international context. According to Robin Mathews of Carleton University: “Northrop Frye is high priest of one of the most
disreputable ideologies in Canadian history: the ideology of sellout and destruction of the Canadian fact.” Yet a whole book of Frye’s essays, The Bush Garden, is devoted to Canadian themes, and in the Fifties his annual reviews in the University Of Toronto Quarterly traced the rise of a genuine modern poetry in Canada.
Although many of Frye’s insights (such as his concept of our “garrison mentality”) have been influential, he has failed to make much popular impact as a social prophet. This is partly because his ideas have been constantly evolving and defy easy summary. A longtime supporter of the old CCF (“our only genuinely conservative party”), Frye has strongly liberal instincts, especially in areas such as race relations. “But if I had to give myself a label,” he adds, “it would be Tory radical—which is what most Canadian intellectuals really are.” At a time of national crisis, when most prophets are warning of impending doom, Frye points to our positive opportunities. While he deplores the prospect of an independent Quebec (partly because French-Canadian culture would be the first casualty), he also decries “the empty gestures of cultural nationalism.” He thinks Canada has moved from a pre-national to a post-national phase without ever having been a nation, and could be a model for other nations if it survives its current crisis.
Frye’s commitment to Canada is under-
lined by his four decades at Victoria, and by the number of times he has turned down prestigious and lucrative offers from British and American universities. Feelings of loyalty and a strong sense of duty have kept him in Toronto, just as they compelled him to accept the post of principal of Victoria for seven years, and a nine-year membership on the Canadian Radio-Television Commission. Frye found such public positions uncongenial, and doesn’t think he was very good in them—“but I simply felt I had to take my turn.” With his present honorific positions as university professor and senior fellow of Massey College, Frye could easily devote most of his time and energies to his probable masterpiece: a massive book on the Bible’s imagery with which he has wrestled for several years. Instead, he teaches an undergraduate course and a graduate seminar, accepts speaking invitations from other institutions and deals faithfully with a cataract of manuscripts, theses and letters which pour across his desk.
Despite his eminence—and partly because of it—Frye seems a lonely man. Among his many colleagues and former students, there are few who claim to be close friends. Intensely shy, Frye lives quietly with his wife Helen (there are no children) in a modest Toronto home; his main recreation is playing the piano. (This is a lifelong passion, and he has an unusually large collection of keyboard music from the 18th and 19th centuries.) Although he is invariably polite, and especially courtly to women, Frye discourages intimacy more than he would ever intend. He emanates what Dennis Lee calls “an aura of brilliance” ; in his presence, even the most sophisticated colleague often feels like a stammering idiot. At a gathering of The Bookmen—an exclusive Toronto luncheon club of publishers, editors and critics—the assembled luminaries dissolved into collective panic when told that Frye would be their guest, and backed into corners to avoid sitting next to him. When people meet him, according to Margaret Atwood, they’re often gripped by “sheer petrifaction.” Frye is well aware of this effect, but says sadly there is nothing he can do about it: “Whenever I try, I only make matters worse.”
Beyond doubt, Frye is more at ease when lecturing. Judging by his occasional television appearances in the past, he will be witty and provocative in his new series, especially when he shows how our own concerns are reflected in the great myths of literature. He’s been warned that the critics are waiting to cut him down to size, but he’s clearly intrigued at the opportunity to preach the literature he loves to thousands of viewers who would never enter his classroom, or read his books. Despite the great reputation which those books have earned for him, he still sees himself as more of a teacher than a scholar. “I am,” he says, “always trying to make it clear to that undergraduate in the back row.”^