OBITUARY

The great decoder

Northrop Frye explored culture’s myths

John Bemrose February 4 1991
OBITUARY

The great decoder

Northrop Frye explored culture’s myths

John Bemrose February 4 1991

The great decoder

OBITUARY

Northrop Frye explored culture’s myths

Northrop Frye was too complex a phenomenon to be summed up under a single label. Literary and social critic, gifted teacher, superb stylist and author of 24 major books—including Anatomy of Criticism (1957) and his landmark two-part study of the Bible, The Great Code (1982) and Words with Power (1990)—Frye turned his finely honed intelligence to a host of subjects with all the canny adaptability of a pioneer. His work influenced many of the country’s best writers, including Margaret Atwood and James Reaney, while his teaching equipped several generations of students with a mythological vision of society based on Western literature and the Bible. He died last week of a heart attack (he was also suffering from cancer) at the age of 78, ending one of the most

influential careers in Canadian letters. To Toronto critic and writer Robert Fulford, Frye was simply “our greatest literary figure.” Clearly, the world agreed. In addition to his BA in English and philosophy from the University of Toronto and MA in English from Oxford, he received 38 honorary degrees from around the globe. He also appeared as guest lecturer at more than 100 universities, some of which (including Oxford and Princeton) tried to hire him. In 1987, La Sapienza, a leading university in Rome, hosted a three-day congress to honor him. But, for more than 50 years, Frye remained at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, where his broad, bespectacled face was a familiar if daunting sight to undergraduates and fellow scholars. His reputation for brilliance kept others at bay—he was not

skilled at making small talk—but his friends invariably described him as a shy man whose remote manner hid a generous heart.

He was bom in 1912 in Sherbrooke, Que., the youngest of Herman and Cassie Frye’s four children. Herman Northrop Frye was an extraordinarily bookish child. According to his biographer, John Ayre, by the time he was 6, Frye was dragging around a copy of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim ’s Progress “like a teddy bear.” In 1918, his older brother, Howard, was killed in the First World War. At about the same time, his father’s hardware business collapsed. Frye later said that the double trauma greatly affected him. The family later moved to Moncton, N.B., where the adolescent Frye struggled against his family’s austere Methodism. Said Ayre: “Frye managed to reject the negative, ‘thou shalt not’ part of Protestantism, while hanging on to the more positive social vision with its sense of a purpose in life.”

After finishing high school, Frye travelled to Toronto as the New Brunswick representative in a 1929 speed-typing contest: pounding out 80 words a minute, he came second. That autumn he began classes at Victoria College, where he fell under the influences of poet E. J. Pratt and academic Pelham Edgar. It was the perceptive Edgar who nudged the gifted undergraduate in the direction of the English poet William Blake. At the time, the great bulk of Blake’s poetry was considered to be an impenetrable swamp of private symbols. But Frye ^ gradually rejected the prevailing view I of Blake as a softheaded mystic, disci covering instead that the poet had a Irich, deeply integrated imaginative =1 vision.

I After graduation from Victoria Col1 lege, Frye continued to struggle with « Blake’s poetry during a three-year £ training period for the United Church g ministry. In the summer of 1934, he o worked as a student preacher among

the drought-stricken communities of southwestern Saskatchewan. In his 1989 book, Northrop Frye: A Biography, Ayre draws a remarkable picture of the scholarly young misfit “trying to study Blake in loud, open kitchens with blaring radios and unfamiliar people.” Because of such experiences, Frye abandoned his ambition of entering the ministry.

Frye finally published his Blake book, Fearful Symmetry, in 1947, to the immediate acclaim of Canadian reviewers. Praise from many other countries gradually followed. In one passage, he wrote in his distinctive, epigrammatic style: “Heaven is this world as it appears to the awakened imagination.” That observation reflects the essence of Frye’s teaching for the rest of his life: only people with educated imaginations, he believed, could live in a truly satisfying and civilized way. Said Francesca Valente, director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto and an organizer of the 1987

Roman congress on Frye: “He was an exceptional humanist and a true revolutionary who believed that, through an educated imagination, you could transform reality.” Valente, a former student and personal friend, added that Frye believed the role of the imagination was “to produce from the society we live in a vision of the society we want to live in.”

Frye also taught that literature is not a hodgepodge of miscellaneous stories and po-

ems, but rather a living, deeply unified whole. What gives literature its unity is its mythic structure—its mirroring of the great, eternal stories of the loss of Eden and the struggles of heroes to find redemption. For Frye, the greatest source of such stories in Western civilization was the Bible. He never tired of pointing out how the Bible’s influence cropped up everywhere—from the cadences of George Eliot to the lyrics of Bob Dylan. Frye once claimed that

modem society’s failure to pass on its biblical heritage amounted to “malpractice in education. We’re raising a generation of highly intelligent young people to be deliberately senile and to live without a cultural memory.”

As for his personal life, Frye often claimed that he had arranged it so that nothing exciting could happen to him. And certainly, from the outside, his long, childless marriage to art historian and journalist Helen Kemp, whom he met at Victoria College and who died in 1986, was serenely uneventful. But for Frye, who married his second wife, Elizabeth Brown, in 1988, the outer calm served only to protect the fires of inner creation. He cared more for the spark of ideas than for the fireworks of clashing personalities. That was evident in his lecturing style, which was so cool and measured that it could seem dispassionate. But, standing behind a lectern, Frye had a talent for igniting young minds. Author Christina McCall says that after her first Frye lecture in 1954, she confided to her diary: “I think my head is coming off.” Frye gave the last lecture of his popular course “The Mythological Framework of Western Culture” on Dec. 4. Although he used a cane and was in obvious discomfort, he responded with his usual, understated eloquence to a student who wondered if science was displacing the power of metaphor—if the physical was supplanting the spiritual—in ordinary life. In reply, Frye referred to a relationship between quantum mechanics and Chinese metaphysics. “Whatever you may make of that,” he concluded with a smile, adding: “If I had 150 years, I would work on that question.” In fact, he had only another seven weeks before his thoughts would exist in his books alone— and in the minds and imaginations of his countless admirers.

JOHN BEMROSE