In the lecture room, Northrop Frye was notoriously intimidating. He growled out his insights in perfectly formed sentences, he covered the blackboards with diagrams illustrating his seemingly unarguable theories, and he asked such difficult questions that the room frequently subsided into silences that seemed to last forever. Equally formidable was his reputation as one of the great literary scholars of the 20th century. This was the man who had catapulted himself into the first rank of critics in 1947 with the launch of his very first book, Fearful Symmetry, on the poetry of William Blake. He had written equally well on other authors, from Shakespeare to Dickens, and by the time his career was drawing to a close in the late 1980s, was preparing his crowning achievement, The Bible and Literature, a monumental two-volume study of the Bible’s shaping influence on Western writing.
THE CORRESPONDENCE OF NORTHROP FRYE AND HELEN KEMP,
Edited by Robert D. Denham (University of Toronto, 979 pages, $140)
Even among his colleagues at Victoria College, the University of Toronto, Frye’s reputation and habitual reserve helped preserve his privacy. Perhaps only his wife, Helen, who died five years before him in 1986, truly knew him well. Outsiders, however, can now enjoy an intimate look into their lives with the publication of their early love letters, The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1932-1939. These two beautifully produced and edited volumes are a bonus for scholars, who will now be able to trace the genesis of many of Frye’s ideas. But the correspondence is also a treasure in its own right. With their wit, robust energy, lovingness and playful brilliance, these love letters are among the most fascinating ever published in this
country—and should banish forever the notion of Frye as an intellectual iceberg.
Frye and Kemp first met in 1931, when Helen, then 22, was playing the piano for a Gilbert and Sullivan production at Victoria College. Frye, 19, was working on the lights. Their friendship rapidly deepened into love—a love taxed over the next eight years by frequent separations. During vacations, Frye often returned to his family’s home in New Brunswick, while Kemp remained with hers in Ontario. Then, in the summer of 1934, he travelled to rural Saskatchewan to
serve as a United Church student minister (he later gave up the idea of entering the ministry). In 1934 and 1935, Kemp spent a year in England studying art history, and later Frye himself left for a three-year stint at Oxford. And through it all they wrote: hundreds of pages in Frye’s nearly illegible hand and Kemp’s graceful one, describing their activities with an enthusiasm fuelled by eros and loneliness.
Frye was usually bored by his returns to New Brunswick, and his letters from there are sometimes spiked with a scorn in which his future epigrammatic brilliance is already evident. In 1932, he remarks that one visitor to his family home has a collar so dirty it
looks like “a Toronto movie censor’s mind.” But such displays of youthful superciliousness were shadowed by periods of depression and lassitude. As the ’30s progressed, Frye came to view both his gifts and his shortcomings with a merciless clarity. Writing to Kemp during her London year away, he boasts—10 years before the appearance of Fearful Symmetry—“I know Blake as no other man has known him.” But in the next sentence he laments: “I haven’t got a subtle mind. Only a pounding, driving, bourgeois intellect.”
Both lovers condescend to each other in a fond, fussy way. Frye is forever telling Kemp to pull up her intellectual socks, while she lectures him about minding his health (he frequently forgot to eat, and at one point seemed to be subsisting on coffee and chocolate bars). Already she was carving out her lifelong role as his chief protector and nurturer. She writes to him in Saskatchewan—where he was having a miserable time riding a finicky old mare on his parish rounds, and enduring bedbugs and loud radios in the houses where he boarded—that he must remember to speak simply to his parishioners. Even Kemp is often overwhelmed by the complexity of his speech. “It is hard, being a genius,” she acknowledges, but adds, “it is also hard being the friend of a genius.”
The letters reveal that Kemp had an abortion in 1936, the year before she married Frye (the couple never did have children). Kemp is often racked with doubts about her ability to partner Frye (“I’m scared to death when I think about being your wife”), but she is clearly a good match in most respects. She is a keen and sympathetic observer of other people, and writes eloquently of intellectual circles in Toronto and London. As for Frye, in later life he developed a reputation for being unable, or unwilling, to make small talk. But in these letters he rattles on about people and places with all the insouciance of a natural storyteller. He was, after all, in love, and could rise even to outbursts of poetry, as when he ended one letter by calling Kemp everything lovely that came to mind: “Star Cloud, Brown Mouse, Wind Ripple, Little Grace-Note, Wren Nest, and Sweetest of all Sweets, Good Night. Norrie.”
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