- Robert D. Denham (Editor)
Northrop Frye: Selected Letters, 1934-1991. McArthur & Company (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Branko Grojup (Editor)
Northrop Frye's Canadian Literary Criticism and Its Influences. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Graham Nicol Forst
If Northrop Frye’s reputation persists through the 21st century it will be in no small part thanks to the committed, tireless work of Robert D. Denham. However, his edition of these 700 of Frye’s known five thousand letters will disappoint anyone looking for new insights into Frye, or anything like the kinds of revelations gleaned from the letters of other 20th century “preeminent humanists” such as those of de Beauvoir or Freud. Rather, most of these letters serve simply to validate Frye’s self-assessment that he had “unconsciously arranged [his] life so that nothing ever happened to [him.]” The letters largely reflect the drudgery of academic life—the anguish over the “masses of material” piling up on his desk, of appointments and social engagements, meetings and committees and teaching duties etc. Occasionally there are flashes of insight, especially in the letters he wrote to Roy Daniells from 1935 to Daniells’ death in 1979, but even here one finds nothing not expressed more articulately in his books, or more explicitly in his published diaries. Frye himself apologizes to one of his correspondents for his epistolary “drivel,” and indeed, one wonders how a great mind like Frye’s could have lived through the Great Depression, the rise and fall of the Third Reich, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Cold War, McCarthyism, Vietnam, feminism, and Rochdale with barely a whisper of opinion or even observation of these events in his personal letters. For example, the day after the fall of France in 1940, Frye ends a letter to Daniells with “The rest of the space on this page is reserved for shrewd and penetrating comments on the political and economic situation of the world.” One yearns to comprehend such reticence—indeed, of the letters of what other “preeminent humanist” of the 20th century (other than Wallace Stevens’) can such detachment from the world around be found? Of course, it’s foolish to imply that Frye didn’t think long and deeply about world events. Indeed, he remarked once in retrospect how much of Fearful Symmetry was a response (and what a response it was) to the rise of Nazism. The disappointment here is that he simply didn’t articulate his thinking about what was going on around him. One very personal thing about Frye does however emerge from these letters: his desire to remain “invisible,” and his paranoid fear of criticism and anything approaching personal exposure. This paranoia appears most vividly as the 1989 publication of his biography approached (he had nothing to fear: the biography was obsequious and non-invasive); thus he often speaks of critics “waiting to pounce” on him, of prepublication “stage fright,” of ever being found “naked” or of his fear of being “as over-exposed as a model in Penthouse.” There are numerous typos (Anselm is spelled “Anselrn”; Blake’s Vala is given out as “Kala” for some reason)—and some grammatical typos are serious enough to make nonsense of the context. But Denham’s 785 (!) notes are fun to follow, even if many of them are attributed to the wrong year.
Can there be, in Frye’s world, an “invisible Canadian”? Doesn’t all the awe of the open spaces, the “garrison mentality,” the lack of an eastern seacoast, or the huddling against the 49th parallel make us, and our poetry, “visible”? Frye thought it did, which raised the still on-going controversy rooted in Frye’s seminal “Conclusion” to Klinck’s Literary History of Canada as to whether Canadian literature should be considered autonomously alongside world literature, or, more patronizingly, as an expression of its historical and geographical context. This of course is an obvious version of the ancient form/content issue raised specifically for aesthetics by Aristotle and Kant; but the particular value of editor Branko Gorjup’s collection of essays under review is to give this controversy a very Canadian dimension. And here, in Canada, the issue is of particular interest specifically because of the schisms it reveals in Frye’s Canadian criticism.
These essays are not new: some go back to the 1950s and many are available in other Frye Festschriften—but, as Gorjup says in his introduction, it’s “convenient” to allow Frye’s critics and supporters a single ring to spar in, if only to show “how Frye’s sense of Canadian literary culture was comprehended, rejected, or misread by his contemporaries.”
Whether Frye’s “symmetrical architectonic amusements” (Schopenhauer’s poke at Kant) inspired or encumbered Canadian poets, this anthology certainly reveals that his work generated much serious, penetrating thinking about the Canadian literary tradition. What a particular pleasure it is to re-read for example Francis Sparshott’s dazzling simultaneous crucifixion and resurrection of Frye in “Frye in Place,” published in this journal in 1979. Margery Fee’s deflating of Eli Mandel’s slippery rejection of Frye’s patronizing nationalism (“Retrieving the Canadian Critical Tradition as Poetry”) is just as strong now as it was almost twenty years ago, and Heather Murray’s systematic dismantling of Frye’s thematic criticism in her “Reading for Contradiction in the Literature of Colonial Space” is also still incisive.
Gorjup has divided the anthology into three parts: Part One investigates Frye’s attempt to offer a potential “critical framework” for the study of Canadian literature; Part Two is given over to an “oppositional discourse,” and Part Three presents a rear-guard attack on Frye’s critics. Part One is well-represented by eloquent essays from James Reaney and D.G. Jones among others; but Part Two is disappointing. Here, the Devil’s Party is offered the podium, but while George Bowering and Frank Davey neatly skewer Frye’s “garrison mentality” mantra, it seems a lost opportunity that Frye’s most vociferous critics among Canadian writers (Woodcock, Layton, Dudek, Robin Matthews etc.) are loudly absent, as are any voices troubled by Frye’s ignoring of French Canadian, First Nations, or (largely) of West Coast literature.
Part Three contains the excellent essays mentioned above of Fee and Murphy, but other essays here, troublesomely, try to defend Frye by rationalizing the clear contradiction between the regionalism of his Canadian criticism and universalism of the rest of his work by saying either that there is no contradiction as such, only postmodern “tension” (Linda Hutcheon), or that Frye wasn’t really a Canadian literary critic at all, but rather a “mythmaker and mapmaker” (David Staines). Well, as for Staines, Frye certainly presented himself as an openly evaluative critic in the hundreds of reviews of Canadian literature he wrote in the middle decades of the 20th century. And Hutcheon’s claim that the contradictions of Frye’s positions are illusory—seen as contradictions only when regarded from an archaic “modernist” perspective—contains an obvious and disingenuous circularity: a thorn by any name pricks as smartly, and it doesn’t resolve (or deny the existence of) a blatant contradiction by re-labelling it postmodernist complexity. She says that she wants to replace “modernist” either-/or thinking (Frye as regionalist or as universalist) with postmodernist both/and thinking (Frye was both at once). Then how can she dismiss Heather Murray’s apt description of Frye as “a wolf in sheepdog’s clothing” without realizing that, in doing so, she herself is taking a “modernist” grounded position? Such is the old problem with postmodernism, of course and, for better or for worse, in spite of the best efforts of these eloquent scholars, Frye’s patronizing of Canadian poetry is a sore that won’t soon heal.
- Québec réécrit ses influences by Ariane Tremblay
Books reviewed: Romanica Silesiana, no. 2: "La Réécriture dans la littérature québécoise" by Krzysztof Jarosz
- Moore's Catholicism by Ross Labrie
Books reviewed: Landscapes of Encounter: The Portrayal of Catholicism in the Novels of Brian Moore by Liam Gearon
- Surfaces and Margins by Diane Stiles
Books reviewed: P.K. Page: Essays on Her Works by Barbara Colebrook Peace and Linda Rogers and Adele Wiseman: Essays on Her Works by Ruth Panofsky
- And the Beat Goes On by James Panabaker
Books reviewed: Family Business: Selected Letters between a Father and Son by Louis Ginsberg, Allen Ginsberg, and Michael Schumacher and Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years by Diane di Prima
- Trans-Atlantic Views by Martin Kuester
Books reviewed: Canada 2000: Identity and Transformation / Identité et transformation - Central European Perspectives on Canada / Le Canada vu à partir de l'Europe centrale by Klaus-Dieter Ertler and Martin Loschnigg and Giving Voice: Canadian and German Perspectives by Hans Braun and Wolfgang Klooss
MLA: Forst, Graham Nicol. (In)visible Canadian. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 124 - 126)
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