- Robert D. Denham (Editor)
The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp 1932-1939. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Germaine Warkentin
I first encountered Northrop Frye when I was fourteen, in the Children’s Room of the Wychwood Public Library on Bathurst Street in Toronto. A student assistant, I was processing returned books when the librarian, Miss Kelly, slammed a green brochure down on my desk. "You see the kind of books they’re publishing these days," she fumed, "Fearful Symmetry ’ indeed!" Miss Kelly’s many strengths deserve their own chronicle, but her disgust at Frye’s famous title precisely characterises the narrowness that Frye had been "writing against" as he polished Fearful Symmetry (1947) in his apartment farther up Bathurst Street during the war years. This correspondence— the letters he and his future wife Helen Kemp exchanged in the 1930s as he prepared to tackle Blake—depicts with decorous intimacy that world, the Fryes’ resistance to it, and their great generosity to each other. At first they exhibit the light-hearted disdain for their elders of two very bright young things living in "that overgrown Thanatopsis club called Toronto." But as the decade passes the letters present the increasingly
informed and analytical critique of a couple beginning to consider how to shake off the forces that had produced them. That like most of us they would only partly succeed provides a resolution beyond the scope of these volumes; here our genre is comedy, with its happy ending, not romance, with its autumnal insight.
Northrop Frye’s student letters to Helen Kemp were used during Frye’s lifetime by his biographer, John Ayre. The particular achievement of these volumes, the first two of Frye’s Collected Works, comes from Robert Denham’s stubborn pursuit of Kemp’s side of the correspondence, finally unearthed in the attic of the Fryes’ eventual home on Clifton Road. Poverty, studies, obligations to their elders, all separated the young lovers for six long periods between their meeting backstage at Hart House in 1931, their marriage in 1937, and the end of Frye’s last sojourn in Oxford in the summer of 1939. But they wrote to each other ceaselessly—long, gossipy, impertinent, fizzy letters that are a delight to read even when the humdrum politics of Victoria College—the little world on Charles Street that both fostered and infuriated them—are their main concern. To watch Frye’s hyperactive intelligence staking out its ground, and Kemp seeking roles unanticipated by their elders, is like being inside a novel by Carol Shields.
Frye is a known quantity; an icon of modernist culture now somewhat isolated in an age of theory (a development shrewdly analyzed by A. C. Hamilton in Northrop Frye: Anatomy of his Criticism, 1990) he nevertheless remains—at least in The Educated Imagination (1963) and the essays of his middle period—among the most readable of twentieth-century critics: earthy, vastly-read, humane, intolerant of cant, and ever the teacher. I have been accused by critics of several different schools of being a "Frygian" (a word Kemp invented, it seems), but the truth is, I ignore the system-building and read him for sheer pleasure. Helen Kemp, on the other hand, is a new-found prize. This is not for the reasons you might think; latter-day Miss Kellys have used these letters to deplore the apparent suppression of Kemp’s career during the 1940s by the escalating claims of her prodigious husband. But the letters themselves document the care with which, though two years younger and from a much less sophisticated background, Frye worked to build up what was at first her very frail self-esteem. Here, as in his writings, he tried to preserve what he believed to be the freedom of the subject: as he would later write, "I neither want nor trust disciples . . . I should be horrified to hear of anyone proposing to make his own work revolve around mine, unless I were sure that meant a genuine freedom for him."
What was freedom for Helen Kemp? She was in fact an authentic 1930s type: irreverent and uncertain at the same time, eager to shake off the prim rules governing the behaviour of a "Vic girl," yet intensely involved in a vigorous college community with its music club, its drama group, its beloved friends in successive Vic classes. She came from a craftsmanly family; her father, a commercial artist, was a friend of Tom Thomson; he worked at the engraving firm Grip with several artists of the Group of Seven, and belonged to that hatchery of Canadian modernism the Arts and Letters Club. The Kemps all seemed to draw or play an instrument, their politics were mildly radical, and Kemp’s father was active in promoting birth control when it was still illegal to do so. Indeed, Gertrude Kemp arranged two abortions for her daughter when Helen decided that was the only way to keep her man in school preparing for the only job available to him, which he would only get if he stayed in school. This was the ’30s, remember; no post-docs, no day care, illegitimacy was a forbidden topic, and middle-class women left their jobs when they married.
But in taking this route Kemp was also safeguarding her own power to choose, which we see emerging clearly in the second volume from the uncertain, temperamentally variable personality of the earliest letters. Urbane, unacademic, ready to tell Frye he was a fool when she thought so, Kemp may have been fitting herself to be the wife of a great man, but she was advanced enough to know that if she had been the great talent their positions would have been reversed. By the time their many separations were over, "Norrie" was already becoming the socially reserved genius, "Professor Frye," and Kemp was observing shrewdly that "you and I have got ourselves involved in a public career that we’ll find it hard to kick over." But this was a 1930s certitude; though she had an established professional life teaching at the Art Gallery of Ontario, her clear-headed and decisive letters of 1938-39 show that life as a faculty wife seemed to her fully compatible with equality in marriage. In the end, World War II wove them back into the pattern of life at Victoria College, and their earlier desperate measures ensured they would remain childless. The increasingly confident and inventive art teacher of the 1930s became the "Mrs. Frye" of later decades, a figure of genuine and fertile influence in college life, though one who, despite her merry eye, I would never have thought to address as "Helen" even as I approached my 50s. In the early 1980s Norrie repaid her early courage with silent, self-abnegating devotion as Alzheimer’s disease returned her to that early, uncertain self. After her death in 1986 he married again—significantly, a friend from their old college class, Elizabeth Eedy Brown.
Well, that’s Life; what about Art? Frye’s half of the correspondence documents his discovery of Blake, but tells us almost nothing of what he was preparing to say about the poet. Instead it yields a picture of a private Frye there are now very few to remember: sociable, passionate about his girl, full of the inebriating projects of youth—the critic as big-footed puppy, not yet grown into his sober adult strength, but showing to every eye the lineaments of a future champion. He is a decent man, but not free of the prejudices of his time; appalled at Nazi anti-Semitism, he still thinks about the Jews in his own city as a social group apart; the brusque mannishness of his colleague Kathleen Coburn (yet to become the great Coleridge scholar) repels him as much as the satisfying curves of a restaurant waitress attract. And he is an urban Torontonian to the core; in his experience there proves to be little physical difference between the sweltering rural Saskatchewan of his 1934 summer ministry and his frigid rooms in Oxford except the distance to the privy (longer, it seems, in Merton College). Miserable as he was in the dust-bowl, he much admired the courage of the people he served in Saskatchewan; Oxford, however, he despised for its academic futility and class consciousness. What really fed his imagination was music and painting, which he and Kemp discussed with intensity and expertise. Kemp drew well (a number of her sketches are reproduced here, including the witty map of the ’30s campus which was still in circulation when I was an undergrad at rival University College) and she played piano creditably; Frye was an expert life-long pianist and a fierce critic of weak performances, not least his own. Chamber music with friends in someone’s living room was a central joy of his young adulthood. It is surely the case that what Ayre called Frye’s "adolescent dream of co- ordinated masterpieces" arose as much from this social/musical nurturing as from the Bible on which he was raised, and Blake on which he teethed as a critic. Besides documenting the alternate intensity and banality of Frye’s early reading, the letters also provide an essential key to the secret of his own readability, to the racy style which, when he gave the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1975, still caused Harvard audiences to gasp, and which makes him—with Robertson Davies—a priceless reservoir of the literate Canadian voice in that generation. Reading Don Quixote the twenty-year old Frye wrote "oh, boy, what a book! The translation I have is 18th-century, by a man who knew what concrete nouns were. He didn’t say ’insides’ when he meant ’guts’ or ’perspiration’ when he meant ’sweat,’ or ’side’ when he meant ’belly’." Can anyone teaching "Lycidas" resist quoting Frye’s forthright account of Milton’s preparation for writing elegy: "[he’d] been practising since adolescence on every fresh corpse in sight"?
The young Fryes’ Toronto was in fact no Thanatopsis club; it was also the city of distinguished academics like Wilson Knight, Herbert Davis, and Eric Havelock. And if Kemp’s letters document a generation of women in transition, they provide us as well with an exceptional account of Toronto cultural life in the 1930s, and proleptically, of the figures (Joyce and Nicholas Hornyansky, Marcus Adeney, Geoffrey Waddington, Bertram Brooker) who would animate it in the forties. Faced in 1947 with Miss Kelly’s outrage, I was unaware that a peripheral member of the Fryes’ circle, Earl Davison, was then my music teacher at Oakwood Collegiate, and that the concerts, plays and art shows I hung around were generated by such figures. (For the story of drama during those forgotten but nourishing years, see the superb account of the ’40s and ’50s in Judith Skelton Grant’s biography of Robertson Davies.) Kemp supplies a running account of the politics of the Art Gallery of Ontario in which Arthur Lismer, her patron, emerges as an impressive figure, and her descriptions of the financing of students and artists in the thirties are an interesting prologue to the recommendations of the Massey Report two decades later. And there are other gems, such as her anecdote about overhearing Pelham Edgar raving to Duncan Campbell Scott in the National Gallery in Ottawa about a certain "remarkable youngster up at Victoria, yes a simply extraordinary chap .. . doing some fine work on Blake." What a bridging of the generations!
Newcomers to the Fryes and their setting will inevitably struggle with the intense preoccupation of these letters with Victoria College and its personalities—most, despite the academic eminence later attained by Frye and Coburn, now forgotten by all except college historians. But to ignore that little world on Charles Street would be unwise; both stranglingly provincial and unexpectedly cosmopolitan, Victoria College was almost entirely continuous in its culture from World War I to the 1970s, a period reaching from E. J. Pratt to Margaret Atwood, and encompassing a number of interesting writers of the time. No one seriously investigating any of them—let alone Frye—can ignore the powerful impact of the College on their formal resources or their visionary worlds. Yet Frye’s version of Victoria College is not the definitive one. Kemp scolded him for not having time for her friend Kathleen Coburn, and anyone reading Coburn’s scholarly memoir In Pursuit of Coleridge (1977) will encounter many of the same pressures the Fryes endured—radical Protestantism, female repression, a college life lived within rules the young didn’t believe in—but refracted in this case through Coburn’s more worldly intelligence, one that at least pretended to take the cosmos on its own terms rather than— as Frye would do—reimagining it so as to bridge some profound cognitive dissonance. As a grave end-note referring to Rigoletto ("an opera by Giuseppe Verdi, first performed in Venice in 1851") would suggest, Robert Denham’s edition is meant to introduce the young Fryes’ world to the widest possible audience; the annotation is painstakingly detailed, and the second volume contains a 37-page directory of persons mentioned in the letters. There are some bloopers, such as the confusion between Eaton’s main downtown store and Eaton’s College Street, and some failures of good sense; such as the otiose identification of the novelist well-known as Charles Morgan as "Charles Langbridge Morgan." The annotations rightly draw on Victoria’s rich archival resources, but are not always sensitive to their nuances: at one point Kemp writes that one Norm Knight is concerned over "Herb Norman’s state of mind" (that is, his politics, which were Stalinist). The note tells us that Knight was a Trotskyite, but says nothing of E. Herbert Norman, the esteemed scholar and diplomat whose suicide in Cairo, which shocked all Canada in 1957, was the result of US charges that he was a security risk. Anyone studying Toronto in the 1930s—a subject which merits a book of its own—will learn a lot from these volumes, but not everything.
Teaching modern Canadian poetry, I use the Victoria College classrooms in which my students sit to shape a "regional study" of these people and their writings, much as in other places one might work on the Tish group or the Fiddlehead poets. Why at this time and place did a major literary vision emerge capable of animating not only a specific group of poets but also a generation of critics? If we set aside the genetics of genius, we need to consider equally the setting and Frye’s resistance to it. Victoria was both a provincial Methodist college full of petty squabbles and outdated regulations, and an institution firmly egalitarian in theology and confident it represented a coherent and meaningful culture. Given this collocation of the social and intellectual, it is not difficult to understand how and why Frye was encouraged in his natural bent: to become a builder of imaginative systems rather than an evaluative critic (or indeed why Coburn emerged from it a pure scholar, rather than an evaluative critic). In much of the contemporary criticism Frye knew, and particularly among his colleagues at other U. of T. colleges, the old class system was being displaced upon the act of criticism itself; a critic’s rank was established by the exquisite care with which he weighed the merits of one work against another, and taught his students to do the same. It was the social integration, the cultural confidence and the egalitarianism of the little world on Charles Street that provided Frye with the resources to challenge that model of evaluative reading. In writing works like the Anatomy of Criticism he turned less against the forces that had formed him, into which by that time he had been re-absorbed, than against the pseudo-gentility of "Toronto English." Late in his life I suggested to him that he had been writing in opposition to this displacement all his life, and it was the only time I ever saw him at a loss for words; "yes," he said in a sudden rush, "oh yes—that’s the way it was, that’s exactly the way it was."
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MLA: Warkentin, Germaine. Northrop Frye. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #158 (Autumn 1998), New Directions. (pg. 135 - 139)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.