Small Frye and Great

Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley

Northrop Frye’s Canada, and therefore his hypotheses and pronouncements about the dominion, have increasingly little to do with ours; or rather his Canada has become the wintry subject of our discontent. But readers today, whatever their sense of Frye’s pertinence, may still admire the wit of his infamous claims. Every year when I teach Canadian literature, I am presented with one reason or another to refer to “Canada and Its Poetry” (1943) or the “Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada” (1965), or even, if struck by a particularly oracular mood, The Educated Imagination (1963). “The traveller from Europe edges into [Canada] like a tiny Jonah entering an inconceivably large whale, slipping past the Straits of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where five Canadian provinces surround him, for the most part invisible. . . . To enter the United States is a matter of crossing an ocean; to enter Canada is a matter of being silently swallowed by an alien continent” (219). Well, probably not, but this memorable assertion from the “Conclusion” is one way to spark a classroom discussion of migration and displacement, and of the seismic shift between 1965 and the present in the meaning of the term colonial in Canadian public discourse. (A teacher might even say a word about the tale of Jonah and the great fish, not assuming its universal currency.) If Frye’s statements on Canadian literature and culture are now primarily of historical interest, requiring neither sustained engagement nor debunking, it is no less true that his extraordinary influence over a long period and his prodigious output as a scholar mean that he is not likely to be forgotten in his own country.


Everywhere else, where Frye is not in the first instance the author of The Bush Garden (1971) and Divisions on a Ground (1982), but instead of Fearful Symmetry (1947) and Anatomy of Criticism (1957), it’s a different story. The prevalent view is that Frye’s stature, immense as it was in the postwar period, has long since diminished, his heyday, like that of the English department itself, decidedly over. The Reception of Northrop Frye is Robert D. Denham’s seven-hundred-page-long attempt to overturn this judgment with the blunt force of bibliographical data. In compiling the tome, he has omitted no trace of Frye’s enduring significance. “What kinds of evidence,” Denham asks, “might be offered to test the truth of the claims that Frye is obsolete, that his works have been buried in obscurity, that he is now seen as deluded, that his influence screeched to a halt in the late-1970s, that his criticism fell out of style and has begun to fade from memory, and that the history of literary criticism has now passed him by?” (x-xi). The answer is any and all. Denham devotes chapters to “Books and Symposia,” “Essays, Articles, and Parts of Books,” “Obituaries, Memorials, Tributes,” “News and Feature Stories, Miscellaneous Items,” “Biographical Notices and Articles,” “Reviews of Frye’s Books,” “Dissertations and Theses on Frye,” and “Reviews of the Volumes in Frye’s Collected Works” (in which series Denham edited or co-edited eleven volumes). The list of books on Frye and reviews thereof, twenty pages in length, is extremely useful. The compendium of essays, twenty times as long, is less helpful. It includes articles about Frye, but also a vast number of essays in which Frye’s ideas are applied in some measure or in certain cases merely mentioned. The list is organized not by chronology or topic, but alphabetically according to the names of the authors, making it unwieldy for anything but browsing. It shows that Frye has not vanished, thus confirming Denham’s essential point, but equivalent lists for Derrida or Foucault or Cixous or Deleuze would be at least equally long, I should think. In the absence of context or comparison, the list is staggering but difficult to decode.


A methodological excess is demonstrated even more vividly in the list of theses and dissertations. “[T]he answer to Terry Eagleton’s rhetorical question, ‘Who now reads Frye?,’ is a very considerable and ever-growing number,” Denham writes in his introduction to the volume (xiv). Yet the evidence is inconclusive. Denham explains that he assembled his list of “more than 3600 theses and dissertations” by searching academic databases; he allows that “[s]ometimes the reference to Frye is to a single citation or even to a parenthetical remark” (570). While a doctoral dissertation on William Blake written in 1965 can be expected to have taken up Frye’s criticism—the omission would have been conspicuous—it is less apparent that a dissertation on Austrian rap written in 2018, fine as it may be on its own terms, represents a consequential extension of Frye’s thought. Especially as it moves toward the present, the list is less a record of influence than of the bibliographical thoroughness of graduate students. The all-encompassing catalogue is an indication, should one be necessary, of changing academic fashions, but it will be of limited use to scholars of Frye. More concise, and more conducive to further commentary on Frye and his works, are the valuable lists of reviews and biographical material.


Denham’s credentials are beyond dispute. Five pages are needed to list his commentaries on Frye, and his name appears throughout the book. But too much of The Reception of Northrop Frye is dedicated to landing a blow at the expense of creating a focused critical resource. Denham’s entry for Harold Bloom’s foreword to a reissue of Anatomy of Criticism (2000) includes this verdict from Bloom: “Frye’s criticism will survive because it is serious, spiritual, and comprehensive, but not because it is systematic or a manifestation of genius. If Anatomy of Criticism begins to seem a period piece, so does The Sacred Wood of T. S. Eliot” (64). Bloom, full of bluster, always betrayed his own anxiety of influence when writing about Frye; but here, I think, he is right. No work of criticism survives the passage of time unscathed, but neither does authentic criticism disappear altogether. Authentic? I mean serious, in the sense of requiring careful thought, and spiritual, in the most catholic definition of the term. Soulful, perhaps, and generous: marked by humility rather than bumptiousness. On these grounds Frye’s reputation, like that of Eliot, is secure, no matter how many dissertations are written, or how few. In his final annual survey of Canadian poetry (1960), Frye wrote that “every genuine poet is entitled to be read with the maximum sympathy and concentration. When he is, an astonishing amount of imaginative richness may be obtained from him, and without reading into him what is not there” (128). So too for the genuine critic.


Work Cited

Frye, Northrop. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. 1971. Anansi, 1995.

This review “Small Frye and Great” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 255 (2023): 175-177.

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