Northrop Frye (1912-1991)
Based at Victoria College (part of Victoria University), University of Toronto, from 1939-1991, Northrop Frye was an eminent literary theorist, critic, and teacher. His classificatory and systematic approach to literature, which examined the underlying myths and symbols that inform all of literature, challenged existing critical paradigms and had a significant international influence, as did his later studies on the Bible as literature. Frye’s critical work, particularly in regards to poetry, had a profound impact on how English-Canadian literature was studied, written, and perceived. As a leading intellectual in the second half of the 20th century, Frye’s ideas about education, literature, and Canadian culture were widely disseminated in the Canadian media, contributing to how Canadians saw themselves and the society they lived in.
Born in 1912 in Sherbrooke, Quebec and raised largely in Moncton, New Brunswick, Frye began his studies at Victoria College, University of Toronto, in 1929. Victoria College, an arts and science college, and Emmanuel College, a theological college, together make Victoria University, which is part of University of Toronto. After receiving an MA at Oxford in 1938, he permanently joined the English department at Victoria College. He remained in that department for the rest of his career, becoming an assistant professor in 1942, an associate professor in 1946, chairman of the English department in 1952, principal of Victoria College (1959-67), and then chancellor of Victoria University (1978-91). His many students included poets and authors Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, James Reaney, Eli Mandel, and Don Coles.
In 1957, Frye published his best-known book, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. This book had an enormous influence on modern critical theory, and Frye gained a considerable international reputation. Over the next decades, he was a visiting professor at a number of major universities, delivered public lectures around the world, and received 38 honorary doctorates from many of the major universities in the Western world. Despite this international acclaim, Frye felt closely connected to his Canadian roots, and was a noted public intellectual. He was responsible for the University of Toronto Quarterly’s annual review of Canadian poetry in English from 1950-60, and in 1962, delivered the Massey Lectures for CBC Radio (published as The Educated Imagination). He also served on the board of the newly-established Canadian Radio Television Commission (CRTC) from 1968-77.
Following Anatomy of Criticism, Frye published an additional 19 books, as well as some 300 essays and articles. In 1965 he advanced the idea of the “garrison mentality” as a defining myth in the Canadian imagination. The notion became a crucial way of interpreting early Canadian literature. Frye’s other works included The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (1971), a collection of essays analysing Canadian poetry, literature, and painting. His later books on Biblical imagery and how the Bible provided the symbolic foundations of Western literature were influential on the world stage. In the 1970s and 1980s, new theoretical discourses such as post-structuralism became dominant and Frye’s earlier ideas lost their prominent place within the field. However, his influence on Canada’s cultural and intellectual landscape continues to be felt.