"A Comic Epic-Poem in Prose": A Half Century of Engaging Northrop Frye's Canadian Criticism

By Carter, Adam | English Studies in Canada, September-December 2011 | Go to article overview

"A Comic Epic-Poem in Prose": A Half Century of Engaging Northrop Frye's Canadian Criticism


Carter, Adam, English Studies in Canada


A funny thing happened at the 2007 University of Ottawa symposium devoted to the work of Northrop Frye. As the presenters for the single panel concerned with Frye's writings on Canada assumed their places at the head of the room, somewhere between half to two-thirds of the symposium's fellow participants summarily departed. It was, in terms of one of the narrative archetypes Frye anatomized, quite the exodus. I refer to this incident not (or at least not merely) to gripe, although I was indeed one of four presenters on that panel, but, rather, because the departure of a few dozen scholars otherwise sufficiently engaged with Frye's work to attend a three-day symposium devoted to it speaks to the continuingly uncertain place of Frye's Canadian writings within his better known international literary theory and criticism. As important as these writings were to the development of the professional study of Canadian literature in its boom years from the later 1960s into the 1980s, they remain for many decidedly marginal within the wider corpus of Frye's extensive work.

Yet, from the late 1930s until his last public address in 1990, Northrop Frye wrote and spoke more than a little about the literature, culture, and history of his native Canada. He would describe these writings in his preface to The Bush Garden, the first anthology of such pieces, as "episodes in a writing career which been mainly concerned with world literature and has addressed an international reading public" (cw 12:412). In contrast to the encyclopaedic breadth and (sometimes fearful) symmetry of his better known books which strive to comprehend their topics within, to choose a recurrent phrase of his, "a total form," the Canadian writings are indeed episodic, consisting of a more occasional and fragmentary collection of reviews, essays, public addresses, and lectures as well as introductions and conclusions to edited collections. As volume 12 of Frye's Collected Works, Northrop Frye on Canada, amply demonstrates at around seven hundred pages, however, Frye wrote more on this occasional topic than many scholars will in their lifetimes in their areas of specialty. Albeit there is, as Frye forthrightly admitted, a fair amount of repetition amongst these pieces. In a 1976 address he likened such reiterations to the sound of a straw sucking the last drops of liquid from an almost empty glass (cw 12: 493). Nonetheless the work is extensive, and the repetitions come across less as mere redundancies than as recurrent motifs within--to borrow some twisting phrases from Henry Fielding--"a comic romance ... a comic, epic-poem in prose" (42).

Grappling with the legacy of Frye's Canadian literary criticism has, for the last half century or so, constituted a significant part of Canada's evolving literary and intellectual cultures. As Frye's theory allowed us to understand, a literary tradition is not a static thing awaiting its definitively accurate representation and narration. Like all historians, but perhaps to an even greater degree, the literary historian selects from alternate, competing possibilities of arrangement, narration, and focus, any one of which will communicate different meanings and validate different authors, styles, forms, and concerns. As one of the world's pre-eminent intellectuals through at least twenty of the years he was occasionally writing on Canada--years that coincided with the establishment of Canadian literature as a professional field of study--Frye's influence in shaping the understanding of Canada and its literary tradition was subjected to considerable scrutiny. Commentators variously affirmed and developed what they took to be his views, strongly contested them, or sifted through them for their moments of blindness and insight. Branko Gorjup's Northrop Frye's Canadian Literary Criticism and its Influence, in bringing together essays that span more than five decades, is an important collection that permits one to better perceive and attend to this dialogue and to think again about both the legacy of Frye's writings on Canada and the adequacy of the engagements with them. …

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