Northrop Frye's Legacy: Toward a Dialogic Interaction between Literary and Cultural Studies

By Ning, Wang | ARIEL, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Northrop Frye's Legacy: Toward a Dialogic Interaction between Literary and Cultural Studies


Ning, Wang, ARIEL


Abstract: Discussions of Northrop Frye's work often concentrate on his four main fields of engagement: British (elite) literary studies, Canadian (postcolonial) literature, myth studies, and religion and culture. This article focuses on Frye's border-crossing literary studies and argues that, although he is seldom regarded as one of the pioneering figures of cultural studies, his work both anticipates and contributes to the field. From the perspective of a Chinese-Western comparatist, the article discusses the relationship between comparative literature studies and cultural studies, Frye's efforts to demarginalize Canadian literature, and the way Chinese scholars have enthusiastically embraced Frye. Frye's work provides contemporary comparatists, particularly those from outside the West, with a useful methodological model.

In 2012, humanities scholars in and outside Canada celebrated the centennial of the birth of Northrop Frye, a great literary theorist and comparatist who contributed immensely to various disciplines in the humanities. As a Chinese scholar of comparative literature and cultural studies and a Frye scholar in particular, I want to raise the following questions about this great Canadian thinker and theorist, who has not only inspired my own academic research but has also greatly influenced China's literary and cultural studies: What is the significance of Frye's legacy to literary scholars today? Is Frye an old-fashioned humanist or is he still relevant to literary and cultural studies in the present global context? Given that, in the current era of globalization, literary studies are characterized by pluralistic orientations that often merge with cultural studies and other disciplines, is Frye's systematic archetypal critical theory still useful, or has its critical framework become irrelevant to present studies of literature and culture? This essay will respond to the questions above from my perspective as a Chinese-Western comparatist.

I. Frye's Legacy Re-evaluated

Frye's legacy, examined in scholarly projects such as The Legacy of Northrop Frye (1995), has been discussed primarily in terms of his four main fields of engagement: British (elite) literary studies, Canadian (postcolonial) literature, (1) myth studies, and religion and culture. This is, I think, far from an exhaustive summary of Frye's contributions. From today's point of view, one can say that, were Frye still alive, he surely would have been involved in debates in contemporary cultural studies and world literature, two cutting-edge fields of critical inquiry, for his theoretical framework of archetypal criticism, if innovatively translated and elaborated, lends itself well to them. When we commemorate Frye and rethink his contributions in the current global context, what demands our urgent attention are his border-crossing studies of literature, which are close to contemporary cultural studies although Frye is seldom regarded as one of the pioneering figures in the field. Before dealing with Frye's anticipation of and contribution to contemporary cultural studies, however, I will speak briefly to the dialectical relations between cultural and literary studies from my own perspective, in particular comparative literature studies.

As we all know, Frye was a literary scholar first, or more specifically, a pioneering comparatist, although he did not often use the term comparative literature. He viewed all (world) literary works, whether Western or Eastern, as part of an interconnected whole, an understanding opposed to the New Critical view that preceded him. While New Criticism emphasized close reading of individual literary texts, Frye found this method inappropriate for analyzing many literary works at the same time. That is why he was once thought of as one of the most influential theorists after the decline of New Criticism (Lentricchia 3-26). It is also why contemporary world literature scholars still cite or otherwise pay tribute to Frye's methodology (Damrosch 199). …

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