Northrop Frye is considered by many the most important literary theoretician of the twentieth century. For decades after his publication of Anatomy of Criticism in 1957, no other work of literary criticism had achieved anything like its influence or recognition. Yet in spite of its prestige and its proved adaptability to classroom teaching at all levels, it did not succeed in transforming the study of literature into a process with the objectivity of an exact science, nor did it stimulate new developments in literature. On the contrary, American disciples of deconstruction, postcolonial criticism, and other poststructuralist critics would criticize the work as tendentious and inadequate.
After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1933, Frye went to Emmanuel College in Toronto and became ordained in the United Church of Canada in 1936. He concluded his formal education at Merton College, Oxford, where he received his M.A. in 1940. Returning to the University of Toronto, he took up residence at Victoria College and rose through the academic ranks to become chancellor of the university in 1978, a post he held until his death in 1991. Over the course of his career he would periodically teach or lecture at hundreds of Canadian, American, British, and other universities around the world. He wrote scores of books on literary theory and criticism; contributed hundreds of essays, chapters, and journal articles; and edited more than a dozen books. He received dozens of doctoral degrees in literature from some of the world’s most prestigious universities, and through his editorships he shaped the course of literary studies in North America and abroad from the elementary through the university level.
In his first book, Fearful Symmetry, Frye investigated the visionary English poet William Blake; his approach, which revolutionized the reading of Blake’s work, laid the groundwork for what developed into his characteristic method of criticism. Before Frye’s interpretation Blake’s poetry, particularly that of his prophetic books, was considered eccentric, obscure, even perverse; it had been perceived largely to resist explication. Frye succeeded in uncovering the unifying element in Blake’s system, the fact that everything sprang from the...
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