Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature Analysis

Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature

The evident aim of this splendid collection is to provide readers not only with a sizable respect for Northrop Frye as a book reviewer-essayist, but also with a glimpse into some of the foundations of his critical thought. The essays printed here cover the period from a year before Fearful Symmetry (1947) to three years after the publication of Frye’s imposing and influential Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Thus, as editor Robert Denham notes, the majority of the selections are coincident with the decade during which Frye was at work on his monumental study, and in them we can see the evolution of ideas that were later to find expression in Anatomy of Criticism.

The essays are typical of Frye: generous-spirited yet frank; pungent in their criticisms of whatever has crossed his desk, yet offered with the sense that in Langer or Dobrée (or whomever) there is less to be chided than cherished. Since the essays are selected by Denham to underscore Frye’s consistency of thought and approach, there are obvious thematic (and other) similarities between them. In Part One, entitled “Grammars of the Imagination,” each of the essays addresses one of several different “grammars”: symbolic form, myth, philosophical history, psychological and anthropological symbolism, comparative religion. In the second part, entitled “Orders of Poetic Experience,” all of the essays are concerned with specific literary subjects—a new translation of Don Quixote, the publication of recently edited Coleridge materials, the Pottle edition of Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, and so on. In both of these sections one can see Frye’s efforts to unite literary criticism with cultural observation. Yet in that very unity of interest there is displayed a remarkably fecund, versatile mind—probing religion, music, literature, politics, and other diverse fields as though they were no more mysterious than, say, Gulliver’s Travels or Endymion. Whether it is Jung he must make intelligible or Ernst Cassirer’s notion of symbolic form, the central premises of Frazer’s The Golden Bough or the historical structures of Spengler, Frye teaches as he writes, turning his book reviews, first, into lucid refresher courses in whatever the subject at hand and second, into equally lucid original criticisms that do far more than summarize the book under review.

Such versatility will come as no surprise to readers who have ventured beyond Anatomy of Criticism, but for those who have not, this collection is a fine introduction to Frye’s impressive erudition. Also, it confirms that despite the objections of his antagonists, Frye is not a critical formalist who sees literature almost exclusively in structural terms and thus fails to unite it with the world of social values. This is a common misconception about Frye, based in part on an overemphasis on Anatomy of Criticism, a misreading of its polemical stance, and a disregard of his other works. Alert to this misconception and clearly irritated by it, Denham intends this collection to be a corrective. With convincing argument and support from Frye’s other works, he asserts that far from opposing criticism’s two facets—one turned inward toward structure, the other outward toward society—Frye seeks to balance the two in his search for a unified conception of criticism. Denham also makes his point in the title he gives the collection—Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature—and in many of the specific reviews he chooses to include here. They are testimony not only to Frye’s versatility but also to his deep awareness of the connections between criticism and social life.

The 1959 review of five books by Mircea Eliade, for example, aptly illustrates this awareness. There, after wandering freely through the fields of Yoga and Zen, Frye turns to the Zen elements in Kerouac and argues their centrality in the Beat writers’ attempt to define a “genuine proletariat”—one existing in a timeless world of the pure present. In words which now seem prophetic of the Vietnam era, the late 1960’s, and the early 1970’s, Frye goes on to say: “The beat philosophy may be wrong—that is, it may be crazy itself instead of merely making use of craziness—but its symbolism is a contemporary cultural force to be reckoned with.” The next fifteen years were clearly to prove how Frye, supposedly writing at a remove from social reality, in face identified an emerging cultural reaction.

Another example of Frye’s social preoccupation is “The Acceptance of Innocence,” his 1949 review of Samuel Putnam’s translation of Don Quixote. In scarcely a handful of pages, Frye penetrates straight to the heart of this most social of novels. Its translators, he asserts, are not merely creatures of their times, but spokesmen as well. Thus, the buffoonery of Motteux’s version reflects the eighteenth century common sense understanding that Quixote and Sancho are without prudence, and hence fair game for raillery. On the other hand, Putnam’s version bears references to Lionel Trilling, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Bertrand Russell. It discusses such themes as epistemological uncertainty, existentialism, and...

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Choice. XV, October, 1978, p. 1035.

Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. XXXVII, Fall, 1978, p. 106.

Library Journal. CIII, August, 1978, p. 1511.

New Statesman. XCVI, September 29, 1978, p. 412.