Cultural Commentary — Northrop Frye at 100

Northrop Frye, inspired by the poet William Blake, demands that the critic take part in a “mental fight,” articulating the liberating value of literature as a source of imaginative energy that generates possibilities.

By Bill Marx

Northrop Frye — for him, the critic serves as the champion of the imagination versus the delusions of the pseudo.

July 14th marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest literary critics of the twentieth century, Northrop Frye, who was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, the son of a hardware merchant. He died in 1991, the author of 22 books and over 300 essays and reviews. Frye seems somewhat forgotten today, I would argue for the very rabble-rousing reasons that I came to admire him when I was a student back in the early 1970s, falling in love with the genius of the poet William Blake and discovering Frye’s magnificent 1947 volume Fearful Symmetry, a wondrous guide to the poet’s visionary world. The latter volume inspired the critic’s most influential work, 1957’s Anatomy of Criticism. Here’s a memorable quotation from Frye on critics in that book:

If I have read the last chapter of Finnegans Wake correctly, what happens there is that the dreamer, after spending the night in communication with a vast body of metaphorical identifications, wakens and goes about his business forgetting his dream, like Nebuchadnezzar, failing to use, or even realize that he can use, the ‘keys to dreamland.’ What he fails to do is therefore left for the reader to do, the ‘ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia,’ as Joyce calls him, in other words the critic. Some such activity as this of reforging the broken links between creation and knowledge, art and science, myth and concept, is what I envisage for criticism.

Critics as the unifying wielders of the “keys to dreamland”? That definition was far from the good, gray pigeonhole reserved for critics in academia and journalism, a to-do list that included the critic as a linguistic analyst, a thoughtful moralist, an ideological warrior, a psychological schema spotter, and a thumb to be slung up or down. Frye rightfully pointed out that these sleek niches were bureaucratic displacements for the riskier cultural role critics are called to play—to crusade for the indispensable value the imagination plays in creating a fuller, more human world of order. Criticism serves literature by locating, appreciating, and mapping the magnetic fields of its energies.

Frye’s brilliant work on Blake, his at times hubristic attempt to blueprint the mythic structure of literature in Anatomy of Criticism, was refreshing in the 1950s and 1960s, but today the forces of regimentation, fear, careerism, and conventional expectations are on the march, and Frye, given his inspiring belief in the transcendent, even spiritual, stature of literature has been to a great extent marginalized. One of the pieces celebrating Frye’s anniversary asks whether he still matters.

He still does, if only because the battle against those who see the arts as little more than a facile generator of pleasure, cash, or political point-scoring continues. Frye recognized that this clash over the significance of literature takes place in a culture where artificiality mimics the genuine article. In his collection of essays The Stubborn Structure, he writes,

Literature . . . gives us not only the means to understanding, but a power to fight. All around us is a society that demands that we adjust or come to terms with it, and what that society presents to us is a social mythology. Advertising, propaganda, the speeches of politicians, popular books and magazines, the cliches of rumor, all have their own kind of pastoral myths, quest myths, hero myths, sacrificial myths, and nothing will drive these shoddy constructs out of the mind except the genuine forms of the real thing.

For Frye, criticism unmasks culture’s “shoddy constructs” at the same time it recognizes the potential contained in authentic forms of imaginative liberation. Really, what could matter more than passionately and clearly asserting (Frye disdains jargon), in a culture that is often “amusing itself to death,” that literature—difficult and demanding as it can be—gives “our imaginations a depth and a perspective that can take in other possibilities, chiefly the possibility of a more intense mode of living.” Imaginative literature expands our consciousness—which society attempts to limit—by awakening us to the riches of reality.

We all know how important the reason is in an irrational world, but the imagination, in a society of perverted imagination, is far more essential in making us understand that the phantasmagoria of current events is not real society, but only the transient appearance of real society. Real society, the total body of what humanity has done and can do, is revealed to us only by the arts and sciences; nothing but the imagination can apprehend that reality as a whole, and nothing but literature, in a culture as verbal as ours, can train the imagination to fight for the sanity and the dignity of mankind.

Amen to that. Compare that stirring testimony to the current PSA campaign for “Reading is Fundamental,” where the Library of Congress and the Ad Council team up to tell us that, according to Carol Rasco, president and CEO of RIF, “one book can spark a lifetime of ambition, and we are asking the nation to join us in igniting a culture of reading where all kids can explore, dream and achieve. This PSA is part of our campaign to unite a community of people who believe in the transformative power of books and are committed to this critical cause. Together, we can realize our vision of a literate America.” This is an admirable mission, but a lifetime of ambition from a book? To do what? What are we book lovers uniting around? Why don’t books make us smarter, more imaginative, more curious?

Reading should not be reduced to prepping for a job fair. For Frye, one of the pleasures of reading great literature is that it makes us fighting mad about what we see around us.


  1. Helen Epstein on July 14, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    lovely and inspiring!

  2. Harvey Blume on July 17, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    i appreciate this. frye was for sure one of the heads of lit crit.

    how, though, shd you care to, wd you distinguish him from his peers, to wit: trilling, kermode, empson and later bloom?

    i can’t believe i forgot to mention mostly leavis.

    • Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on July 23, 2012 at 5:10 pm

      Hi Harvey,
      I would say that Frye is the most visionary of the lot — he sees the cultural role of criticism to preserve, articulate, (and fight for) literature’s expression of the most desirable impulses in human societies. Criticism, by illuminating the arts and their connection to our dreams, transmits an indispensable conception of human life that encourages us to imagine a better and more human world. Frye argues that such a world “can be constructed only by the human imagination, the one power that has been able to drive humanity beyond the needs of mere survival into a more abundant life.” Critics are guides to the structure and power of the imagination.

      Frye rejects criticism’s reduction of the imagination into ideological slots, doesn’t fear the amoral energies of Modernism (like Trilling), and unlike Bloom sees artists operating in a cooperative stream of dreaming through time — no elemental battle of the egos.

      Here is Frye on what ideology does to criticism:

      Criticism often assumes that the ideology goes all the way; that there is no point at which the literary work stops saying things and keeping open the possibility of an answer. If it’s obviously moving from statement to myth, well, that’s because of certain social pressures the writer had to conceal as well as reveal his meaning, had to be oblique instead of direct. Nonsense: obliquity is fundamental. it’s the core (psychologically, anyway) of revelation.

      All the other critics you mentioned search for clarity. Frye celebrated — at an elemental level — obliquity. In the mystery of the imagination, Frye sees an assertion of values — freedom, community, and revelation.

  3. Harvey Blume on July 24, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    reading this what hits me is we need no longer worry all that much about ideology. that was then. ideology is still around, of course. you can find it, for instance, in the way norman podhoretz reads lit, shredding it back to opinion. to pov, point by point correct according to conservative standards or not. or in the way paul berman comes back to blaming modernism (rimbaud, yeats, you name it) for atrocities (leopold’s congo, ww i!). it’s been too little remarked upon how much berman, in the way he lays into the arts, is quite the unreconstructed stalinist.

    but mostly criticism no longer need fear ideology. maybe that’s because lit crit doesn’t matter as much. and maybe that, in turn, is because literature doesn’t matter as much.

    well, it doesn’t matter as much.

    that needn’t be depressing. i’m not saying creativity is any the less. far from. only that it’s more far-flung.

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