I mean, I saw him in high school but I didn’t know who he was at the time, and frankly, he didn’t leave that much of an impression. I encountered him again during an undergrad seminar on literary criticism, but he seemed a bit dense. (In hindsight, I realize that of course, I was the dense one.) Nevertheless, I remained unimpressed.
Then, one day, holed up in the stacks of the University of Victoria library, desperately looking for words that would, hopefully, light a spark of an idea worthy of a Masters dissertation, I pulled a slim, unassuming little volume from the shelf, entirely by chance.
The Secular Scripture by Northrop Frye.
I devoured that book as if it was a pulp fiction novel, cover-to-cover. Then I read it again. And I knew that I would never look at literature and story-telling in quite the same way.
From the publication of his first book, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake in 1947 to his groundbreaking Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Northrop Frye is considered to be one of the most influential literary theorists and thinkers of the 20th century. American critic Harold Bloom referred to him as “the foremost living student of Western literature.”
Oh, and did I mention that he grew up in my hometown of Moncton, New Brunswick?
Frye posited an ‘imaginative framework’ embedded with shared mythologies, archetypes, religion, and social rituals of the collective human experience from which all literature descends. His insights impacted not only the study of literature, but social and cultural theory as well.
Perhaps the most charming, colloquial and accessible route into Frye’s fascinating mind are six essays that he wrote for the CBC Massey Lecture series. These delightful talks are published together as The Educated Imagination and is an absolute must-read for anyone who has ever questioned the role or value of literature in everyday society. I believe Life of Pi author, Yann Martel, suggested Frye’s Educated Imagination to Prime Minister Harper as an essential read (101 Letters to a Prime Minister)…although, sadly, there is no evidence that the PM took the recommendation.
Northrop Frye came to speak to my graduating class at Moncton High in 1989. I remember little or nothing of his talk. My memory is of a frail, small, white-haired man half-hidden by the podium in our high school auditorium. I do remember there was a distinct lack of the sort of platitudes one expects at these convocation-type speeches. No sentimental ‘the-world-is-your-oyster’ bromides from Professor Frye. No inspirational verbiage. Rather, I recall an impression of an acerbic wit, a dry humour, and a piercing and unapologetic intellect.
Northrop Frye died not long after I saw him speak for the first and only time in my life, passing away in January, 1991 in his beloved city of Toronto. He was seventy-eight years old. I had just turned twenty. It would be another three years before The Secular Scripture fell into my lap in the UVic library triggering an on-going chain reaction of ‘eureka moments’ that continue to shape and inform my life as a reader, writer and story-teller to this day.
Moncton now hosts the International Frye Festival, Canada’s only bilingual international literary festival, and Atlantic Canada’s largest literary event. Some of the world’s biggest literary names have come to our friendly little city to celebrate literature…and the imagination of one of the greatest literary minds of all: Northrop Frye.
So if you’re ever in the neighbourhood, do drop by and say hi to Norrie and I. Chances are we’ll be sitting, with a good book in hand, just outside the library.