Skip to content

From the archives

Untying the Knot

A new book untangles historical confusion and contemporary anxieties about marriage

Thou Art Anxious

Decisions, decisions

Keep in Touch

Why digital connections can’t sustain health, happiness or politics

The Diary of a Man Called God

…who thought of himself as a genius

Ernest Sirluck

The Diaries of Northrop Frye, 1942–1955

Edited by Robert D. Denham

University of Toronto Press

821 pages (plus 54 of frontmatter), hardcover

This edition of the extant diaries of Northrop Frye, which is to be Volume 8 of the Collected Works, may fairly be called a model of its kind. The text has been scrupulously presented and the apparatus is excellent: a judicious introduction, a very thorough index, extensive and informative endnotes, and a directory of persons mentioned in the text; furthermore, the book has been handsomely printed and very well made. In the context of so worthy an achievement, it seems captious to complain, but it is hard to pass by the book’s high price of $125 in silence.

When reading the ostensibly private diary of a famous writer, one soon confronts the question of whether it was really intended to remain forever private. Frye writes that it was: in 1950, recording his pessimism about Victoria College, he interjects “after all, nobody is going to read this diary except me,” thus making the diary’s secrecy the basis for its candour. And indeed it is very candid, recording opinions about people, many of whom Frye worked with, which would, if known, have made life in an academic community, particularly a church-based one, impossible; in fact, the editor, otherwise faithful to the text, felt constrained on ten occasions to delete overly hurtful epithets. And the diary is equally candid about the diarist. Nevertheless, during the 1980s Frye turned his 1949 diary over to his biographer, John Ayre, apparently without deleting anything. Do the diaries (there are seven, covering discontinuous periods) record Frye’s thoughts for himself alone, or were they written with the notion of ultimate publication hovering somewhere in his mind and shaping the entries accordingly?

Perhaps that notion is never entirely absent from the mind of a committed writer, but my opinion is that when Frye wrote the diaries he intended them to remain private; then, when he became famous and his conviction that he was a genius seemed confirmed, he came to think that all that intimate writing of a great thinker ought not to be suppressed. I therefore think that we can read the diaries with the trust given to one writing, at the time, for himself alone.

There can be no doubt that Frye thought himself a genius. “I glory in my intelligence, & should, yet in me a universal intelligence reaches a certain focus.” “It’s very lonely being a genius…” “I wish I could get to a point where people would know in advance how important I am, & be ready to study my next collection of axioms as that, instead of just looking over it as though it were one more article.” This assurance of genius was what enabled Frye to undertake the “gigantic anatomy based on the theme of initiation or hierarchic degrees of knowledge,” which had been his goal since adolescence and in which literature was only one part, although it was the approach. He called this eight-part enterprise his ogdoad, consisting of the “Seven Books” which he obscurely named Liberal, Tragicomedy, Anticlimax, Rencontre, Mirage, Paradox and Ignoramus, and “then perhaps Twilight”; it would be of increasing importance in his later writings. Even in the diaries, written during his thirties and forties, he is constantly reaching beyond his obvious foci in literature and the bible toward his all-encompassing vision.

Two of Frye’s nine scheduled weekly hours in the classroom during the period of the diaries were devoted to Religious Knowledge, and he made his local reputation there earlier than in English. His use of literature, philosophy, mythology, comparative religion and anthropology to draw analogies and then to discern archetypes excited and awed his students. He records a story going around of a freshman coming to Victoria to take Frye’s RK course. “When he begins it he believes in God; when he gets to Christmas he believes in Frye’s God; when he comes to the end of the year he believes that Frye is God … I’ve known for some time that undergraduates used to refer to me casually as God in their conversations.” Frye was an ordained minister in the United Church, and he sometimes reluctantly performed ministerial functions, but his attitude toward organized religion was hostile. He speaks bitterly of the Roman Catholic Church: “as a liberal Protestant democrat, I hate & fear this totalitarian, sleepless, relentless, anti-liberal, anti-Protestant, anti-democratic machine.” But he also expresses “resentment against Protestantism, especially this fatuous United Church, for being so miserably lacking in intellectual integrity … I don’t want a Church of any kind.” He can be equally scathing about what is often thought the pristine period of Christianity: “the ferocious bigotry, superstition and sadism that was the bulk of Early Christianity.” Nevertheless, the spirituality that is pervasive in the diaries is religious at bottom; he speaks of “my central conception of Jesus as effective mythically rather than historically,” and a recurrent issue for him is how to exercise and express that faith.

The negative aspect of Frye’s belief in his gift of great intellect is that he apprehends intermittent sluggishness almost as a mortal sin. At the beginning of 1952, looking back at the preceding year, he writes: “I manage to keep my pride, wrath, envy, avarice, gluttony and lechery within moral bounds to some extent: the great enemy is inertia.” He can occasionally treat the problem with indulgent humour: “Stayed home & decided to hell with it … I’m a Methodist; I hate taking time from the Lord’s work. The Lord’s work for me is sitting in a comfortable chair thinking beautiful thoughts, & occasionally writing them down. This also happens to be what I like to do, which just shows you how wise the Lord is.” Usually, however, he scolds himself for having “buggered” or “wasted” the day; often he combines that with a reprimand for having drunk too much: “I must remember that it’s … foolish to drink heavily … the evening before a nine o’clock day.” Drinking too much, and resolving not to, are a frequent theme in the diaries, but it is not felt to be as serious a fault as inertia, except inasmuch as it contributes to that.

Frye was drawn to attractive women, but except on very rare occasions there was nothing in this to trouble his conscience; on the contrary, it was a constant pleasure: “A job that permits one to spend an hour in the line of duty talking to an attractive young girl with a quick mind is a pleasant job.” This is a frequent theme; one entry is rich with a significance he could not then have known: on the May 24th holiday in 1950, he and his wife, Helen, went to visit former classmates in Brantford. “I never was much attracted to Elizabeth as an undergraduate, but as a plump matron of forty she’s really something.” Thirty-eight years later, after both were widowed, he and Elizabeth were married.

A university professor necessarily encounters many people every teaching day, especially one who encourages his students to consult with him in his office, which Frye did. He also lunched in the college dining room most working days, lectured to many outside groups, and for some years served The Canadian Forum as editor and board member; beside all this, he and Helen led an active social life, and their house in north Toronto was the scene of many gatherings. Almost always, Frye had something to say in his diary about the very numerous people he was meeting (the editor has counted more than 1,200 during the period of the diaries). There was considerable asperity about those colleagues whom he judged weak or lazy or thought a threat, but much affection and concern for those he thought worthy. Indeed, for those who knew Frye, looking up his comments about themselves or people they knew will be one of the immediate interests, pleasurable or otherwise, of this book. These comments can sometimes serve as salutary correctives; for example, many people used to think that Frye, like McLuhan, devalued the very different scholarship practised by A.S.P. Woodhouse, the long-time Head of English at University College; it is therefore pleasant to read that “Woodhouse tries to sound like a pedant, but he’s really a great man, & doesn’t fool me for a minute.” Some comments can bring home the difficulties facing a critic; preparing to write on Canadian poetry, Frye writes: “What a job. Here’s Philip Child gone and written a long poem that’s complete bullshit from beginning to end, and who am I to say so?—a friend of Philip Child’s.”

The counterpoint to the pleasure Frye took in his intellect was the misery his physical and psychological deficiencies caused in him. His headaches, deviated septum, hay fever, insomnia, constipation, nervous tension and other ailments are a constant refrain. His psychological probings are less frequent but very emphatic: “The strong & irradicable [sic] resentment I feel against mother, and especially my feeling that most of her illnesses were due to a morbid mental condition in which self-indulgence predominated … There’s also a strong introverted resistance to duty behind all my illnesses, of course.” About his father: “having spent such a hell of a childhood building upon his vague promises that he had no intention of keeping, I hate to return him in kind.” It is good to see that he recognized some positive consequences of his early deprivations; having gone out to lunch on a teaching day and bought some sheet music, he returned “feeling I’d had a terrific carouse … But there’s so much in that eager, starved life of mine that began when I was nine and lasted until … fourteen that still needs satisfying … I have always thought of music, and to a lesser extent of literature, as a rich and glowing paradise.”

Virtually every teaching day, the diaries give an account of how his classes fared. He did not normally prepare lectures; the entry for January 3, 1955, begins, “Spent the day, perhaps for the first time in my life, preparing my lectures.” His usual method was to put forward large general ideas about the work under discussion and then to depend on the class response to go on. “The quality of my lectures is that of a public performance; it depends entirely on the quality of the response I get.” When things work well, the idea with which he began the class becomes clarified, perhaps extended, and he writes its enhancement out in the diary. Thus on March 22, 1949, the entry begins, “I think I can work out FW [Finnegan’s Wake] by way of the Menippean satire: I’ve given a brilliant lecture on Butler I must write out here,” and he does. He always intends to reap the rewards, in the form of publications, of these reciprocal exercises in “the rhythm of discovery”: “What isn’t so well known is my famous demonstration of the anatomy of the spiritual world that I astonish my kids with every January. Well, when I’ve got that done, & gone from there to the narrative archetypes of epic, I have another job, & possibly a second article, in hand, namely the working out of my essential thesis that archetypes are the informing powers of poetry. If I can make a passable article out of that the book will be all over but the footnotes.” In this way, we see many of the ideas for which he became famous being worked out.

He was, however, aware of the shortcomings of this reliance on “the intuitive thinking I specialize in.” In 1950, he writes that the reason his lectures are “such a drag this year is … that they’re so thin: I haven’t done any real reading on them for years.” In 1952, unhappy about how his Spenser course is going, he confesses that “I’ve set up to be an authority on Spenser when I know nothing about him.”

He was not always restrained by his awareness of his limitations. He agreed to edit a Milton text for Rinehart because he wanted to become better known and he wanted the money; but “I’m not an editor,” he wrote, and proceeded to prove it. On May 21, 1949: “Today I started editing Milton, dammit, … & did the Minor poems & two books of PL. A cheap job, of course.” On the 22nd: “I finished to the end of Book 8.” On the 23rd: “finished PL in the evening.” On the 24th: “Holiday.” On the 25th: “finished editing the prose today.” Later, when Rinehart decided the edition needed footnotes, Frye went to the library, found that the two popular annotated editions he wanted were out, “dug out a Hanford text & savagely attacked the notes, completing the first two books before I stopped to take a breath … three books done in a day isn’t bad.” It is more than sad to think that generations of students, and some of their teachers, accept the text and notes produced by this process because of the authority, acquired otherwise, of Frye’s name.

His literary criticism, on the other hand, showed no awareness of limitations. Before an idea was fully formed he could acknowledge uncertainty: “The four forms of ritual produce the four forms of drama, & the four forms of myth the four types of prose fiction, or at least so I devoutly hope. In between them is song, and the four forms of song … produce the four kinds of epic … Some bullshit in this, in fact a lot.” But he was absolute about his method and his matured ideas: “I think I may as well come out flat-footed for calling literary criticism a science.” “Crane was right in singling me out as the only archetypal critic who isn’t just playing around but thinks of archetypes as organizing conceptions of a systematic science.” R.S. Crane, the University of Chicago critic, assumed “a kind of critical pluralism … Some people, he says, understand by distinguishing & others by unifying. Well, I understand by unifying, and ultimately I certainly won’t accept any ultimate pluralism.” He was entirely untroubled by what he saw as his uniqueness: “One of the great mysteries to me is the way people can move nimbly & sensitively over an area of ideas like a blind man, aware of every nuance of texture and fibre & yet unable to see what is there. I am almost the only critic I know who can really see criticism, and like … the seeing man in the blind community, I find myself isolated with my superior power.”

“I understand by unifying”: Frye might have been encapsulating Plotinus (whose name does not appear in the diaries), and indeed Frye’s conviction that all knowledge is ultimately one, implicit in the undertaking of a “gigantic anatomy based on the theme of initiation or hierarchic degrees of knowledge,” reflects, whether consciously or not, the Neoplatonic metaphysic of an all-encompassing unity, or One, which gives meaning to all particular things. There is a lovely irony in the fact that it was Crane, the founder of the Chicago school of Aristotelian literary criticism, who provoked this fundamentally Neoplatonic critical manifesto by Frye.

It would have been very enlightening had the diaries continued to the time when people knew “in advance how important” Frye was and were “ready to study [his] next collection of axioms as that,” but his real fame came after the period of the diaries. At its height, his influence was worldwide and he was called to lecture in many countries and received innumerable honorary degrees to compensate for the earned doctorate he never had. He received many rich offers from universities, but chose to stay at the University of Toronto, which created for him the title of University Professor (originally meant to be limited to six holders at once) to indicate that students enrolled anywhere in the university could take his course for credit if their departments agreed. Then, after a time, as is usual in the world of literary criticism, his approach was pushed aside by the next fashion, which originated in France. We have no diary to show how Frye responded to this waxing and waning of his influence, but those who knew him observed little change in his behaviour or demeanour, and he continued to write, although less about literature than about the rest of his ogdoad. Recently, there have been some signs of renewed interest in his approach, which is bound to be increased by the very welcome publication, now in train, of his Collected Works.

Ernest Sirluck served overseas in the Canadian army during World War II, after which he taught English literature at the University of Toronto and the University of Chicago. He served as Dean of the Graduate School and Vice- President of the University of Toronto and later became President of the University of Manitoba.