Remembering Northrop Frye: Recollections by His Students in the 1940’s and 1950’s edited by Robert D. Denham
This is a fascinating collection of student reminiscences about Northrop Frye, the world-renowned Canadian literary theorist. Robert D. Denham, retired English professor from Roanoke University, VA, has devoted much of his life to the criticism of Frye, faithfully preserving the work of a genius who started out as an obscure Canadian and might have remained so.
When Denham was preparing The Diaries of Northrop Frye for publication in 1994, he hit upon the idea of tracking down and contacting the 1200 persons named in them.The seven diaries were kept intermittently from 1947 to 1955.
One of his most famous students was Margaret Atwood, who says Frye stopped her from “dying young and poor in a Paris garret.” She is too young (class of 6T1) to have been mentioned in the diaries.
Denham asked each person (mostly, but not all, former students) if they were the one mentioned and if they recalled the occasion. If so, would they please send him some biographical information about themselves, along with their memories of Frye as a person and teacher. This would help Denham annotate the diaries and fill in the social landscape on the campus of Victoria College, University of Toronto during those post WWII years. Denham also asked the respondents for permission to publish them and eighty-nine agreed. I was one of them since our graduating class was invited by Frye and his wife Helen to their home in 1955.
In the lengthy Preface, Denham sums up the most frequent of the letters’ subjects: assessments of Frye as a teacher and person, his hair, his shyness, his ‘Bible & Literature’ course and his spellbinding lectures. Then Denham winds up by quoting 24 of the most incisive expressions of Frye’s over-all significance, his power and lasting presence in their lives. I could hardly wait to get past the Preface and into the diary entries and letters, the ultimate class reunion. Of all the facts and features tightly focused on Frye, these especially grabbed my attention:
(1) The recognizable names and intimate letters not only of people I’d known but also of people who became famous media personalities, journalists, comedians, writers, actors and actresses, politicians, etc.
(2) The surprise of seeing the iconic Frye as ordinary, walking back from the grocery store trundling a cart for his wife, or managing work schedules and campus social duties without having a car.
(3) Touching revelations of things that bothered him, like his students joking that he was ‘God’. He didn’t know what to do about it.
(4) Pondering Frye’s shyness. Everyone felt it and hung back because of it but, when it was challenged, it was found not to be real. A delegation went to his office to ask him if he believed in prayer and he had them sit down for a homey chat. An ex-student who was as shy of him as he was of her was forced into the situation of asking Frye to write a cover blurb for a book of erotica written by her husband, Steven Vizinczey, since otherwise they would starve. Frye complied with alacrity, praise, honesty, brevity, elegance and wit.
(5) Humorous anecdotes. Two of them might be entitled “Norrie (Buttercup) Frye in the Bosoms of Ballroom Dancers (1933)” and “The Girl Who Dared to Be Late for Professor Northrop Frye’s Class”.
(6) The excitement of his Bible course, which he called “The Mythological Framework of Western Civilization”. All Vic students were required to take a one-hour-a-week pass option of either Religious Knowledge or Art & Archaeology. Frye’s RK course was so stunning that students from the campus colleges founded on faiths other than Methodist also sat in on it. Thanks to Denham, notes from it are now posted on the fryeblog where anyone can read them. This course does the world a great service by presenting the Bible in an informative, literary way without preaching or proselytizing.
Reading this book is like inviting a genius of the caliber of Aristotle or William Blake into your home and life — an amazing opportunity for which we can thank our host, Robert D. Denham.
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