BORN: Sherbrooke, Quebec • 14 July 1912
DIED: Toronto, Ontario • 23 January 1991
History is always a jumble of chance and accident, but no one could have predicted that a typing contest in Toronto in 1929 would launch the career of one of the most important cultural figures in the English-speaking world.
The odds were impossibly long, but when Northrop Frye’s profi¬ ciency at the keyboard won him second place in a competition sponsored by the Underwood typewriter company, he decided that he liked Toronto enough to move there from New Brunswick.
Shortly after, he began a degree in English and philosophy at Victoria College at the University of Toronto. Half a century later, Frye was still there, but the things he had typed had made him the legendary father of modern literary criticism.
Frye was a stellar student at Victoria, brilliant in his courses and popular in student clubs. After a brief flirtation with the Protestant ministry, he did a master’s degree in English at Oxford. He returned to Toronto as a lecturer at Victoria, and embarked on an academic career without parallel in Canadian history.
He published dozens of books, but easily the most important was The Anatomy ofCriticism in 1957. This was his tour deforce: a remarkably ambitious, nuanced work that made the stunning claim that all literature was related in a coherent, comprehensible pattern of myth and symbol.
This was no less than a revolutionary position: the notion that writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Milton, and Blake were exploring a pattern of universal symbols. Many questioned Frye’s argument; many others were in awe of it. Most agreed, however, that this middle-aged Canadian English professor had made some of the most perceptive observations yet on the great authors and their works.
What Frye accomplished with this book was no less than the founding of a new discipline: no longer could literary criticism be regarded as a branch of philosophy or linguistics. Modern criticism, and the postmodern world of deconstruc¬ tion and textual analysis, all proceeded in his wake.
By the 1960s he was a world figure, and Frye solidified his academic reputation with studies of Shakespeare and the Bible. Later, he also turned his attention increasingly to books from his own country. In an era when Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, and others were fashioning a national canon worth reading, Frye lent his own credibility to Canadian literature.
His work as literary editor of the Canadian Forum and his essays about Canadian culture collected in The Burning Bush remain required reading for anyone interested in the subject.Acclaim changed Frye not a bit. In person, there was always something so utterly everyday about Northrop Frye that for many who knew him, it was difficult to imagine the worldwide reputation this unassuming professor possessed.
He resisted all offers to leave Victoria College, and continued to read and write and type there well into his retirement. There is no doubt that Frye’s was a rarefied world, wholly removed from the daily obsessions of almost everyone else. But in that world, he was a giant.