Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Northrop Frye – His Life and Works

Frye, Northrop (1912-1991), Canadian literary critic, best known as a major proponent of archetypal criticism. In this branch of literary criticism, literature and other art forms are seen as manifestations of universal myths and archetypes (largely unconscious image patterns that cross cultural boundaries). Frye’s most important work, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), introduced archetypal criticism, identifying and discussing basic archetypal patterns as found in myths, literary genres, and the reader’s imagination.

Born Herman Northrop Frye in Sherbrooke, Québec, he was brought up by staunch Methodist parents. After receiving his undergraduate degree from Victoria College of the University of Toronto in 1933, he studied theology at Emmanuel College in Toronto and was ordained a minister in 1936. After a short time working as a minister in Saskatchewan, Frye spent two years studying literature in England at Merton College, University of Oxford. Beginning in 1940 he lectured in literature at the University of Toronto, and in 1947 he became a professor at the university’s Victoria College. That year he also published his first book, Fearful Symmetry, a study of English poet William Blake. Frye also gained prominence as editor of Canadian Forum, a magazine focusing on politics and the arts. He held that position from 1948 until 1954. In 1967 Frye became the first University Professor of English at Toronto University, and in 1979 he became chancellor of Victoria College.

Frye’s works combine a formidable breadth of knowledge with clarity of thought and an accessible style. He was committed to literary criticism as a vital component of cultural life rather than an intellectual hobby. Frye frequently addressed the pervasive influence of the New Testament on Western thought and writing, most notably in The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (1982). His other works include Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (1963); A Natural Perspective (1965), a study of the comedies of English poet and playwright William Shakespeare; The Return of Eden (1965), a study of the works of English poet John Milton; Fools of Time (1967), a study of Shakespeare’s tragedies; and The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (1971), a study of 20th-century Canadian poetry. Frye’s writings on literary criticism are collected in The Well-Tempered Critic (1963), The Educated Imagination (1964), The Secular Scripture (1971), and Words with Power (1990). 

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