Northrop Frye's Uncollected Prose ed. by Robert D. Denham (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert D. Denham, ed. Northrop Frye's Uncollected Prose. Frye Studies. University of Toronto Press. xxxii, 448. $95.00

In 2012, Victoria College hosted a conference to celebrate the centenary of its most famous alumnus and professor. The opening ceremony featured a display of the thirty volumes that make up The Collected Works of Northrop Frye (University of Toronto Press, 1996–2012). The speed of this project owed much to its chief organizer, Frye's former student Alvin Lee, and to Lee's editorial assistant, Jean O'Grady. It also benefited from the dedication of Frye's official bibliographer, Robert Denham, who edited one-third of the volumes.

In the extent of its detail as well as the speed of its posthumous production, the Collected Works project is, very likely, without parallel in the humanities. It serves as a reminder of Frye's commanding presence in scholarly discussions of the late twentieth century when he was cited as frequently as any humanist writing in English. But even this project left some things uncollected, including notes that Frye made for lectures and audio recordings of words he spoke in interviews and presentations. There are even a few items that fell between the various volumes featuring thoughts about, say, literature and religion or religion and society. Here Denham has stepped in to edit the hitherto "uncollected" comments.

Arranged chronologically, the notes cover nearly sixty years, from Frye's fourth year as an undergraduate to his last year of full-time teaching. In 1932 he filled the pages of a diary with observations that he later rated on a scale ranging from "useless" and "outgrown" to "not bad" and "OK." In the very first entry (unrated), one finds this telling remark: "The familiar essay, like the personal impression in criticism, succeeds insofar as it is systematic or presupposes a systematic outlook." Years later, in 1990, he filled a small notebook with handwritten thoughts for the lectures published as The Double Vision (1991). Here the systematic, almost Hegelian, nature of his thought is evident in nuggets he later expanded in typewritten notebooks – for example, "Law, besides the option of obeying it or not, may be just or unjust, logical (the original sense of logos) or arbitrary."

In addition to the information drawn from notebooks that surfaced too late for inclusion in the various volumes of Frye's previously unpublished work, there are entries that did not really fit the themes of notebooks on one of his major concerns: occasional jottings on Milton and Blake, for example, or on Eliot and Yeats. Quite the longest section of the book is a series of reading notes that Frye typed on thirty-nine literary texts he read or reread in preparation for his Norton lectures at Harvard, published as The Secular Scripture (1976). The shortest section is the response to a questionnaire about remarkable books of the mid-twentieth century. (Frye considered Finnegans Wake the outstanding example.) In [End Page 219] addition, there are three book reviews published during Frye's lifetime but never collected, three introductions to Frye's books omitted from the Collected Works, four public lectures, two transcripts of Q&A sessions, and a professional note reflecting Frye's views on teaching at Toronto. In all, there are twenty-one sections.

The note on teaching, written near the end of Frye's term as Principal of Victoria College (1957–67), is a personal response to the report of a university-wide commission on undergraduate education at the University of Toronto. The college had decided not to submit a brief of its own, but Frye could not resist making some comments. They included his support of Toronto's system of federated colleges with their several religious affiliations but were most passionate about the "four-year Honour course" of instruction offered in English and many other subject areas. Anyone who wonders about the system that produced Frye should take note of his pointed remarks here.

For this volume, Denham has written thirty pages of introductory comments and another thirty pages of endnotes as well as headnotes to the various sections, parenthetical expansions of Frye's abbreviations, and cross-references to passages in...