Northrop Frye and Others: Twelve Writers Who Helped Shape His Thinking by Robert D. Denham (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert D. Denham. Northrop Frye and Others: Twelve Writers Who Helped Shape His Thinking. University of Ottawa Press. viii, 296. $29.95

Robert Denham has published more books and articles about the late Northrop Frye than anyone else. He can prove it because he has compiled the definitive bibliography of work by and about Frye (University of Toronto Press, 1987) as well as periodic updates. He has edited ten of the thirty volumes of Frye's collected works, plus another volume of Frye's as yet "uncollected prose" (University of Toronto Press, 2015). The present volume contains twelve essays on writers who influenced Frye's work. It draws from the collected works, especially the notebooks that Denham edited, and it adds considerably to our understanding of Frye's thought.

Denham begins, naturally enough, with an essay on "Frye and Aristotle," but he follows that with "Frye and Longinus." The pairing of Aristotle and [End Page 220] Longinus, with their very different approaches to literature as purgation and elevation (katharsis and ekstasis), establishes a dialectic that continues throughout the book. One may think of Frye's attempts to balance the approaches of Arnold and Ruskin in the introduction to Anatomy of Criticism as a continuation of the preferences expressed much earlier by Aristotle and Longinus. The dialectic continues through Frye's pairing of proverb and prophecy in his late writing on the Bible and its "kerygmatic" elements in sacred and secular literature.

Other pairings follow that of Aristotle and Longinus, including pairings of the Italian thinkers Joachim of Floris and Giordano Bruno, religious men with radical theories of history and tradition, of the seventeenth-century writers Henry Reynolds and Robert Burton with their different takes on myth and anatomy, of the anxiety of Søren Kierkegaard and the child archetype of Lewis Carroll, of the quite different approaches to symbolism by Stéphane Mallarmé and Colin Still, and of the very different scholarship of Paul Tillich and Frances Yates. While Denham shows Frye to be in dialogue with each of his dozen thinkers, readers will find secondary dialogues among writers he considers and further dialogues across centuries, such as that of Bruno and Yates. Of course, Frye was in dialogue with all these writers in the notebook entries that he made while studying what he called "the architecture of the spiritual world." This dialogue can be followed through the cross-references cited in Denham's index. The index is full but not complete; still further references deserve to be indexed, such as the many to Dante, himself a major influence.

Other possibilities exist, of course. Before this book appeared, Denham had already drafted essays on Frye and another dozen influences, ranging from the Mahayana Sutras to Jane Harrison (another "Wise Old Woman," or "WOW," who attracted Frye's attention). Denham has mentioned still other possibilities in the introduction to the First Series, including John Stuart Mill, H.P. Blavatsky, Martin Buber, Oscar Wilde, Alfred North Whitehead, and Mircea Eliade. Access to Frye's occasional comments on such authors is considerably facilitated by the publication of Jean O'Grady's index to Frye's collected works (University of Toronto Press, 2012).

Those who have perused Frye's published notebooks will naturally think of other significant influences – the richly categorical Kant and Cassirer, for example, whom they might prefer to the euhemeristic Reynolds or the Hermetical Yates and to whom they could find more references in O'Grady's index. Denham is quite honest about the surprises he experienced while annotating Frye's notebooks and his curiosity about Frye's attraction to writers like Reynolds and Yates, or Frye's expression of indebtedness to the Alice books of Carroll or the Igitur of Mallarmé. He has retraced Frye's reading and sought out scholarship on the various influencers. As a guide through Frye's notebooks, which Denham sees as [End Page 221] "the greatest sources for new discoveries and revisionary understanding," these essays may well be the most significant work on Frye to have appeared in the last quarter-century.

Thomas Willard
Department of English, University of Arizona
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