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  • The Educated Imagination and Other Writings on Critical Theory 1933–1963
  • David Richter
Northrop Frye . The Educated Imagination and Other Writings on Critical Theory 1933–1963. Edited by Germaine Warkentin. Volume 21 of The Collected Edition of the Works of Northrop Frye. University of Toronto Press. xlx, 553. $125.00

Volume 21 of the Collected Frye is a generous anthology of thirty-seven essays, stemming, apart from one youthful review, from the first two dozen years of Frye's career at the University of Toronto. We begin, as far as Frye's own heroic career as a man of letters is concerned, in what he called 'the dawn, spring, and birth phase,' present at the creation of his most lasting achievement, Anatomy of Criticism (1957).

One is able, in fact, to watch that masterwork take shape, rewritten from earlier published essays. 'The Anatomy in Prose Fiction' (1942) begins with Frye's consideration of the classical forms of Menippean satire, traces its origins in terms that even Howard Weinbrot might approve, and does not take flight until the last pages, where Frye expounds a new tradition of prose fiction, dubbed the anatomy, that can begin in earnest only when Menippean satire has merged with the bourgeois novel, producing offspring that include Tristram Shandy, Headlong Hall, and Crome Yellow. Frye's characteristic relational and analogical thinking has not yet found its mature voice; it is recognizably a scholarly article with speculations about how new literary kinds are generated by a tradition. 'The Nature of Satire,' published two years later, begins as before with Menippean satire, but rethinks it a different way, with a view to its relation to comedy and tragedy. Here we are in the realm of the archetypes, where satire is not a genre but rather a vision, a manifestation of the mythos of winter. Still later, in 'The Four Forms of Fiction' (1950), one can see almost fully formed what will be revised and extended into the fourth essay of Anatomy of Criticism, the theory of genres. About a dozen of the pre-1957 essays here are visibly precursors that Frye threw into the crucible and melted down for his critical masterwork. The Anatomy shows changes, rethinkings as well as relabellings, from the published first thoughts. 'The Archetypes of Literature' (1951) associated spring with romance and summer with comedy, but by 1957 Frye had seen that, in the system he was building, [End Page 370] satire's significant relation to comedy required a change of seasons. We shall soon know more about these revisions when we have Robert Denham's new edition of the Anatomy.

As Frye found his voice in the 1950s, he also began to sense his own relation to the North American critical scene as it was developing around mid-century. While he had cordial relations with Cleanth Brooks and stayed with him when lecturing at Yale, he was in no danger of drinking the Kool-Aid of the New Criticism since, for Frye, symbolic language was only one aspect of poetry, and not even the first among equals at that. His reviews of Allen Tate and René Wellek, written with magisterial courtesy and flashes of wit, suggest his disappointment with a simplistic theory of literature and a distorted history of literary theory. On the other side, his 1954 reviews of R.S. Crane's The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry (given as the Alexander Lectures at Toronto) and Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern show Frye's more positive links with a different sort of formalism emphasizing generic distinctions and their role in literary construction, and which pluralistically made a place, after formal and historical questions had been answered, for the sort of archetypal system-building in which Frye himself was engaged. Frye could admire Crane's analytic powers but still use a ghastly paragraph from The Languages of Criticism in the first version of 'The Well-Tempered Critic' as an example of what to avoid in academic writing. Other essays from this period on Carl Gustav Jung and Sir James Frazer present Frye in relation to the psychoanalytical and anthropological thinkers who informed his sense of the archetypes of...


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