The First Major Theoretician?: Northrop Frye and Literary Theory
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The First Major Theoretician?
Northrop Frye and Literary Theory

In his book The Twentieth Century Humanists: From Spitzer to Frye, William Calin declares that Northrop Frye was "arguably the last great humanist critic and the first major theoretician" (118). Critics today can and likely will rebel against this claim; some might note, for instance, that surely Plato or Aristotle could also be recognized as the first major theoreticians (at least in the West). In this paper, I am concerned with the latter part of his claim; specifically, Frye and the history of literary theory. Frye's role and reputation are, of course, hotly contested and debated among supporters of Frye and his adversaries. It must be admitted from the outset that Frye has fallen out of favour in the academy, at least in literary studies. While Calin lauds Frye, it is equally important to remember that Terry Eagleton (in)famously quipped, "Who now reads Frye?" (in Denham, "Pity" 17). Likewise, in their introduction to a special volume of the University of Toronto Quarterly in honour of the Frye Centenary, Germaine Warkentin and Linda Hutcheon soberly write, "[s]ince his death in 1991, Frye's ideas have continued to be vigorously promoted and as vigorously scorned" (5). In many ways, there is a kind of paradox at play. Frye's ideas are still frequently taught in university courses; after all, the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism still includes Frye's theories on genre and archetype. And yet, Frygian scholars continue to "vigorously promote," and I might add, "protect," Northrop Frye. At this moment in literary history it behooves us to review the work of Northrop Frye, especially since we now have the complete Collected Works of Northrop Frye that expands thirty volumes and bridges the divide between the published author and the private theoretician and critic, as well as a couple of apocryphal volumes: Northrop Frye's Uncollected Prose, recently published by University of Toronto Press, and Northrop Frye: Selected Letters, published by McFarlane Press, both of which were edited by Robert D. Denham. [End Page 82]

Robert D. Denham, a preeminent Frye scholar, has provided numerous cogent defences of Frye's work. In 2007, for instance, Denham writes, "[t]here are plenty of reasons for celebrating the jubilee year, among them the facts that Anatomy of Criticism has been continuously in print for more than fifty years and has sold 150,000 copies" ("Pity" 17). The same, of course, cannot be said of all of Frye's work. But Denham further notes, "between 1964 and 2003 saw another 192 doctoral dissertations devoted in whole or part to Frye, 'in part' meaning 'Frye' is indexed as a subject in Dissertation Abstracts International" ("Pity" 23), and moreover, "[i]n 2003, Frye was indexed as a subject of fourteen doctoral dissertations, the highest number for any year" ("Pity" 23). But Denham is not alone. Ian Slone declares, "Northrop Frye is the most complete United Church of Canada theologian that the church has yet produced" (107). Likewise, Thomas Willard devotes an article to "the genius of Northrop Frye," in which he ultimately concludes, "I think we can safely say that he had genius" (46), which would run counter to Harold Bloom's claim that "Frye's criticism will survive because it is serious, spiritual, and comprehensive, but not because it is systematic or a manifestation of genius" (xi). In his article "The Social Vision of Frye's Criticism: The Scandal of Undiscriminating Catholicity," Jonathan Arac begins, "Anatomy of Criticism is the greatest work of positive literary criticism yet produced in English, but its standing has continuously been haunted by unease over Frye's refusing to grant value-judgments any place within criticism" (163), a point that Harold Bloom has seen (and continues to see) as his chief—and lasting—difference with his precursor, Northrop Frye.1 What is clear is that Frye's place in literary history is one that seems to be, at least at first glance, quite secure, even if debated. These critical voices are, after all, just a selection of possible choices, all of which aim to show how strong, good, or important a critic Northrop Frye...