- Northrop Frye and Others. Volume 2: The Order of Words by Robert D. Denham
Now that all of those luscious blue volumes of Northrop Frye's notebooks, letters, diaries, miscellaneous essays, and interviews have come out, there is some fascinating and (likely final) trawling to be done. Not that the work will not keep on giving – it does and it will – but there are lacuna and minutiae that can now be filled in and figured out. Continuing to get down to the nitty-gritty, [End Page 129] Robert D. Denham – a Frye careerist and polymath who has written or edited thirty-two books by or about the great man – returns with the second volume in a three-part set. As with volume one, this instalment of Northrop Frye and Others considers a double handful of writers and thinkers whom Frye considered in his unpublished work, but whom he never discussed at length in print.
The book is an odd hodgepodge, which is welcome, as the more randomness one locates and brings to bear in reading Frye, the better. In an awesome understatement, Denham notes at one point: "As has often been observed, Frye is a schematic thinker[,]" but one of the best things about the publication of the collected works is to realize from how many places the schemes came and just how much got sieved out from the classic books in their composing. Some folks you would expect to see here – namely, the systematizers, theorists, and archetypal completists: Jacob Boehme, Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Coleridge, Georg Hegel, François Rabelais. Others would not have been on the tip of my tongue but make sense: the Mahayana Sutras, John Stuart Mill (he mined from On Liberty), Niccolò Machiavelli ("Frye believes that hypocrisy can be a virtue if it is seen not as a moral principle but as a tactical one."). Two influences most of us will not know: Elizabeth Fraser and Jane Ellen Harrison, the latter a Cambridge classicist who died in 1928, the former a talented visual artist, travel companion, and friend with whom Frye even went on a self-described "pub-crawl"; their stories in relation to his close the book in a curious way (Fraser's winning letters (and sketches) to Frye are included and are a high point) that makes one anticipate the cast of characters awaiting us in the third part of this series.
You could do worse than assigning Denham's Northrop Frye and Others in one of those courses where they teach you great books – the first volume covered Søren Kierkegaard, Lewis Carroll, Stéphane Mallarmé, Aristotle, Longinus, and (the following five of whom I have never read and three of whom I had never even heard) Giordano Bruno, Paul Tillich, Henry Reynolds, Frances Yates, and Joachim of Floris – but they do not really teach courses like that anymore. Everybody is too smart, specialized, "googled up," or woke. There is a pleasant old-fashioned air about this text. These books have the spirit of a survey of intellectual history but filtered through a Frye obsession: "His personal library contained forty-four books on Eastern philosophy and religion, forty-two of which have his marginal markings and annotations. … [T]here are forty-eight entries in the diaries and notebooks where he records his observations on the Lankavatara and the Avatamsaka Sutras." "He made twenty-five marginal markings and annotations in [the Diamond Sutra] and twenty in his copy of the Lotus Sutra." "Hegel makes more than twenty cameo appearances in Northrop Frye's Student Essays. … In two of the essays, … Frye engages in more than just casual reference." "As for Harrison, Frye owned and read three of her books, the first two of which he annotated[.]" Books by and about Coleridge are counted as buttressing the later master's sense that, as he wrote in his diary, "any speculative work on criticism, such as the one I'm contemplating, has to involve a pretty thorough knowledge of Coleridge." [End Page 130]
Speaking of a "pretty thorough knowledge," that of...