This is a speech to the Senior Alumni at the University of Toronto, subsequently published in the Northrop Frye Newsletter, 8, no. 1 (Summer 1999). If I were writing it today, I would place more emphasis on the role of literature in intensifying consciousness--an important aspect of Frye's later thought that we are learning more about as his notebooks are published.
What a guy
Read more books than
You or I
So begins a ditty about Frye popular at one time among undergraduates at Victoria College. It encapsulates the local view of Frye--affectionate, proprietorial, somewhat in awe of the great man but by no means overwhelmed. There is a curious dichotomy between this picture of Frye and that of the eminent man of letters celebrated by the world at large. Frye became an international phenomenon, the literary critic who opened up criticism as a discipline in its own right, and adumbrated a vast structure for the whole of literature. His books have been translated into 17 languages including Serbo-Croatian, Korean, and Portuguese; his theories have been used to elucidate works from Old English to Russian. Italy takes a particular interest in him, and hosted a conference on his works in Bologna in 1987. In the Far East, too, he is a hot property, and Professor Wu of Inner Mongolia is hard at work translating his early essays. The Northrop Frye papers in the Victoria University Library contain letters from 26 different colleges and universities offering Frye a job--and this is just in the 18 years between 1959 and 1977. The offers range from a permanent appointment as Mackenzie King Professor at Harvard, to a job in the English Department at Arizona State U.
In spite of this world-wide fame, and of 38 honorary degrees, Frye spent most of his working life at the (with all due respects) comparatively obscure Victoria College in the University of Toronto. He enrolled as an undergraduate in the college in 1929, studying Philosophy and English; then after his graduation he studied theology at Emmanuel, the theological college of Victoria University, while doing some part-time lecturing in the college English Department. As it became apparent that teaching was his vocation, the college authorities helped to send him to England for two years, to round out his English studies at Merton College. He persevered there, in spite of finding Oxford “dismally cold, wet, clammy, muggy, damp, and moist, like a morgue,” but was relieved to be taken on permanently in the English Department at Victoria in 1939. There he remained, except for spells as visiting professor, until his retirement. For years he rode the subway to work like any beginning lecturer, expounded his pass course in Biblical symbolism to undergraduates of every degree of sophistication, probably spent Saturday afternoons grading essays.
I first met him in this guise myself in 1960. I was going to study English Lang. and Lit. and had been advised by my high school guidance counsellor to enroll at Victoria so that I would, as they say, “get Frye.” I did get him, for several courses, and an amazing figure he was: dumpy and pastey-coloured, with an almost shifty air, as if he didn't quite belong inside this mortal envelope, he would open his mouth and in a quiet and unemphatic voice give expression to the most searching analysis, the most suggestive generalizations, the most piercing insights, all in sentences and whole paragraphs perfectly controlled and modulated. Even his witty remarks were delivered deadpan, with just the occasional quick upturn at the side of his mouth if you seemed to get the joke.
Going back into the past, here's a reminiscence of Frye as a lecturer by one of his students in 1946, political columnist Douglas Fisher, who had just arrived at college under the veterans' preference with many other former soldiers:
“Our class, perhaps 40 [people], was stiff. The general tone was serious, almost apprehensive. It reeked of both earnestness and doubt...At 9.05 a slight chap walked in, his suit too large, a dour Russian quality about its hang and texture. He was blond, his hair heavy, but haloed with wisps and snarls. [In his younger days, this blond mop had earned him the nickname ‘Buttercup.’] On first look, he seemed prissy, uncomfortable, yet curiously like a robot. Stiff--and we were stiffer.
He began while staring out the window...“My subject today is George Bernard Shaw...”, and he was away. A tape recorder would have picked up little but the teacher's voice. Except for an occasional titter, the class didn't loosen up. When the bell rang, the man stopped talking, bobbed his head, and left.
He was no sooner gone from the room when an uproar of comments made the place noisy. “This can't be university, it's too entertaining.” “What's this man's name?” A girl beside me looked at me for seconds but her mind wasn't there. When her beatific smile finally broke, she said, “That was better than any movie I've ever seen.” What I knew was--if this was university, I wanted a lot more of it, and the teacher...What a break! Northrop Frye as first voice heard at university.”
Frye was always the opposite of grandstanding or charismatic, the conduit of a force that came purely from the mind and owed nothing to physical stature. In 1950, when he spent a year as a visiting professor at Harvard, he went to a store where the proprietors took a friendly interest in the students. As Frye relates it, “the clerk asked me what I was studying, and I said, with only a touch of shrillness, that I was teaching. Just for the summer, of course. He wrapped my parcel, handed it to me, and said, ‘And I hope your permanent appointment comes through all right.’ ”
Working on the Collected Works of Northrop Frye I encounter another form of this contrast between appearance and reality. Perhaps most of you are already aware of this project, started under the auspices of Victoria University and now liberally supported by McMaster: but I hope you'll forgive me for taking the opportunity for a bit of publicity. Under the general editorship of Alvin Lee, we hope to bring out some 30 volumes of Frye's writings. I've brought along the first two volumes, recently published, the letters Frye and his future wife Helen exchanged between 1932 and 1939. These are edited by Robert D. Denham (please feel free to order on your way out). From the point of view of my present theme, what is interesting is that the Collected Works is to include not just the previously-published articles and books, but also, as you see, some of the private papers Frye deposited in the Victoria Library. As well as the letters, these include diaries and a whole series of notebooks. Frye thought in writing, and in these notebooks he wrestled with trains of thought, worked and re-worked the shapes of his books, and reflected on his own strengths and weaknesses. Just to give one example--this is not in a notebook but on a separate sheet of paper headed STATEMENT FOR THE DAY OF MY DEATH:
“The twentieth century saw an amazing development of scholarship and criticism in the humanities, carried out by people who were more intelligent, better trained, had more languages, had a better sense of proportion, and were infinitely more accurate scholars and competent professional men than I. I had genius. No one else in the field known to me had quite that.”
In donating these papers to a public repository, Frye must have forseen their eventual publication. It is not too much to say that they open up an entirely new Frye unsuspected by the general public and even by most of his friends and associates. Already I'm told that people who have read the Frye and Helen letters are amazed, their usual reaction being, “I never would have believed that Northrop Frye was so amorous!” And who would believe that Frye longed to write a novel--indeed, to write 8 novels, each in a different mode, covering between them all types of fiction from the comedy of manners to the war novel. He is sometimes accused of being exclusively concerned with western literature, yet these notebooks reveal that he was quietly studying Eastern philosophy in the 40s, long before it became fashionable, and that he hoped to write what he called a ‘Bardo’ novel based on inter-life existence as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. His published works seem complicated enough, but in his private schemes he was constantly trying to slot what he had written into a vast 8-fold circle which would mirror the novels on the critical level, besides forming parallels with the different divisions of the Bible, the parts of the Blakean corpus, not to mention the musical keys, the colours, and the astrological signs. Hayden White spoke more truly than he knew when he remarked that he sensed a subterranean Frye--that when talking to Frye he “had the feeling that he was always in that shop in the back of the mind of which Montaigne spoke, working on some intellectual issue.”
In suggesting this series of contrasts, between inner man and public persona, awkward figure and eloquent speaker, Toronto teacher and international icon, I'm working with categories that are not exactly parallel. But I feel I have a warrant in the practice of Frye himself, that inveterate manipulator of equivalents, correspondences, and categories. The particular binary oppositions I've been suggesting seem to me important because they lead in to something very central to Frye's thought, which might best be described as the relation between the individual and his society. In Frye's case, the question involves his own Canadianness and his Protestant inheritance. How is the individual absolutely himself yet the committed member of a corporate entity? The question is parallel to one encountered in his literary criticism, where Frye maintained that he recognized the uniqueness of the work of art, while his critics complained that he was obliterating it by relating the work to generic and archetypal patterns.
As background to these matters I'd like to take a few minutes to look at the outlines of Frye's thought as a whole. This will be familiar ground to some of you, but I hope not to all. Though Frye first gained recognition with his book on Blake, Fearful Symmetry, in 1947, it was Anatomy of Criticism in 1957 that brought him world-wide attention. In this book he argued for literary criticism as a scientific discipline with a coherent structure of its own, as opposed on the one hand to the dilettantish and belle-lettrist approach that pointed out the beauties and flaws of individual works, and on the other to the historical approach which related works to their times and thus made criticism a mere parasite on history. Anatomy took a sweeping overview of western literature from its origins to the present, and in Aristotelian fashion mapped out its genera and species. One of its main contentions was that poems take the forms they do because of the imperatives of literature, not because of the author's desire to capture life or to express his own individuality. Poems are made from other poems; or, in the words of Yeats, “There is no singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence.”
Criticism could look at the forms taken by literature from several different perspectives, expounded in the four main chapters of the book. Historical criticism, in Essay #1, saw writing devolve in a way most conveniently encapsulated by the status of its hero. [By the way, I apologize for the use of non-inclusive language. Frye always insisted that terms like ‘he’ and ‘man’ were inclusive, on Sydney Smith's principle that “man generally embraces woman.”] Anyway, Frye saw the history of literature as the increasing displacement of a mythic core towards realism. Thus in earliest times we have myth itself, in which the hero is a god-figure superior in kind to other men and his environment. In romance, which flowered in the middle ages, the hero is a human being but one with unusual powers, and his actions escape somewhat from the laws of nature. The Renaissance brings us to the dominance of the high mimetic mode, where the hero is superior in degree to other men, but subject to ordinary laws of nature--typically, he is a prince, the hero of tragedy. As realistic fiction develops in the low mimetic mode, the hero becomes an ordinary person, one of us. And in the ironic mode increasingly prominent in the twentieth century, the hero is an anti-hero or powerless man, as in Beckett and Kafka, and the reader looks down on scenes of frustration and absurdity. I haven't time to go into the sub-divisions of this diagram, which by describing a tragic and a comic form of each mode, a naive or sentimental version of each of those, and a parallel sequence of thematic modes, moves from five to forty different categories.
Essay 2 of Anatomy (Ethical Criticism) approaches literature not historically, but as a simultaneous existence in the present, and suggests five different phases of criticism based largely on symbolism. For Frye, images are not just incidental figures stuck on to make a piece of writing more vivid. The very essence of literature, which is a hypothetical mode addressed to the imagination, is metaphor. From the earliest stories which identified the gods with parts of the natural world, as with sky-gods and sea-gods and so on, the essential literary and imaginative act has been to identify some aspect of the natural world with some aspect of humanity. On the literal level we can look at the poem as an individual unit whose images and sounds relate internally to each other; on the descriptive, we study its relation to the world it reflects. The formal phase unites both to get at its meaning. Finally we move into the last two phases of archetypal and anagogical criticism which are Frye's particular province. On the archetypal level we relate the poem to literature as a whole, studying genres and conventions; and on the anagogical level, we see literature as a total order of words organized metaphorically, a vast imaginative construct which presents man's vision of the world as he wishes it to be: from this perspective, nature has been completely humanized, and the distinction between subject and object, nature and perceiving mind has been obliterated. This, Frye says, is the imaginative model for human work, the vision of paradise regained.
The details of archetypal criticism, studied in Essay 3 of Anatomy, are organized into two areas, the static and the dynamic. Statically, Frye discerns two archetypal groups corresponding to the two extremes of wish and nightmare: the apocalyptic imagery of gardens, sheepfolds, bread and wine, holy cities and so on, which are the metaphors of human desire, and the demonic imagery of monsters, waste lands, and fiery furnaces, which define all that man rejects. For the dynamic movement of plot, Frye invoked one of the most basic patterns, the cycle--as in the changing of the year from spring, to summer, to fall, to winter, and back to spring--phases which correspond with the movement of the day into night, with the human life-cycle, and with the process of disillusionment. (It's unfortunate to point out to the senior alumni that we're down here on the downside of the cycle, along with Leviathan and the desert). In what was probably his most influential and widely-accepted contribution to criticism, Frye distinguished four basic, pre-generic plot types: comedy, where the movement is from complications and difficulties into marriage and the birth of a new society; romance, whose action takes place in a summer world where ordinary laws are suspended; tragedy, which moves from a high point to death and defeat; and irony, imprisoned in a world below the human. These archetypal plots occur throughout the different historical modes, as do the character-types associated with them: thus the tricky servant in the plays of Plautus is reincarnated in the figure of our friend Jeeves, and the feast at the end of Roman comedy is still going strong in the last pages of Larry's Party.
Finally, and as somewhat of an anti-climax, the fourth essay in Anatomy discusses rhetorical criticism, in which literature is looked at according to the genres, such as epic, lyric, and satire.
Anatomy of Criticism was received with tremendous intellectual excitement, though by no means with universal assent. It ushered in that explosion of criticism which has made theory the dominant genre in the last half of the twentieth century. Some critics, appalled at its encyclopaedic subdivisions, balked at the thought that swallowing such an enormous pill was necessary for its salutary effects. Frye always denied the accusation that he was trying to make everyone accept his whole ‘system’ like a straightjacket; he remarked to an interviewer that perhaps he would ultimately be found less useful as a systemizer than as a quarry for later thinkers, “a kind of lumber-room for later generations...a resource person for anyone to explore and get ideas from.” He also declared his own indifference to his future reputation: “If posterity doesn't like me, the hell with posterity--I won't be living in it anyway.”
But perhaps the major criticism levelled was that the book minimized the writer's immediate involvement in and meaning for his society. The anagogic level was either ignored or disbelieved in, and Frye was criticized for suggesting an autonomous literary universe to be studied in and for itself, cut off from social history, from authorial imperatives, and from the realistic representation of the world. Criticisms of this sort ranged from Ezra Pound's reported, “Anagogical? Hell's bells, nobody knows what that is!” to the more magisterial words of a critic: “It is a dehistoricization and desocialization of life, ontologically a despecification.” The Frygian critic seemed a dry anatomist, utterly uninvolved in the needs of his readers for guidance and wisdom and of his society for literary culture.
The criticism of remoteness from ordinary society and its concerns, applied to Frye himself as a critic, was radically unjust: even at the time of Anatomy he was deeply involved in Canadian culture. He worked out his critical principles from his study of William Blake, but he honed them on Canadian poetry: and not Canadian poetry as we have it today, but Canadian poetry of the pre-Atwood era. For ten years, from 1951 to 1960, he wrote the Poetry in English section of the University of Toronto Quarterly's annual survey of Canadian literature. To produce this he had to read virtually all the poetry published during the preceding twelve months--a mixed bag, as you can imagine. Wit and word-play abound in Frye's reviews, whatever might be said of the poems. For instance, “One can get as tired of buttocks in Mr. Layton as of buttercups in the Canadian Poetry Magazine.” Of the book First Flowering, which collected high-school poets, he remarked that none of these youngsters was likely to become a professional poet. “If there were any such, the book, for them, would be better entitled First Deflowering.”
As a reviewer, Frye was not entirely bound by his own notorious stand against value-judgments, that the function of the academic critic is not to sit on high pronouncing whether a work is good or bad, but rather to see what the work is trying to do and how it relates to existing literature. Indeed, he bore witness to his less-noticed concession that value judgments are inevitable on one level, even though they may reflect only one's cultural conditioning. He hit upon some ingenious ways of commenting on poems that were unlikely to be keepers. “Arthur Bourinot's The Treasures of the Snow affects a very short line which would be well adapted for bringing out rhythmical subtleties if there were more subtleties to bring out.” “Of [the books] in the check-list below, some achieve a certain uniform competence, . . . but otherwise there is nothing for a reviewer to say except to hope that they will find their audience.” Edna Jaques was one of the most popular poets of the time. “The opening lines of her book indicate her mastery of the central technical device of nostalgic verse, a list of reminders or stimuli, vigorously checked off one after the other:
The strong clean smell of yellow soap,
A farmer plowing with a team,
The taste of huckleberry pie
A pan of milk with wrinkled cream.
No, if this kind of thing is worth writing, Miss Jaques is certainly the person who knows best how to write it, and all our poets who are ambitious of belonging to the ‘conservative’ or ‘romantic’ school should learn about nostalgia from her.”
In spite of such equivocations, necessary to one who was expected to comment on every offering, he kept in mind that his primary function was to elucidate. In his Canadian reviews he showed that reading current poetry is an essential cultural activity, “the poetic conversation of cultivated people,” and thus he helped to build up a reading public that would allow an indigenous, mature literature to flower.
Theoretically, too, Frye elaborated on the social role of literature in studies of the relation between the poet, or the critic, and his society. Though he continued to produce a stream of practical criticism--books on Shakespeare, Milton, and T.S. Eliot, articles on the Renaissance, Yeats, Joyce, Samuel Butler, and numerous others--he also wrote books like The Well-Tempered Critic and The Critical Path (1971). In the latter, subtitled An essay on the social context of literary criticism, he introduced a new terminology and a new twist to the word ‘myth.’ Frye saw a constant dialectic in human history between the myth of concern and the myth of freedom. The myth of concern is society's central mythology, the body of what it believes as a society and what holds it together. Later Frye split it into primary concern, essentials like food, sex, property, and freedom of movement, and secondary concern, the structures of religion, politics, and ideology. The myth of freedom is the liberal, generally scientific opposition which criticizes the myth of concern from an individualistic point of view. Poets, Frye says, are basically children of concern in that they address mankind's enduring hopes and fears. No longer, of course, do they speak for a central mythology generally shared by society. Instead of the myth of concern that society offers, which tends to conformity and received ideas, literature offers a blueprint of concern which is hypothetical, incorporates the questionings of the myth of freedom, and is not to be believed in implicitly but held in the mind as an imaginative model. Viewed as a whole (and here you'll notice the anagogic level of Anatomy reappearing) literature presents a total body of possible belief, a ‘great code’ of concern or vision of society that the critic explicates.
Frye's interest in the social context of literature led him to consider increasingly the role of language in all its aspects, literary and non-literary, in constituting human culture; latterly he tended to define himself as a ‘cultural critic’ rather than a ‘literary critic.’ His two last weighty books, The Great Code in 1981, and Words with Power in 1990, both begin with expositions of the theory of language that respond to the explosion of linguistics and semiotics in the previous decades. Language is seen to go through three phases, the metaphorical, the dialectical, and the descriptive, corresponding roughly to an age of stories, an age of reasoned argument, and an age of science. Literature keeps alive the earliest, metaphoric phase of language, and in his last works Frye delved into the basic source for those metaphors in the Bible. (I'm sure some of you became acquainted with this in your RK Option course.) Again there are two aspects, the cyclical and the dialectical. Looked at as a plot, or mythos, the Bible is a comedy: it gives the history of mankind, under the name of Israel, from creation in paradise, through a fall into time and encroaching darkness, to apocalypse and the regaining of paradise, with a series of falls and recoveries in between. Seen dialectically, its imagery falls into the two categories, mentioned before, of apocalyptic and demonic imagery.
Ultimately, all these figures can be identified with a single figure, which is Christ. This human figure is both the fulfilled individual and the giant form of his society. In Paul's words, “So we, being many, are one body in Christ;” in Frye's interpretation, “the community with which the individual is identical is no longer a whole of which he is a part, but another aspect of himself.” Frye's Return of Eden ends with “the realization that there is only one man, one mind, and one world, and that all walls of partition have been broken down forever.” Frye is not inculcating religious doctrine here, since from a literary point of view ‘belief’ in Christ is not in question. Rather he is pointing out that mankind's imagination culminates in a single human figure who is both one and many, the individual glorified as his social body.
Those of you familiar with Blake will recognize that Frye has come full circle. Blake's universe is populated by mighty figures--the human imagination as the chained Los, a vengeful God as the stern Urizen. For Blake it is the local that becomes the universal, not some construct abstracted from many locals and resembling none; he believed in the radiance of the particular--a world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour. In so stating, I too hope to have come full circle, recalling my opening question of the relation of the individual to his society. Society--that is, a real society, is the fulfilment of the individual, not an obliteration of him or her.
A corollary to this doctrine is the importance of roots, of starting from one particular time and place. Where you are, Frye would say, can be the centre of the universe, with the circumference the reach of the imagination, potentially infinite. This may recall Frye's famous remark that the question in Canadian literature was not so much ‘Who am I?’ as ‘Where is here?’ Successful literatures are apt to be regional, rooted in a particular place such as Faulkner's southern states or Margaret Laurence's Manawaka. In individual terms, you belong to something before you are something; from the moment you draw breath you are defined by sex, class, nationality. Growing up is a long and arduous process of what Jung would call individuation. It involves certainly escaping the uncritical acceptance of the norms of society and transcending the limitations of sex, class, and so on. But the goal of the process is not an isolated individual but a social being, one with ties to all of mankind.
This brings us naturally to Frye's educational theories. He lived through exciting times for education. When he began teaching, the Ontario government was just being influenced by the tail end of the progressive or Deweyite movement, with its demand for a more useful and practical curriculum geared for ‘life’ and involving ‘the whole child.’ Later, after Russia launched its Sputnik, he weathered the demand for an increasingly technological education geared towards tangible scientific achievement. Still later came the upheavals of the 60s and 70s, with radical student demands for ‘relevance’ and complete freedom to design one's own curriculum. Frye was actually spending a term as visiting lecturer at Berkeley when the first violent student unrest broke out in the spring of 1969, leading him to say that the student radicals reminded him of a sentence in an old cook-book: “Brains are very perishable, and unless frozen or pre-cooked, should be used as soon as possible.” And finally there was the outcry over ‘the canon,’ and the rejection of all those miserable dead white males who wrote the great books. Frye's response was consistently to defend the values of a traditional, disinterested liberal education. “An arts degree is useless,” he would say, “if it isn't, it isn't worth a damn.”
Frye saw that the student came to university stuffed with the clichés and received ideas of a society that was essentially unreal and phantasmagoric. Fads come and go, an endless line of consumer goods are consumed or thrown away, politicians are assassinated, millions mourn a Diana they never knew. For four years, the student could withdraw himself from this society, and concentrate on the more stable forms proffered by mankind's achievements in the arts and sciences: on what Frye called the authority of the logical argument, the repeatable experiment, the compelling imagination. The student of literature engages with that total order of words that I sketched earlier, which provides a model for man's work and suggests a notional society, classless and enlightened; in fact the title of one of Frye's educational pieces is “We are teaching a vision of society.”
Frye's rather subdued, egoless presence as a teacher is therefore deliberate: he aimed at being a transparent medium between student and work. The source of authority in the classroom is not the teacher but the writer being studied, and the impersonal authority of the subject itself. He went so far as to say that the relation between teacher and student was rather an embarrassing one, and that the best moments in the classroom were those in which it was obliterated by a joint vision of the subject. In the light of this glimpsed vision provided by culture, the student will be a radical critic of what is: far from becoming a ‘well-rounded’ individual, with its comfortable overtones of contentment and softness, he is likely to be maladjusted and crochety. Like Socrates, the teacher has for his aim that of corrupting youth.
Sometimes Frye wondered if it was too late, when a student reached university, to influence his mind, already pre-programmed by TV and advertisements. He became involved then in schemes for earlier education, helping to found a Curriculum Institute in which university professors joined with elementary and high school teachers to suggest improvements in the curriculum, and later overseeing the production of a series of English readers for grades 7 to 13. His ideal early childhood education began with rhythm and chant and fantastic stories, with the enduring narratives of the Bible and classical myth, and encompassed at ever deeper levels the narratives of comedy and romance, tragedy and irony. His concern was to keep the imagination in play, for only through imagination could the individual think metaphorically and engage in the play of mind through language that constructed reality in human form.
Such was his notion of the mature individual in relation to his conditioning: and what of Frye himself? The particular milieu he was born into was middle-class, white, Canadian, and Methodist. Methodists were supposed to undergo a ‘conversion,’ the defining experience of their lives, when they are convinced of their utter sinfulness and of God's ability to forgive them. It's typical of Frye that he underwent an anti-conversion: having been brought up by a church-going mother, at the age of about 15, walking to school, as he put it, “the whole shitty, smelly garment of fundamentalism dropped off into the sewer and stayed there,” and he realized that he had never really believed in the vengeful God who threw the bad guys into hell and rewarded the godly with a permanent spot in the heavenly choir. Nevertheless, he remained within the Protestant tradition, imbued with its Bible culture, its radical individualism, its emphasis on the spirit. He trained as a minister, then, when it became apparent that he was temperamentally unsuited to the ministry, taught at the originally Methodist college of Victoria, and sought all his life to define a religion that did justice to man's spirituality without falling into what he saw as superstitious idolatry.
The religion he defined was radical to say the least; by the time of his last book, The Double Vision, he had virtually jettisoned the ideas of God the father, of the historical Jesus as an atoning figure, of the afterlife, of the creation as a historical event, and of the apocalypse as something that was likely to happen. As we might guess, they're all metaphors. What remains is the figure of Jesus, who is the creative principle within man linking man with the divine, and through whose vision man sees the eternal here and now. Often enough in his early years Frye felt the deficiency of the eternal at Victoria, with its endless fussing over locking the girls into residence by 11 p.m. and never serving a glass of wine; but, particularly as the multiversity developed, he stressed the vital importance of the church-based colleges with their specific traditions.
This is not to say that he was always at ease in his group. Colleagues remember him in the Senior Common Room, not talking but filling in the Times crossword puzzle, which he could complete in about half an hour. One professor recalls trying out a bit of conversation at lunch time the day after the big Quebec election: “Well, Norrie, what's the significance of the PQ victory?”, whereupon Norrie only snapped, “How the hell would I know?” and returned to eating his soup. Yet he always felt he, his colleagues, and his students formed a community and he enjoyed being part it, even to serving as its Principal for 9 years.
As for his Canadian identity, that was also something he cherished. He could no more be an American than he could be a Catholic, and he was true to his roots in not forsaking Canada for the more lucrative field of the U.S. According to his reading Canadians differed from the Americans both geographically and historically. In its history Canada had skipped over, intellectually speaking, the rational eighteenth century, and was always the home of a more Tory, less revolutionary attitude than the American. Geographically, Canada lacked an eastern seaboard where settlement was concentrated, and the immense distances stretching out between isolated towns led to a garrison mentality in regard to nature. Such speculations on the nature of Canadianness, along with essays on Canadian painting and literary figures from Haliburton to Ethel Wilson, will occupy two volumes of the Collected Works. Perhaps the chief piece will be the conclusion he wrote to the Literary History of Canada, of which he was an editor. It was one of the most satisfying aspects of his life to see Canadian literature, which was still a provincial backwater when he began, flower into the magnificent literature that we have now--a development that arguably owes something to his efforts.
Frye once defined the Canadian genius as the ability to produce strange hybrids, such as the University of Toronto in education, the United Church in religion, and Confederation in politics. He himself has some of this Canadian characteristic of contrasting entities strangely combined: the local teacher and the world celebrity, the committed Christian and the man who didn't know whether Christ ever existed and didn't think it much mattered, the believer in community and the shy introvert, the eloquent speaker and the tongue-tied conversationalist. On this showing, he himself was one of our most characteristic as well as our most famous products.