The Collected Works of Northrop Frye

Written for English Studies at Toronto, Fall/Winter 2001. Reproduced with permission.

Many readers of this bulletin will have encountered Northrop Frye in some capacity during their Toronto years, whether as gruff and thought-provoking lecturer, subway traveller, witty colleague, uncomfortable conversationalist, or dignitary gracing major occasions with his inspiring words. Like his personal image, his scholarly reputation has varied with the years. Hailed after the publication of Anatomy of Criticism in 1957 as an intellectual giant opening up a new era in criticism, and enjoying a growing international reputation in the 1960s, he tended to be swept aside in the 1970s and 1980s in the tide of scorn for all things structured and centred. But Frye has proved to have staying power. Though it now seems unlikely that archetypal criticism will provide the theoretical foundation for a general science of criticism in the way that Frye once hoped, there is a growing appreciation for the permanent value of his insights—an appreciation never lost by the Canadian public at large, as the constant sales of his books and quotations of his words attest. Frye’s brilliantly written works will always command attention for their exploration of the human condition as expressed in literature, culture, and myth. The time is ripe, we hope, for the collected works now being issued by the University of Toronto Press.

The project has grown from its modest beginnings in 1993 thanks to grants from the Michael G. DeGroote family through McMaster University, from SSHRC, and from Victoria University. Housed in the Northrop Frye Centre at Victoria, it now has a considerable staff: an unpaid general editor (Alvin A. Lee), half-time associate editor (Jean O’Grady), two half-time editorial assistants (Margaret Burgess and Ward McBurney), two part-time graduate research assistants, and an undergraduate scanner. This staff is responsible for the production of an estimated 31 volumes by 2007. Some of the volumes are edited in-house, while the rest are assigned to prominent scholars from Canada, the United States, and Australia. In these cases the staff prepares an accurate text on disk before sending it to the editor for notes and an extensive introduction. When the annotated text is returned, the staff then checks and evaluates it, brings the style into conformity with the guidelines laid down for the edition, submits it to the Press for peer review, and eventually prepares an index.

The Collected Works is not a fully critical edition listing all variants to the copy-text, but rather a reading edition in which the typographic details have been made uniform. (In fact, Frye did not usually revise his meticulously prepared pieces once they had appeared in print, so variants would be few.) Nevertheless, the editors take care to choose the best copy-text and to list all substantive editorial changes to this. One of the satisfactions of the work comes when we can correct some hitherto unnoticed typographical error in the text, often by comparing the printed version with Frye’s typescript in the Northrop Frye Fonds at Victoria University Library. In The Great Code, for instance, Frye appeared to be describing the revolutionary vision of human life as “a casting off to tyranny and exploitation,” whereas what he actually wrote was that it was a casting off of such tyranny.

For the purposes of our editorial plan, Frye’s works fall into two groups. The first, whose production is centred at Toronto, comprises works published or speeches given in Frye’s lifetime, which are being issued in thematic volumes such as Northrop Frye on Canada or Northrop Frye’s Essays on Shakespeare and the Renaissance. This division into volumes has not been easy, since Frye often covers a range of topics, but we hope to have provided serviceable groupings, such as those that gather together all the writings on Milton and Blake, or all the writings on twentieth-century culture. These volumes combine the familiar with the arcane: Frye’s well-known “On Teaching Literature,” for instance, is given practical backing in the volume on education by his address to the Ontario Curriculum Institute, while his shorter writings on the Bible in the volume on religion are followed by a number of his public prayers and sermons.

There is enough in these ‘previously published’ volumes to keep a reader entertained for years, but Frye left more: a huge archive of more personal papers, including diaries, some letters, jottings on different genres and authors, and especially the notebooks in which he worked out the schemes for his books. One might well question whether these materials should be added to a collected works, and indeed whether the moral right exists to do so. It seems clear, though, that Frye, like many eighteenth-century letter writers, wrote with eventual publication in mind. His 1952 diary has the telling remark that these days “a man has to die and leave a diary behind before what he has to say can be published at all, if he thinks in an unconventional form.” Before his death he deposited these materials in the Northrop Frye Fonds rather than destroying them. He then gave permission to edit his correspondence to his bibliographer, Professor Robert D. Denham of Roanoke University in Virginia, and his former teaching assistant Professor Michael Dolzani of Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio. After his death the Frye estate granted Denham the right to edit and publish all of the unpublished papers. Fortunately Denham agreed to be part of the Collected Works project; he and Dolzani are responsible for 11 of the volumes. Denham has transcribed well over a million words of Frye’s crabbed handwriting and fine typing himself but, once annotated, his volumes go through the same process of checking and indexing at the Centre as the others.

These volumes of previously unpublished material should produce a revolution in the way Frye is perceived. The youthful letters between himself and Helen Kemp Frye (vols. 1-2) have already delighted and amazed many, Northrop Frye in love being a drama more improbable than Shakespeare’s. His diaries, dating from 1942 to 1955 (vol. 8, forthcoming) show among many aspects an acerbic, prickly colleague who complained of Victoria’s “corniness”; a churchman who thought churchgoing a waste of time; an analyzer of his own dreams searching for archetypes among the detritus of the day; and a surprisingly sociable friend. His notebooks (vols. 5-6 and others) reveal not only the Herculean labours Frye went through in shaping his books, but also the vast intellectual structure behind them, only a fraction of which ever reached published form. These all-encompassing attempts to organize human knowledge and culture, in which social contract and Utopia, subject and object, apocalypse and fall, enter into manifold patterns under the signs of Adonis, Prometheus, Hermes, and Eros, make the much-divided wheel of genres in the Fourth Essay of Anatomy look like simplicity itself. Here we see Frye engaging with the thought of the deconstructionists and linguists in a far more direct manner than in his published works. These unpublished documents, which show how much Frye still has to contribute to contemporary understanding, also reveal that he was even more varied and paradoxical than we had realized.

—Jean O'Grady