Northrop Frye’s Student Essays

Ed. by Robert D. Denham

Northrop Frye’s assured standing as one of the 20th century’s greatest literary critics is easy to explain: His criticism of literature came out of his reading and experience of literature. He did not come to a text with an abstract political or aesthetic theory that could be slapped on like a coat of paint. The archetypes and historical modes that he described were patterns he found in literature, they were not something forced upon it. Later critical theories have not been as well grounded, and have tended to come and go like flavours of the week.

This selection is the third volume in the series of Frye’s Collected Works. The topics range from Orphism to Romanticism, and from St. Augustine to Wyndham Lewis.

It is easy to forget that the author of these essays was only in his early twenties. The system-building that characterizes such works as The Anatomy of Criticism is already well under way, and the writing itself is full of Frye’s familiar confident rhythm.

Intellectual influences are more obvious in student writing and these papers make it clear who the young Frye was learning from (Frazer and Spengler come up a lot) and who he was not (Freud is out). Since most of the essays were written for courses at Emmanuel College, the divinity school at the University of Toronto, there is an emphasis on the interpenetration of literature and religious thought – a theme that would dominate most of Frye’s later work.

Finally, it is a pity that this and the other volumes of Frye’s Collected Works seem to have been targeted solely at university libraries. It would be nice if a reasonably priced selection of the unpublished essays, student writings, and letters were made available to the public.

Review first published May 16, 1998. The price of this book was $95.00.


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