A Chat with Northrop Frye

A Chat with Northrop Frye

In the Fall of 1977, I interviewed the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye for a McGill history magazine I had just founded. He had come to Montreal to give a talk on “Culture as Interpenetration” at the assembly of the International Council on Philosophy and Humanistic Studies.

Besides giving me a brief overview of the Anatomy of Criticism (a book which has since had a major impact on me), Northrop Frye politely answered my somewhat agitated undergraduate questions as best he could. Here is some of what he said at the time.


Q: Do you think you could describe what is the desire for learning?

A: What is the desire for learning? Well, Aristotle said all men by nature have a desire to know – in other words there is something built in to the human psyche.

Q: Do you think the present educational system succeeds in trying to increase this desire?

N: No, I think it works chiefly towards frustrating it.

Q: And why is that?

A: I think for one thing the educational system is in the hands of a bureaucracy which has been trained to hate and distrust all forms of education, and which has a political outlet which is really a kind of mob rule – it insists on levelling everything down, whereas the point about democracy is that it’s supposed to level up, and as a result the natural intelligence and curiosity of young people is, I think, thwarted by an educational programme that keeps attenuating and watering down the whole educational content.

Q: What do you think is the place of the creative imagination in the study of history?

A: In the study of history? Well, I suppose the role of the creative imagination is to see things in patterns which give meaning to facts; that is, in the eighteenth century when Gibbon got the notion of writing a Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that was intended to be a history, but the phrase “decline and fall” indicates the mythical feeling that he had about it, and that was what determined his choice of materials, and I don’t think that any history is likely to be read for a very long time unless it is presented in terms of an imaginative pattern of that kind. And actually the way that history comes to people is through these large, almost apocalyptic patterns of Spengler, Vico, Toynbee, that sort of thing.

Q: But not much attention is usually given to these broad views of history in universities, is it?

A: I think it reaches the general public rather more effectively than the work of professional historians does. I am not so clear about the study of history in the university, which is very often of course guided by groups with their own special interests, and they choose their courses to fit their particular interests.

Q: You’ve been studying culture for many years now, as a concept and in its tangible forms. How has your idea of culture changed in view of changes we’ve had in our country over the years?

A: I’m not sure my conception of culture itself has changed a great deal. I’ve become more and more aware of the importance of the culture that Canada has produced as a way of getting to understand Canada. When I first began to look at Canadian literature, I thought of it in terms of what it then very largely was, that is a provincial offshoot of European literature. Since then, I’ve come to realize more and more that the arts give you a sense of the country that nothing else can do…. We participate in a society through our imagination, and it’s the poets and the painters and the novelists who tell us what Canada looks like from the imagination’s point of view, and consequently this tells you something about Canadian society, the Canadian landscape, the Canadian set-up that we can’t get any other way….

Culture is different from political and economic developments in that political and economic developments tend to unify and centralize and they also tend to homogenize, whereas culture depends on decentralizing, on having relatively small communities – they’re not the artist’s market, but they’re the environment that he lives in. And the proliferation of ethnic groups in Canada I think is of immense cultural advantage. I’ve seen that happen in Toronto in the forty years that I’ve lived there. I’ve seen it grow since the end of the war from a very homogeneous Anglo-Saxon town to a very cosmopolitan city, and the cultural advance has been spectacular, and that’s the reason why, or the main reason.

Q: Do you think that different ethnic groups survive because they stay very strongly ethnic and preserve themselves in that way, or do you think they become Canadian and contribute as Canadians….

A: Those things tend to grow in cycles, don’t they? I mean, the general pattern is that the immigrant arrives not speaking much English or French; the next generation goes all out to adapt themselves to Canada; and then the generation after that begins to rediscover something of their ancestral heritage. But it seems to me a peculiarity of culture that the question of whether they should express their ethnic heritage or something in Canada is really not an either/or question at all. The whole point about culture is that it is an expression of a distinctive kind of small community within a larger context…. I’ve said in my published writings that unity is the opposite of uniformity. That is, you don’t get a “Canadian” vision which is the 100% orthodox kind, from which those who don’t share it are excluded. It’s a unity that is made up of a great variety of things….

The development of literary culture in English Canada since 1960 has been absolutely phenomenal. I would never have believed – and I was following Canadian poetry very closely through the Fifties – that you would get the vast spate of poetry and fiction, of scholarly writing too since 1960 that we’ve had. And that points I think to a considerable cultural vitality on the part of a people which have a great many cultural handicaps. With French Canada of course there has always been more of a specific function ascribed to literature and painting because the literature in particular was in defence of a beleaguered and threatened language, so it’s obviously important to keep producing a literature…. Canada provides a cultural context in which French-Canadian culture can not only have the great tradition it has, but can also have an almost unlimited future. But I think that once a culture becomes an instrument of cultural policy, its integrity goes.


This chat with Northrop Frye took place 43 years ago. I remember going to Heinemann’s bookshop on McTavish Street the day before, and actually asking another shopper if he could spare 17¢, because I didn’t quite have enough change to buy a paperback copy of Anatomy of Criticism! The shopper fortunately said sure, seeing as I was going to interview Frye the next day. Then I raced home to read the book!

I was glad the next day to get a masterful overview from Northrop Frye of his daunting theory of modes, symbols, myths and genres, and his distinctions about comedy and tragedy.

With hindsight, I wonder now whether Northrop Frye wasn’t the first person to warn me of the dangers of either/or thinking.

He also spoke eloquently about the role of the creative imaginative in forming what we see, of culture as addressing a distinct and relatively small community, and of the educational system as a form of mob rule orchestrated by bureaucrats who hate and distrust education, and end up thwarting the curiosity and intelligence of students!

And then there is that last remark: “But I think once a culture becomes an instrument of cultural policy, its integrity goes.” That is, in fact, a huge problem in Canada, which has a tradition of government-subsidized culture, where bureaucrats at all levels set the country’s cultural agenda, treating artists as pawns who sink or swim based on governmental policy objectives.

I sometimes wonder if the Canadian definition of artist is “someone who qualifies for arts funding.”

Born in Sherbrooke, Quebec in 1912, Northrop Frye died in Toronto in 1991.


The photo at the top of this blog, showing Northrop Frye on a bench at Victoria College, University of Toronto, was taken by Maksim Sokolov.


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