Northrop Frye

By: Tom Nealon
July 14, 2009


Before NORTHROP FRYE (1912-91) there was no Literary Theory, only criticism. He blasted a place for the former, as a distinct field of study — first with Fearful Symmetry (1947) and then decisively with Anatomy of Criticism (1957) — in the no-man’s land between literature and philosophy, art and humanity. Not only did he manifest Literary Theory, he bathed it in fire — sanctified it — leaving nothing petty: no arbitrary hierarchies of taste, no canonical lists. The navel-gazing New Critics were appalled: to suggest that there was something beyond the text, beyond the solitary and shimmering genius of the poet, was anathema to them. It was bad enough that the Marxists were banging at the gate, but Frye, with his underlying structures, archetypes, and scientific approach, was beyond the pale. His was not criticism for cocktail parties: he didn’t tear down, he elevated — not only criticism but literature, and also the reader. And if he elevated the act of criticism, he also removed it from acting on literature. Though critics before and since have practiced it as a form of surgery, sometimes an evisceration, for Frye criticism was always an elucidation, an attempt to give voice… not to what the author intended, encoded, but instead to an expression of the continuous myth embedded in the great writings of humankind.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: | Woody Guthrie | Angelique Kidjo | Gerald Finzi |

READ MORE about members of the Original Generation X (1954–1963).


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