My Life with Northrop Frye
Anyone involved with Canadian literature is bound to find herself wondering, during those rare moments she isn’t contemplating the unrepentant piracy of Google Books or the general chaos of the digital age, if our traditional absorption with nationalism is still relevant in the new global culture of migrancy. She might also wonder how to assess the huge number of texts in both prose and poetry that depend, for full comprehension, on a reader’s familiarity with earlier work written elsewhere. Where do you look for our identity these days? And is it different from what it has ever been
A preliminary consideration of this topic suggests that it falls into roughly three periods: the colonial period, in which the concern is with originality of content, the modern period, obsessed by originality of form, and the contemporary period, in which the preoccupation is with establishing the canon. The boundaries of these periods overlap significantly, as they always do in the history of all aesthetic and ideological movements, but for the purposes of argument let’s say that the first period covers the first hundred years or so, the second the next eighty, and the last, the last fifty. The terms by which works are evaluated differs in these periods, but the underlying preoccupation is the same: to establish a national literature capable of being evaluated by international standards and, at the same time, expressive of the particular culture of this country. This goal is consistent from generation to generation; what changes is belief in the appropriate means by which this goal may be attained.
One of the very first anglophone poets in Quebec, J. Mackay, tackles the issue head on when he writes in “Quebec Hill” (1797):
The lawns of Virgil, and his silvan shade,
Tho’ in the poet’s choicest colours clad,
Should here confess description more sublime,
Could my weak numbers emulate the clime.
Mackay expects approval for his evocation of Virgil; he assumes a literate audience will understand not only the import of what he is saying, but also be disposed well towards a writer who seeks to model himself upon a great classical poet. The Virgil reference gives him credibility; it implies that he’s done his apprenticeship with the best teachers. So we find the same confident evocation of authority in the preface another English resident of Quebec, Thomas Cary, wrote for his 1789 poem, “Abram’s Plains” Rather than boasting of his inventiveness and originality in writing a loco-descriptive poem set in the new territory of Quebec, he sought cultural legitimacy by appealing to impeccable models:
Before I began this Poem I read Pope’s Windsor-Forest and Dr. Goldsmith’s Deserted Village, with the view of endeavouring, in some degree, to catch their manner of writing; as singers in country-churches in England, to use a simple musical comparison, modulate their tones by the prelusive sound of a pitch-pipe. How far I have succeeded I must leave to my readers to determine; trusting, however, for a favourable decision more to their good-nature than to my deserts.
But there was precious little of the “good nature” Cary counted on among critics of early Canadian literature. Indeed, many argued that poets of his generation were inferior because they were colonial; that is, that they were not simply decent minor poets, but rather that they were meretricious ones: that their project of translating English literary culture to this side of the Atlantic was itself stupid, misguided, and doomed to failure. In a sense, they were found to be worse poets because they were Canadian than they would have been had they written the same poetry back in England!
Now how could that be? Well, A.J.M Smith spoke for many back in 1948 when he defined colonialism as “a spirit that gratefully accepts a place of subordination, that looks elsewhere for its standards of excellence and is content to imitate.”[i] But oddly enough, this is a line of attack that has continued unabated to this day. To quote just a few of dozens of examples, in 1958, R. E. Rashley stated that:
The chief characteristic of the pioneer’s environment, as revealed in his poetry, is its externality, the result of his failure to transmute the physical world into the world of idea … Since the immigrant’s world of idea is formulated elsewhere and his language is the most suitable vehicle for storing and modifying and handling it, he is handicapped in dealing with a new country. [ii]
In 1974, Peter Stevens’ entry on “Canada” in Literatures of the World in English declared that nineteenth-century Canadian poets “do not appear to be really seeing the landscape before their eyes … Most of them model their poems on the Romantic responses of the English poets of the nineteenth century, and such responses are not viable in the new world.” [iii] In 1975, Sandra Djwa’s essay “Canadian Poets and the Great Tradition,” while conceding that Cary’s preface provides the “most attractive rationale for the general practice of literary imitation,” nonetheless found all Canadian poetry before Pratt to be both overly indebted to English literary models, and directed too narrowly towards an English audience.[iv] In 1982, Diana M.A. Relke depreciates “Moodie’s attempt to create literature out of her pioneer experience in the language of Victorian Romanticism, a language decidedly inappropriate to that experience.”[v] In 1992 we hear, yet again, that “even the best early poems were shackled by the imitative and awkwardly transposed modes and imagery of English Romantic poetry.”[vi]
All these critics concur that a failure of language and imagination has taken place, but none suggests where the right language is supposed to be found, if the voice of a writer in his or her own day is deemed inauthentic! Ultimately, such arguments defeat their own purpose, because, as the authors of The Empire Writes Back point out, emphasizing the inadequacy of an imported tongue to describe the new world “might be seen to encourage an assumption that a language somehow may be inherently inappropriate for use in another place. This suggests an essentialism which, taken to its logical extreme, would deny the very possibility of post-colonial literatures in english [sic].” [vii]
To ignore the conventionality of all language and literature is to imply that new ways of seeing and describing the world ought to have been generated spontaneously as soon as immigrants landed upon these shores. But what experience of life, language or literature suggests that it would have been possible for any writer, from any country, at any time, to invent an altogether new way of writing poetry in such circumstances? And yet there is this chorus of voices booing their disapproval of all Canadian writers (preceding, of course, those of their own generation) for not have discovered their real, their true, their authentic Molson Canadian voice. Again, one has to ask why this view of our writers has become so entrenched.
Even Northrop Frye, who seems to concur entirely with early Canadian writers when he says that when “a poet is confronted by a new life or environment, the new life may suggest a new content, but obviously cannot provide him with a new form. The forms of poetry can be derived only from other poems”, goes on to argue with his modernist confreres that “echoes and influences are not a virtue in Canadian poetry, but one of its major weaknesses.”[viii] In another essay, he first enlists etymology to argue that “Originality is largely a matter of returning to origins, of studying and imitating the great poets of the past,” then disparages Canadian poetry for “all its echoes and imitations and second-hand ideas.” [ix] In neither case does he explain why imitation is bad for Canadian writers but good for English ones.
I am by no means the first to remark that Frye has an idiosyncratic view of the relationship between our poets and English literature; ignoring what writers actually have to say about the subject, he quickly attributes a sense of despair and homelessness to them that they themselves rarely, if ever, expressed! So Frye declares that:
To an English poet, the tradition of his own country and language proceeds in a direct chronological line down to himself, and that in its turn is part of a gigantic funnel of tradition extending back to Homer and the Old Testament. But to a Canadian, broken off from this linear sequence and having none of his own, the traditions of Europe appear as a kaleidoscopic whirl with no definite shape or meaning, but with a profound irony lurking in its varied and conflicting patterns.[x]
Let me go out on a limb here and suggest that what Frye is describing is not the situation of the Canadian poet but that of the Canadian critic. That is, he is describing his own predicament, at Victoria College of the University of Toronto, trying to more or less invent Canadian literary criticism, without a tradition behind him. It is odd, in a way that Frye, a person of such immense erudition, should feel so cut off; odd that he was so uncomfortable evaluating Canadian literature in the context of the larger culture of the west. For if you think about it, there was much less of a break between the early Canadian poets and their continental forbears than, for example, that between medieval poets and those of the Renaissance! And Frye ought to have recognized this better than anyone.
But the fact remains that he did feel cut off, he did feel disarmed of the best tools of his own critical tradition — and so did many of those who followed him. And it is this sense of foundering, of being ill-equipped after so many satisfying years of intellectual mastery, of not being as competent as one had thought, that accounts for the rather petulant tone of much Canadian criticism. People who had been able to rely on lots of solid critical precedents for their academic work in English literary criticism were cast into the void when they had to address the writers of their own country. And they didn’t like it very much.
Forgive me for outraging decorum by relating a personal anecdote, but I think you’ll find it germane to the topic under discussion. Anyhow, we all know that literature is just a higher form of gossip, and I am confident that my experience is representative rather than exceptional. OK, here goes. My book, The Picturesque & The Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape (which went on to win both the 1998 Gabrielle Roy Prize as the year’s best work of English literary criticism and the Raymond Klibansky prize as the year’s best work in the Humanities) was rejected by a certain well-known academic press, although they’d had it sitting around for three years through three changes of editors, although I had a legal contract, and although I’d revised it and received a publishing grant from the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program. Why was it rejected? In large part because, as their anonymous reviewer wrote, I “wasn’t nice to Northrop Frye”!
Now, my conscience on that score is altogether clear; I was unfailingly nice to Professor Frye! I was his student and also one of his teaching assistants. I bought him flowers, ate ice cream with him (he preferred strawberry), gave him signed copies of all my poetry books. Once I even boldly kissed his cheek and he hugged me right back. I admired him tremendously. Still do. But as a writer and a critic, I have no qualms about disagreeing with him. Moreover, I am confident that scholarly disagreement does him no dishonour; his accomplishment is secure enough that my questioning one aspect of his magisterial oeuvre will not displace him from the celestial library.
But once I’d placed my manuscript with a less skittish publisher, I started wondering: WHY is it verboten to criticize Northrop Frye? Why were people so cross with me? And I concluded that it’s because what he was saying — that Canadian literature was inauthentic because cut off from the sources of European culture — felt so right to people reading him that they accepted it for emotional reasons. Perhaps he himself said these things for emotional reasons: the same ones we all grew up with, feeling we were outsiders and observers rather than originators and therefore that everything we did must, by definition, be second-rate and second-hand. To revert to the personal again, I was born in 1953. Yet I never studied a single Canadian book in my entire academic career. Moreover, in elementary school I wrote jolly tales of children named Gillian and Simon, who played cricket and had sixpence to buy sherbet lemons and Brighton rock; in high school, overwrought imitations of D.H. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway encountering the life-force; in university, cryptic fragments imitating Joyce, Pound and Eliot confronting the wreckage of European culture. And so, probably, did all of you.
Northrop Frye knew this, and he absolved us of our sins by making alienation from ourselves not a personal flaw but a national character disorder. He was our Freud, and the profession’s loyalty to him is as ineradicable as psychiatry’s to its Father-confessor. Whether or not the Oedipus Complex actually exists is not something Freudians really want to confront; indeed, it seems to them almost beside the point. Similarly, few Canlit critics doubt the truth of Frye’s pronouncements about the Garrison Culture.
My Oedipal analogy is not entirely frivolous; what else can one think of when a contemporary critic like Paul Hjartarson argues that: “Literary criticism traces the figure of our desire. Our repeated desire as critics of Canadian literature has been to de/sire, to discover our own identity … and thereby release ourselves from our literary and cultural precursors … We desire a tradition to displace tradition.” [xi] Professor Hjartarson said this twenty years ago in a paper presented to the Learned Societies in 1982; one wonders, would he say the same thing today? Do we still desire to release ourselves from our cultural precursors? Or are we now post-structurally, meta-fictionally, post-colonially, dialogically, carnivalesquely, re-embracing tradition?
With so many of our best writers coming from outside Canada or from inside its aboriginal cultures, and with most having grown up secure in the knowledge that Canadian literature actually exists, have the terms of the debate changed? How can we assess Shawna Singh Baldwin or Rohinton Mistry, Eden Robinson or Tomson Highway, George Elliott Clarke or Anne Carson, according to the old dichotomies of native and cosmopolitan, Canadian or internationalist? These works are obviously transnational or multicultural, Canadian and Other. Does that mean that despite Bookers and Pulitzers and IMPACs and T.S. Eliots and Orange Prizes we are still avatars of colonialism, that “spirit that gratefully accepts a place of subordination, that looks elsewhere for its standards of excellence and is content to imitate”? Or does this suggest that perhaps our original insistence that Canadian literature could only be authentic if it contrived to have no reference to culture beyond our borders was itself a symptom of colonial insecurity?
© copyright Susan Glickman 2002
[i] Preface to The Book of Canadian Poetry: A Critical and Historical Anthology (2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 14.
[ii] Poetry in Canada: The First Three Steps (Toronto: Ryerson), 44.
[iii] Bruce King ed., (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul), 45.
[iv] Canadian Literature 65 (Summer 1975), 45.
[v] “Double Voice, Single Vision: A Feminist Reading of Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie,” Atlantis 9 (1983), 37.
[vi] Mari Peepre-Bordessa, “Hugh MacLennan: Literary Geographer of a Nation,” in A Few Acres of Snow: Literary and Artistic Images of Canada, Paul Simpson-Housley and Glen Norcliffe eds., Toronto: Dundurn, 1992, 17.)
[vii] Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, (London: Routledge, 1989), 27.
[viii] “Preface to an Uncollected Anthology” (1956), rpt. in The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (Toronto: Anansi, 1971), 173, 175.
[ix] “Canada and Its Poetry,” The Bush Garden, 136, 131.
[x] “Canada and Its Poetry,” 136.
[xi] Quoted by Barbara Godard in “Structuralism/ Post Structuralism: Language, Reality and Canadian Literature,” in Future Indicative: Literary Theory and Canadian Literature, John Moss ed., (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1987), 44.