Northrop Frye


Northrop Frye : biography

July 14, 1912 – January 23, 1991

Other accomplishments

  • edited fifteen books
  • composed essays and chapters that appear in over sixty books
  • wrote over one hundred articles and reviews in academic journals
  • from 1950 to 1960 he wrote the annual critical and bibliographical survey of Canadian poetry for Letters in Canada, University of Toronto Quarterly


Early life and education

Frye was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec but raised in Moncton, New Brunswick. He was the third child of Herman Edward Frye and Catherine Maud Howard.University of Toronto. . Victoria University Library Special Collections (F 11) Northrop Frye fonds. Retrieved on: November 30, 2008. His much older brother, Howard, died in World War 1 and he had a sister, Vera.. New Brunswick literary Encyclopedia Frye went to Toronto to compete in a national typing contest in 1929.Ayre, J. . The Canadian Encyclopedia Historica. He studied for his undergraduate degree at Victoria College in the University of Toronto. He then studied theology at Emmanuel College (which, like Victoria College, is a constituent part of the University of Toronto). After a brief stint as a student minister in Saskatchewan, he was ordained to the ministry of the United Church of Canada. He then studied at Merton College, Oxford, before returning to Victoria College, where he spent the remainder of his professional career.

Academic and writing career

Frye rose to international prominence as a result of his first book, Fearful Symmetry, published in 1947. Until then, the prophetic poetry of William Blake had long been poorly understood, considered by some to be delusional ramblings. Frye found in it a system of metaphor derived from Paradise Lost and the Bible. His study of Blake’s poetry was a major contribution. Moreover, Frye outlined an innovative manner of studying literature that was to deeply influence the study of literature in general. He was a major influence on, among others, Harold Bloom and Margaret Atwood.

In 1974–1975 Frye was the Norton professor at Harvard University.

Northrop Frye never had a Ph.D.

Canada’s intelligence service of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police spied on Frye, watching his participation in the anti-Vietnam War movement, an academic forum about China, and activism to end South African apartheid.

Family life

Frye married Helen Kemp, an educator, editor and artist, in 1937. She died in Australia while accompanying Frye on a lecture tour.University of Toronto. . Victoria University Library Special Collections (F12) Helen Kemp Frye fonds. Retrieved on: November 30, 2008. Two years after her death in 1986, he married Elizabeth Brown. He died in 1991 and was interred in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, Ontario.

Contribution to literary criticism

The insights gained from his study of Blake set Frye on his critical path and shaped his contributions to literary criticism and theory. He was the first critic to postulate a systematic theory of criticism, "to work out," in his own words, "a unified commentary on the theory of literary criticism" (Stubborn Structure 160). In so doing, he shaped the discipline of criticism. Inspired by his work on Blake, Frye developed and articulated his unified theory ten years after Fearful Symmetry, in the Anatomy of Criticism (1957). He described this as an attempt at a "synoptic view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism" (Anatomy 3). He asked, "what if criticism is a science as well as an art?" (7), Thus, Frye launched the pursuit which was to occupy the rest of his career—that of establishing criticism as a "coherent field of study which trains the imagination quite as systematically and efficiently as the sciences train the reason" (Hamilton 34).

Criticism as a science

As A. C. Hamilton outlines in Northrop Frye: Anatomy of his Criticism, Frye’s assumption of coherence for literary criticism carries important implications. Firstly and most fundamentally, it presupposes that literary criticism is a discipline in its own right, independent of literature. Claiming with John Stuart Mill that "the artist . . . is not heard but overheard," Frye insists that