Northrop Frye

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Northrop Frye : biography

July 14, 1912 – January 23, 1991

Contribution to the theorizing of Canada

Frye’s international reputation allowed him to champion Canadian literature at a time when to do so was considered provincial. Frye argued that regardless of the formal quality of the writing, it was imperative to study Canadian literary productions in order to understand the Canadian imagination and its reaction to the Canadian environment.

During the 1950s, Frye wrote annual surveys of Canadian poetry for the University of Toronto Quarterly, which led him to observe recurrent themes and preoccupations in Canadian poetry. Subsequently, Frye elaborated on these observations, especially in his conclusion to Carl F. Klinck's Literary History of Canada (1965). In this work, Frye presented the idea of the "garrison mentality" as the attitude from which Canadian literature has been written. The garrison mentality is the attitude of a member of a community that feels isolated from cultural centres and besieged by a hostile landscape. Frye maintained that such communities were peculiarly Canadian, and fostered a literature that was formally immature, that displayed deep moral discomfort with "uncivilized" nature, and whose narratives reinforced social norms and values. 

Frye collected his disparate writings on Canadian writing and painting in The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (1971). He coined phrases like "the Garrison Mentality", a theme that summarizes Canadian Literature. Margaret Atwood adopted his approach and elaborated on this in her book Survival (1972).Marc A. Bauch: Canadian Self-Perception and Self-Representation in English-Canadian Drama after 1967. Wiku-Verlag, Köln 2012. ISBN 3-865534-07-4 Frye also aided James Polk in compiling Divisions on a Ground: Essays on Canadian Culture (1982).For a critical discussion on Canadianness see: Marc A. Bauch: Canadian Self-Perception and Self-Representation in English-Canadian Drama after 1967. Wiku-Verlag, Köln 2012. ISBN 3-865534-07-4 In the posthumous Collected Works of Northrop Frye, his writings on Canada occupy the thick 12th volume.

Based on his observations of Canadian literature, Frye concluded that, by extension, Canadian identity was defined by a fear of nature, by the history of settlement and by unquestioned adherence to the community. However, Frye perceived the ability and advisability of Canadian (literary) identity to move beyond these characteristics. Frye proposed the possibility of movement beyond the literary constraints of the garrison mentality: growing urbanization, interpreted as greater control over the environment, would produce a society with sufficient confidence for its writers to compose more formally advanced detached literature.