When Francesca Valente decided to come to Toronto from her native Italy in 1977 to do a master’s degree in Canadian literature, her friends from university thought she’d lost her good sense, opting to voyage into what they thought of as a cultural wasteland.
But Valente and her friends were in for a surprise: while at U of T, she got the chance to study under the globally renowned literary critic and theorist Northrop Frye, one of the 20th century’s most quoted, most lionized thinkers.
Valente calls Frye “the Maestro” to this day, 21 years after his death. She says he inspired her to make culture – and especially literature – the centre of her varied post–U of T career. Over the years, she has arranged literary readings, art exhibits and academic conferences – and translated several of Frye’s works into Italian. The latter endeavour she undertook purely out of love for his writing, she says, since for translation, “you get paid enough to buy a pair of stockings.”
Valente was not alone in being inspired by Frye. He was one of those teachers who often altered the direction of individual students’ lives. The longtime English professor (one of U of T’s longest serving) overcame his natural shyness sufficiently to give Margaret Atwood some personal advice when she earned her BA in 1961 – “deflecting” her, she said recently, from her “bohemian plans” to run away to Europe.
“He knew of my writerly ambitions, and gave it as his opinion that I would probably get more writing done at Harvard than by drudging away as a waitress in Paris or London, while drinking absinthe and smoking myself to death.”
The advice gives a sense of how deeply Frye valued what the academy had to offer: discipline for the mind and fodder for the creative soul.
Certainly, he himself always flourished in academe – both as a student at U of T and at Oxford University during the Depression, and then as a professor. While teaching at U of T’s Victoria College from 1939 to near his death in 1991, he published many books and scholarly articles about the literary greats, modern and antique, parsing the likes of Shakespeare, James Joyce, Emily Dickinson, Baldassare Castiglione, T.S. Eliot and William Blake. He didn’t limit himself to a particular period, national literature or genre – he grandly took the whole of literature as his subject.
As if wrestling with the giants wasn’t enough, he also sought to reform the whole project of literary criticism, wanting to turn it into a quasi-scientific discipline. For this, he was called – sometimes reverently, sometimes not – the Einstein of criticism. His 1957 work, Anatomy of Criticism, sought to show how every story ever told could be fit into four essential moulds. Further, the book analyzed literature in light of psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s work with archetypes, arguing that certain common symbols and figures populate all of literature, from folktales and ancient myths to contemporary novels.
It sounds, perhaps, to the general-interest reader like difficult stuff – and it is – but Frye’s writing is at least not opaque. He made a religion of clarity and turned out lucid, stylish sentence after lucid, stylish sentence. The complexity was always in the thought, not the prose.
“In a way that some academics are not, Frye was a writer,” says University Professor Emeritus Edward Chamberlin, a former grad student of Frye’s. Valente agrees: “I had to try to live up to his beautiful sentences when I was translating them.”