Northrop Frye


Biography of Northrop Frye

Herman Northrop "Norrie" Frye (July 14, 1912 – January 23, 1991) was a Canadian literary critic and literary theorist, considered one of the most influential of the 20th century.

Frye gained international fame with his first book, Fearful Symmetry (1947), which led to the reinterpretation of the poetry of William Blake. His lasting reputation rests principally on the theory of literary criticism that he developed in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), one of the most important works of literary theory published in the twentieth century. American critic Harold Bloom commented at the time of its publication that Anatomy established Frye as "the foremost living student of Western literature." Frye's contributions to cultural and social criticism spanned a long career during which he earned widespread recognition and received many honours.

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. His much older brother, Howard, died in World War 1 and he had a sister, Vera. Frye went to Toronto to compete in a national typing contest in 1929. 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. 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.

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