100 Years, 30 Volumes, and One Intellectual Legend

This Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Northrop Frye, one of Canada’s most important literary critics and cultural commentators. All sorts of tributes to Frye and reevaluations of his work have been cropping up to mark the occasion:

  • University of Toronto Quarterly dedicated a special issue to Frye with a wide range of articles on his legacy – from scholarly examinations of his work, to an interview between Margaret Atwood and Nick Mount, to poetry by writers such as Dennis Lee and George Elliott Clarke
  • CBC Radio’s Ideas re-aired a classic series of interviews between Frye and David Cayley from 1990, the year before his death, that is now available for streaming online
  • Meanwhile, Quill & Quire shared the news that this year’s Frye Festival in Moncton, New Brunswick will include ‘the unveiling of a life-sized bronze sculpture of Frye, depicted sitting on a park bench with an open book in his lap’

Here at UTP, we’re also in full-on Frye mode – not only because of the anniversary, but because this month marks the completion of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Spanning 30 volumes and more than 17,000 pages, it comprises all of Frye’s writings – including his celebrated books Anatomy of Criticism and Fearful Symmetry, his previously unpublished notebooks, diaries, and correspondence with his girlfriend, and later wife, Helen Kemp.

The Collected Works of Northrop Frye
The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, now complete. Photo by Sarah Jordan, 10001photographs.com.

The Collected Works of Northrop Frye is a project 20 years in the making. The idea to compile a collected edition of Frye’s writings was first proposed in the spring of 1991 by James Carscallen of Victoria College. But as Alvin Lee, the general editor of the Collected Works, recounts, it took several years for the project to get off the ground: first, the committee involved had to wait until Frye’s estate was settled, and serious funding had to be secured from the Michael G. DeGroote family and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Then, in 1995, John M. Robson – the original editor of the Collected Works – died suddenly of a heart attack. Lee, who was already on the committee for the project, and who had served for a decade as President and vice-chancellor of McMaster University, was asked to take over. In tandem with Jean O’Grady, associate editor of the Collected Works, Lee lined up a series of editors from Canada, the United States, and Australia to edit the various volumes. ‘Everyone invited actually said yes,’ Lee says, ‘which was really a tribute to the importance of Frye and to publishing a scholarly annotated edition of his work.’ Jane Widdicombe, Frye’s former secretary and one of the estate executors, was helpful in getting access to the Frye papers.

The first volume, overseen by Roanoke College’s Robert D. Denham, was published late in 1996, and the next 29 followed at a remarkable speed, given the scope of the project. Lee cites several factors that contributed to the series’ rapid completion, including the stability that came from guaranteed funding, as well as having several volumes concurrently in development with different editors. Much of the success can also be attributed to his and O’Grady’s dedication to the project:

‘Jean and I recognized early that if we took on the responsibility to keep the Frye Centre at Victoria College alive as a functioning centre, with scholars coming and going, we wouldn’t get our own job done. So we put our heads down, and didn’t go to conferences much … We had the determination not to get sidetracked by other worthwhile but peripheral activities.’

On the eve of the centenary of Frye’s birth, Lee sees new directions ahead for scholarship on the enduring literary critic: ‘I’m looking forward to the conference [in honour of Frye at U of T] in October – I’m not presenting, as it’s now another generation’s challenge. And the wider world, in different stages, continues to be interested in Frye. There’s a conference in Budapest in early September, and a lot of interest in Frye in China. He is widely read in Japan and Korea, has been for years in India – since 1957, when Anatomy of Criticism came out – and he’s still a big name in Italy.’

The Collected Works of Northrop Frye
Photo by Sarah Jordan.

As for the Collected Works, Lee is proud of both the series and its committed team: ‘We were doing a good job for Frye’s work and for the world that will benefit from it. It’s been a really satisfying project, often a real stretch intellectually, sometimes a pain administratively, always an engagement with a major mind and imagination.’

And how will Lee himself be celebrating the completion of the Collected Works? ‘Oh, just having a barbeque with the family, enjoying the July weather. And I’ll drink a beer for Norrie.’


Subscribe to our newsletter to find out about new and forthcoming releases in your field, books for courses, and special discounts and promotions.

Featured Posts