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Northrop Frye (Herman Northrop Frye) Biography

(1912–91), (Herman Northrop Frye), Fearful Symmetry, A Natural Perspective, Fools of Time, The Educated Imagination

criticism literature college archetypal

Canadian critic, born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, educated at Victoria College, University of Toronto; he studied theology at Emmanuel College, Canada, and literature at Merton College, Oxford. From 1940 Frye was a member of the faculty of the University of Toronto, becoming Chancellor of Victoria College in 1979. His early work on Blake (Fearful Symmetry, 1947) gained him instant notice, and his continuing work on Shakespeare (A Natural Perspective, 1965; Fools of Time, 1967) and on criticism and learning (The Educated Imagination, 1963; The Stubborn Structure, 1970; The Critical Path, 1971) has remained influential. Frye was above all interested in romance as a recurring structure of the imagination, a vision of probability in which magic, for example, becomes a metaphor for human generosity and capacity for renewal rather than a mere refusal of the real. Frye's major work is his ground-breaking Anatomy of Criticism (1957), which raised, with impeccable lucidity and much wit, indispensable questions about the teaching, evaluating, and classifying of literature. ‘There is as yet,’ Frye wrote in his ‘polemical introduction’, ‘no way of distinguishing what is genuine criticism…from what belongs to the history of taste.’ Frye urges us to understand literature as ‘an order of words’ rather than a pile of works, and to see criticism as a progressive, collaborative enterprise rather than simply ‘leisure-class gossip’. Anatomy of Criticism contributes to this venture by its exposition of the problem, and through four long essays on different forms of criticism which Frye calls historical, ethical, archetypal, and rhetorical. Of these four forms, the archetypal attracted the most attention, with its concentration on underlying patterns in literature, and its anthropological background. There was a brief but widespread fashion for so-called myth criticism in the 1960s, when archetypes of all kinds, but particularly Christian ones, were found almost everywhere. Traces of this trend survive in talk of Christ-figures, and in the assumption that all apples in literature have something to do with the Garden of Eden.

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