With the first time publication in 2001 of The Diaries of Northrop Frye, 1942 ű 1955, readers are given a rare opportunity to share the private reflections of a major player in the world of 20th century culture, literature and criticism. Frye's impact and reputation rests not only on his staggering output of some thirty-seven books and almost one thousand shorter texts, but on the significant public service he rendered to Canada and the world as teacher, education guru, public policy maker, university chancellor, and spiritual leader. These diaries, composed originally for his own personal edification and development, give us an intimate, unvarnished portrait of the man and his world at a crucial early phase in his personal and professional life. They paint a portrait of an ambitious, driven man with his fair share of human frailties, of daunting reach in his intellectual ambitions and accomplishments and wrestling mightily in his inner spiritual life. A man too, beset with contradictions and painfully aware of his divided, quarreling nature, which he, with his usual surplus of wit and surprisingly frequent vulgarity, describes saying: "I'm always torn between feeling that the cock crows because he has a vision of the dawn, or because he feels stimulated by standing on top of a pile of horseshit."
The years spanned by these diaries were challenging, exciting and heady ones for Frye, covering the period of his first major publications and scholarly successes. The seven diaries that make up this volume are of varying length and cover the years 1942, 1949, 1950 through 1953 and 1955.
For the most part the diaries were written in daily journals, and entries tend to consist of no more than a few paragraphs in Frye's small, even, precise handwriting. Among the key personal milestones that transpired for Frye during these years which we have the privilege of watching unfold in these pages were the publication of his first two significant books, Fearful Symmetry and Anatomy of Criticism, and the year spent at Harvard on a Guggenheim fellowship. We follow Frye through many other professional accomplishments¨his development from a nervous novice lecturer to sanguine graduate supervisor appearing for lectures which he extemporizes and records, after the fact, in terse, often excited entries which frequently take the form of "I said that...." We see too his impatience and dedication as a teacher¨impatience for those "dumb" students whose yawns "paralyzed" him (p515) and his dedication to those of his "kids" who so motivated him that he rarely missed a 9 a.m. lecture regardless of the weather, and regardless of the fact that he did not drive but habitually walked from his home near St. Clair Avenue to the University.
Although certain reservations may be expressed about the publication of materials which were originally produced by Frye for his own personal use and development, there is no question that these entries do represent a significant historical record. As such, they provide insights into the intellectual, or as Frye put it, "imaginative" development of a thinker who, very early in his professional life, had embarked on a monumental intellectual project which, to an astonishing extent, he was able to accomplish.
Frye's self-appointed life's work was nothing less than the ordering (anatomizing) of western cultural knowledge and wisdom; he set out to discover the "nature of the total myth of which all art, as well as all Scripture, forms a part" (p335). Given the immensity of this undertaking, time became for Frye a precious and rare commodity. As we advance through the diaries, we note that one of the most insistent strains in Frye's personal mantra and memoirs is his need to make the most of his time, his need to avoid what he perceived as his chief personal shortcoming, the sin of sloth. The diary habit was a direct outcome of this obsessive preoccupation. It became a strategy for grasping the ideas, events, encounters, and feelings that mattered back from the "jaws of time where the irrevocably done thing is forever imprisoned"(p346) and turning them instead into raw material for the imaginative work at hand. Frye took up the diary habit as a disciplined way of "systematizing life" and ensuring that he would apply himself to what really mattered, "writing, thinking and reading"(p52).
These personal records are particularly valuable for Frye scholars, literary theorists and interested readers in view of the absence of a Frye autobiography. Frye would invariably deflect queries along these lines by insisting that his publications were his autobiography. This probably warrants particular consideration given Frye's profound acquaintance with the notion of autobiography as a construction of self. One if his greatest heroes, Giambattista Vico, was after all, among the first to engage self-consciously in such an exercise with his autobiography produced in the early 18th century. However, Frye's diaries do not fall into that literary genre. What we have in these diaries is not a formalized, premeditated reconstituting and reordering of self; rather, they are a series of uncensored, chatty, and very personal "memos to self". As we read them we have the sense that here Frye took a sabbatical from the public persona that he and others had constructed for him of the prodigy, the genius, the prophet ... "god". Here, on the private page, he could confront his own imperfections and shortcomings; he could admit openly, as he struggled with fearful complexities of conceptual systems and symmetries that spanned vast intellectual and cultural terrain, that "Hell, I don't know"(p330).
On the pages of these diaries he was able to identify areas of his professional and private life that needed to be worked on and ordered. He could review, reassess and regroup-marshalling his energies and his activities to ensure that he stayed on course. The entries sometimes represent a release valve for pent up frustrations and disappointments. Sometimes they allow Frye to privately swagger and declare himself the intellectual king of the academic jungle¨something he was careful to avoid doing publicly. He worries over his moods and ailments and bodily functions; muses about dreams, desires and future projects; comments on social, cultural and political developments of the day; and frets over family, friends and foes. Throughout, his writing remains strikingly crisp, elegant and punchy while displaying little of that carelessness and informality that we associate with private memos of a purely functional nature. There is ample evidence too, in these entries, of his wry, sometimes cutting, often bawdy private wit as well as an almost adolescent preoccupation with sexual attraction.
These diaries represent a sharp contrast to the previously published correspondence volumes where Frye's wife, Helen Kemp, emerged as an intelligent, perceptive and most articulate and ardent champion of many of the progressive views, causes and ideals we have come to associate with Frye (see Volumes 1 and 2 of the Collected Works). By the time of the first diary, Frye and Kemp had been married for some five years and already the patina of romance had begun to fade. Frye writes, "Our fifth wedding anniversary but even so an irritating day" (p31). Indeed Helen's presence in Frye's life at this juncture seems to be as a kind of domestic and social shadow, one invariably remarked upon by Frye when she is unhappy, restless, miserable or tired and needs mollifying in the form of drinks or a movie or a dinner out.
As the narrative unfolds this impression does not change; indeed, Helen's appearances are fewer, purely domestic in tenor and increasingly rooted in an aura of discontent and insecurity. Helen, who emerged in the earlier correspondence as a bright, successful, busy dispenser of wisdom, goodness, wit and sage practical advice to a gawky, self-conscious, socially inept though brilliant graduate student and lecturer, is now the disgruntled housewife, without children and without a career. Having dropped her own professional pursuits in the arts and media, Helen emerges in these pages as unhappy and insecure. As Frye says very early on in the diaries, she is afraid of "being left out of the game" (p37). Ultimately, Frye seems to treasure his domestic space primarily as a contemplative retreat where, Helen having looked after all the annoying practical details, he is free to devote himself to his vocation away from the necessary but distracting, mushrooming, and importuning administrative tasks and social obligations of successful academic life.
Frye's method for undertaking and accomplishing the magnum intellectual opus of the collection of works he called the "ogdoad" rested to a considerable extent on maintaining handwritten notebooks. In these he meditated and commented on his voluminous reading and developed the detailed outlines of his arguments, essays, and books. As Robert Denham, the editor of this volume and of the Late Notebooks volumes (Volumes 5 and 6 of the Collected Works) observes, this was a practice Frye maintained for all of his working life resulting, over the span of fifty years, in some seventy-six holograph notebooks. Although the diary habit did not, in contrast, apparently survive past the 1950s, it seems to have played a crucial role in helping to systematize Frye's early scholarly and professional life and in allowing him to carve out an approach for achieving the daunting mass of critical writing he set out to produce in his lifetime, a good part of which is sketched out in the diaries in incipient form.
Perhaps most importantly, we find in these early diary entries significant passages that go to the heart and soul of Frye's spiritual preoccupations and convictions, preoccupations and convictions which remained with him for the remainder of his life and which are given here a directness and freshness of expression difficult to find in his more circumspect public works. We see, for example, his testy and intermittent though unrelenting preoccupations with the differences and relative value of Protestantism versus Catholicism: "I don't want a Church of any kind, but if, say a student of mine were quavering over conversion to Catholicism, I'd like to be able to point to something better than a committee of temperance cranks, which is about all the United Church is now" (pp59-60). We read his ostensibly shamefaced yet proud confession that "I am not much of a priest"(p70). And for those frustrated by the ambiguity of some of his published reflections on faith, there is in these entries a bold clarity of conviction about his personal beliefs and a resounding critique of organized religion and its trappings: "It is extraordinary how many saints & martyrs there are whom no official God recognizes"(p78).
If there is no soul, as he says, but only a spiritual body, and if the historical Jesus is the "apocryphal shadow of the body of Christ" what really matters, at least to Frye, is the way that the Word of God can change you into the Word of God, so that you are absorbed into an eternal body (p163). And though the substance of this body is invisible, the body nevertheless exists, and is, as Frye calls it, a community: "...actually God is not one person ...God is a community, a kingdom of Heaven, & fellowship & the communion of saints precede all our experiences" (p196).
Here the thread that spins a web around Frye's many engagements and commitments is made visible. The relentless editorial work on the left-leaning magazine the Canadian Forum, the unending and invariably accepted invitations to address groups of social workers and teachers and artists, the many hours spent at academic meetings and on administrative work, the seemingly endless lectures, meetings with students, papers to be written and academic sessions to be arranged¨this was all part of Frye's spiritual vocation. This was Frye living his religion. And when we review the few confessions he makes of profound emotion in the diaries, there is one in particular that stands out¨his tears over the teacher's profession of faith which states in part, "I intend no Monopoly but a community, in learning; I study not for my own sake only, but for theirs that study not for themselves" (p68).
Many years after these diaries were penned, Harry Rasky, filming a documentary on Frye asked him, "I wonder if I would be prying if I said, ŠDoes Northrop Frye talk to God?'" After a long pregnant pause Frye answered with barely concealed glee, "Yes." In the pages of these private memos he gives a much more complete, if less playful reply: "I've got it clear now that the privacy of prayer and spiritual communion is not introspection, but the discovery of a community, & charity is action in light of such a discovery" (p315). As these pages and his subsequent life attest, Frye was indeed a man of prayer. ˛
Doctor Nella Cotrupi reads, ponders and writes about Frye and other interesting subjects while working and living in Toronto. She is a lawyer, educator and scholar who recently published a book on Northrop Frye and Giambattista Vico called Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Process.