The Correspondence of Northrop Frye & Helen Kemp, 1932-1939

552 pages,
ISBN: 0802007724

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What Happened to Helen?
by Nella Cotrupi

Having long steeped myself in Northrop Frye's published works, I couldn't help but wonder, as I wound my way through these two volumes of letters, cards, and notes (1,048 pages!) exchanged by Frye and Helen Kemp (his wife-to-be), where the echo of the voice that was so familiar was really coming from. Its eloquence and intellectual power were as much in evidence in the words of Kemp as in Frye, at times, in fact, more so. The concern for social change, the profound belief in the intensity of artistic engagement as a catalyst for that change, the proximity of the teaching vocation to the religious one-all of these are reflected in the thoughts and engagements of them both, at a time well before Anatomy of Criticism (1957) and The Great Code (1981), and when even Fearful Symmetry (1947) was nothing more than the first section in a graduate paper.
Bob Denham, the editor of these letters, had remarked with pleasant surprise on Helen Kemp's intelligence and power of expression, during the earliest days of his work on this correspondence. But somehow, I was still unprepared for the starkness of the contrast that often arose between the judicious sense, insight, subtlety, and sheer energy of Kemp, and the often pompous, pedantic, and patronizing tone of the prodigy Frye: "I consider that your one duty to God and man is to grow up. People like myself were determined and determined ourselves to be adults, and not all the clangor of brazen-throated folly can stop me from cultivating myself. Others prefer to remain infants. Still others have the right idea, but need help from friends-and I think you belong here."
So there were many moments in the reading of this collection when I groaned and grit my teeth. And yet, the propulsive force of narrative, the drive of the romance plot (which a more mature and judicious Frye so well anatomized for us), together with the archetypal nature of the human bond whose progression these letters trace, all kept me entranced. But this enchantment was in no small part also due to my growing fascination with Helen Kemp. The more I read of this young, hopeful woman's letters, the more I marvelled that she has had, until now, no public voice, and no public recognition except in the supporting role of wife, helpmate, and number-one fan to a man who became a key figure in contemporary letters and culture, a man frequently compared to Aristotle and only somewhat jestingly referred to as "God" by his students.
The further I pushed into the heart of this correspondence, the more the narrative took on for me another shape than that of romance, although the letters do read, as Denham observes, like an epistolary novel. There is another genre, however, that often imposed itself on this exchange: the murder mystery. How was it that this woman, who clearly engaged in the thrust and parry of thought and debate as an equal with one of the best minds to have emerged from this country and this century, lived a life so quiet and culturally unproductive-the life indeed of the "brown mouse", to repeat one of Frye's many such descriptions of her? How is it that this woman, whose artistic and intellectual talents and interests were highly cultivated and numerous, and whose will-power was clearly to be reckoned with, has apparently left no other visible legacy? And why, when she preserved and annotated Frye's half of the correspondence with such care over the years, eventually making it available to Frye's biographer, John Ayre, almost fifty years later, why did she conceal and yet keep her own letters? Clearly she knew that they would someday see the light of day; she had arranged them with the same meticulous care given to Frye's missives. What happened to the promise of Helen Kemp, a winner of scholarships, a committed and innovative educator, an eloquent and gifted writer, a talented musician and artist?
Kemp was two years older than Frye, yet he persists in calling her "child", "sweet", "duckling", and other diminutive terms of endearment which, however well-meant, exacerbate the sense that Kemp had, from very early on in the relationship, to struggle hard to avoid being the perennial student under Frye's professorial eye. He writes, very early in their correspondence, that he hopes against hope to have Kemp read Spengler's The Decline of the West, to which she smartly replies, "I shall have one precious month before the exhibition and the usual jamboree-shall I spend it reading Spengler? You know, I shall not be able to follow you in many places-but then I am wandering by myself in others." There are, as well, all too many references to spankings, such as when Frye says, "Damned if I know what to do about this marriage business. Our careers keep pulling us apart, and yet I sometimes think you won't know whether you are coming or going unless I get hold of you and spank you into shape."
Kemp waffles between an intensely determined and enthusiastic pursuit of her own independent career, and a troubling insecurity and dependency, which Frye seems, at times, to foster rather than to want to reduce. Once, Kemp writes, "I don't know very much I'm afraid." Shortly before, she had, in one of her lively explosions of creative energy and determination, announced, "I am sure I can do something good-I am going to work, dear man, and show you!" Frye's response: "Only remember that I am quite sincere when I say I want to help you-I don't want to pose, show off, lay down the law or make fun of you, though I shall probably do all four unconsciously. We have a tough hill to climb...."
In typical fashion, Kemp worked diligently at preparing her thesis for the Canadian Committee, which had awarded her a scholarship to study art in Ottawa and London (England), yet she is almost apologetic when she explains to Frye that time did not permit her to send it to him for proof-reading and corrections before submitting it. He, in turn, chides her harshly for her naivety in worrying about not having read the selected bibliography in its entirety.
For all the apparent dependency of Kemp on Frye, there are many areas in which it is she who takes the lead and sets the pace. When he vacillates between the choice of a career as a minister of the United Church or as a university professor, her words ring prophetic, and could easily serve as a manifesto for his later crusade on behalf of the primacy of a quality liberal arts education: "The function of a teacher seems to me essentially the same as that of a minister-to bring colour into a drab life. But have you noticed very many inspired teachers? Can you blame children for being the savages which you so unsympathetically dub them?"
Again and again, Kemp attempts to cultivate in Frye an awareness of the importance of human sympathy and compassion, and highlights for him the essential similarity between the religious and the academic life: "As for your being a professor-do you think you need to be a stuffy pedant?" Always uppermost in her mind is the social motive, the inspirational function, served by both the teacher and the minister, and the need for modesty in considering the personal challenges that they entail: "No work of art-is attained without a certain amount of purification, and forgetfulness of individual pettiness...what is a man of genius if not one who has struggled and tapped the hidden spring of beauty and truth and has imprisoned a little of it for thirsty men?"
In the political milieu, too, it was Kemp, no doubt influenced by her father, the artist Stanley Kemp, who first expressed curiosity about the CCF (the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) in the summer of 1933, very shortly after its inception: "There is an element of youthful enthusiasm, and of hope in the CCF organization that is altogether lacking in the hardened machinery of the others. And of all things, people need hope and enthusiasm, or they die." Frye seemed unsure of his political preferences, although he observes with trademark astuteness that the CCF "should be the typical party of Canada and the political expression of the same movement of which the United Church is the religious expression." He describes himself, at one point, as a liberal and stresses the importance of individualism and of democracy. Eventually, he agrees to give a talk to the nascent Moncton branch of the CCF at about the same time that Kemp is asked to speak to the Riverdale CCF Club on the duty of women in politics. As is her wont, she warns Frye of the dangers of being too pedantic and remote from his audience: "You might tackle a subject more nearly related to the present situation in the minds of your listeners than the background of socialist thought. For if you are talking to a crowd of workers in fox-bread factories, and ex-railroad men, you are dealing with people profoundly worried about their particular world."
Through Kemp's eyes the events and personalities of the day are presented with the artist's keen attention to detail and structure, and in her recounting of meetings, social gatherings, Muskoka holidays, and attempts to find a niche in the world of work, a lively, personal, and fascinating sketch of the issues and mores of the day is composed. These were days of radical change and heady excitement in politics, art, and social life, and through Kemp we relive the exuberance, the personal confusion, and the inner conflicts that these changes, and the options they presented, necessarily implied for educated and ambitious women. In her effusive admiration for the hopefulness of the League of Nations and for the spread of social-democratic ideals, in her enthusiastic reception of a lecture by Albert Schweitzer, in which he insists that a spiritual life demands that history be created, not passively suffered, and in her exasperated impatience over the sexual prudery of the educated women she encounters in London, we are given the portrait of a young woman breathing deeply the air of intellectual and personal liberation. We also encounter again and again in her own meditations the issues that were to be among Frye's central professional preoccupations: the relationship between imagination and freedom, between the search for individual fulfilment and the common good.
Kemp's world is one where music, art, and literature form a nucleus of interests for a "cultural gentry" which includes the likes of Arthur Lismer, E. J. Pratt, and Bertram Booker. Both Frye and Kemp are caught up in a flurry of cultural and social engagements that underscore the liveliness of Toronto's cultural scene at that period, as well as the political and social sensibilities of an emerging, distinct national identity, one that Frye, in his inimitable way, captured even in this early and formative period of his life. He says, of the United Church: "It is representative of all that Canada means in history-in its good-nature, in its tolerance, in its conscientiousness, in its vague and sentimental combination of Socialism, Imperialism and Nationalism all at once-a very appealing mixture, unpalatable though each individual constituent may be-above all in its determination to apply old traditions to new surroundings which makes Canada sturdier than England and more coherent in its perspective than the United States." Not only because of their ties to the United Church and its political double, the CCF, but also through their involvement with such established Canadian cultural icons as the Art Gallery of Toronto (later, Ontario), the Canadian Poetry Magazine, the Canadian Forum, the CBC, and Saturday Night, Frye and Kemp have captured the bustle of contemporary Canadian culture in its organizational infancy.
At the most personal level of their early life together, we encounter telling insights into the character of these two promising and high-minded intellectuals. In following them through their financial tribulations, through the personal crises that individual and sexual liberation implied in the days before routine birth control, in tracing the attempt to balance sexual freedom and modern social mores with the cultivation of a loving and mutually sustaining relationship, we are confronted with so many of the complex and to-this-day unresolved dilemmas that the brave new world of gender equality and sexual emancipation has produced.
There are, of course, countless compelling reasons for reading these letters, not least of which is the insight that they bring into the early intellectual development of a thinker whose powerful words, ideas, and ideals continue to exert tremendous influence throughout the world. (Frye's thirty or so principal works have been translated into every major language.) Yet, as I reach the end of this always informative, frequently amusing, and sometimes inspiring read, I still come away primarily troubled and still puzzled. What did happen to Helen Kemp? The cliché about the great woman behind the great man doesn't at all begin to answer my question or solve the mystery.

Nella Cotrupi's Ph.D. thesis was about Vico's impact on Frye. She is a lawyer, and is doing postdoctoral work on the relation between myth and law.


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