Resurrection lit; Bob Rodgers brings Canadian icons to life on the page
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 28 June 2016)

For a few decades in the 20th century, the University of Toronto found itself with two celebrity English professors, Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan. They were quoted in the newspapers, they appeared on TV and they were generally believed to be fountains of great wisdom. They became known far beyond the shores of Canada.

Students adored them and enjoyed gossiping about them. Stories about their mutual enmity flowered and were assumed to be true. After all, two professors in the English department could not be more different, Frye being the celebrant and analyst of literary tradition, McLuhan the quirky, haphazard prophet of mass communications. McLuhan created something like an academic scandal by suggesting that television had more power over the human imagination than books.

Tension between them was mainly a myth created by their admirers, but it nevertheless brought a delicious aura of excitement to the university and enhanced the charisma of both men.

This season, Frye and McLuhan appear as crucial figures in a remarkable campus novel, The Devil's Party: Who Killed The Sixties?, by Bob Rodgers.

A filmmaker, professor and journalist, Rodgers has created a story of high-class Canadian education as it appeared to students in the 1950s and 1960s.

His approach to fiction is as eccentric as a paragraph by McLuhan. In many novels "real" characters are hidden under fictional names. Rodgers plays with that convention by leaving the professors under their own names but inventing the names of other characters. The publisher slyly informs us that "While certain characters, such as Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye, resemble real people, this is a work of fiction."

Students tell stories of professors as Greeks told stories about gods, reporting the wondrous or reprehensible acts they performed on Olympus. Along with Frye and McLuhan, a typical god for the students in The Devil's Party was A.S.P. Woodhouse, the University of Toronto's unchallenged authority on the works of John Milton. The Devil's Party tales its title from Milton's habit of giving the devil so many strong qualities that he looks at times like the hero of Paradise Lost. Another unique figure was Étienne Gilson, a lofty French philosopher who graced for a time Toronto's Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies.

Jason Faraday, the fictional narrator, sees his fellow students as passionate scholars, fierce omnivores of learning. They argued through the night about which professor should command attention and which should be considered a fraud.

Jason casts a romantic glow over the students, seeing them as part of a generation joyfully on a mission to recreate western society. He extends this romantic view to himself. It's a kind of fulfilment when he finishes his undergraduate years at the University of Manitoba and goes for graduate study in Toronto, where most of the story takes place: "I saw my coming to Toronto as a huge leap into new experience."

He's satisfied when he discovers "intellectual excitement in a city on the verge of cultural bloom."

It's a beautiful time for him when he comes upon Dorothy Cameron's Here and Now Gallery in Yorkville and visits the first version of the groundbreaking Isaacs Gallery. His Toronto reads something like Hemingway's Paris.

Jason is stirred when he hears Frye's matter-of-fact confidence as he explains his course while outlining the essence of his entire career as a teacher. "Like it or not," Frye tells his students, "if you are in what we call western civilization, then Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton and Blake are not just your reading materials. They are an expression of what you are, and even more important, they are what you can be. All right then?" Frye always hoped that his students would accept this view of culture and build it into their lives. The 1947 book about William Blake, Fearful Symmetry, started Frye's international reputation. Blake is much quoted in The Devil's Party.

Bob Rodgers studied with both Frye and McLuhan. He inserts in the narrative an example of the ire McLuhan aroused in the take-no-prisoners milieu of academe. He quotes someone from Yale: "There is afoot a mindless orgy of trend-catching anti-literacy, best typified by the appalling popularity of the jargon-laden, hyped-up, and profoundly ahistorical works of Marshall McLuhan, designed to flatter the prejudices of a TV generation in which functional illiteracy is already well-advanced." There was a time when it took a certain courage to defend McLuhan.

In Winnipeg, Jason makes a friend of Lennie Boyce, a brilliant and inexhaustible talker who has emerged from a Ukrainian family in the North End. Lennie and Jason both go to Toronto and Jason considers him the most interesting man he's ever me. He also calls him, "unsettled, possibly even dangerous." While well-read and articulate in conversation, Lennie can't make himself write a decent essay or a good exam. He hates complacency and dullness and puritan censorship. He casually concocts elaborate lies to enrich his conversation. He lives a wildly ambitious sex life.

Lennie's story can't answer the novel's subtitle, Who Killed the Sixties? But he's among the victims of that period in history. He's irresponsible by nature and a dazzling level of education can't save him. He's caught up in the dangerous combination of bravery and craziness that dominated his time.

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