Robert Fulford's column about the diaries of Northrop Frye

(The National Post, October 30, 2001)

Like many ferociously productive people, Northrop Frye (1912-1991) considered himself lazy. He was the leading intellectual of 20th-century Canada and one of the great literary critics of the world, but in private journals he habitually berated himself for not getting enough done.

He wrote great books, taught multitudes of students, produced many learned articles and for several years edited the Canadian Forum, a monthly magazine. No one around him worked harder. Then why did he think himself indolent? It seems to have been a kind of superstition: the more he accused himself of sloth, the less likely he was to succumb to it. He fixed on minor examples of idleness the way a saint might obsess about tiny sins, as a barricade against the real thing. He was your complete Protestant.

During his early years as teacher and writer he sometimes kept a diary to pass "a kind of value judgment on whether I've wasted the day or not." Thank goodness he did. Frye readers can now tour his mind in The Diaries of Northrop Frye: 1942-1955, edited by Robert D. Denham (University of Toronto Press, 821 pages, $125 -- cheap at the price, if you ask me).

He was an ordained minister in the United Church who took a harsh view of that institution. At one point he wondered why he grew uncomfortable when he heard that someone had become a Roman Catholic. It wasn't because he considered Catholicism anti-liberal and anti-democratic, though he did; it was because, he decided, "this fatuous United Church" couldn't begin to compete. It lacked intellectual integrity, it was no better than a committee of temperance cranks. He would never urge anyone to sign on.

But if he lost his vocation as a clergyman (or never got it), there were no similar doubts about his real calling, the education of young imaginations within the department of English at the University of Toronto. The satisfaction and excitement he drew from lecturing warms every section of this book. Maybe he had some dumb students, and maybe his course load was heavy, but he never turned contemptuous or indifferent. He saw lecturing as an art and in his diary reviewed his performances. Often he disappointed himself, but if he thought he gave a brilliant lecture he said so, and we believe him. He spoke without a prepared text -- just stood before the class and let the lecture pour out, often surprising him.

He told his diary what he didn't always express in print or in public. He often disliked the moral tone of the Toronto people he knew. "Every once in a while I get shocked by the callousness and brutality of members of my class," he wrote; sometimes they revealed that they thought the poor sub-human. He wasn't impressed when Osbert Sitwell, one of the eminent Sitwells of England, came to Canada to lecture: "If I didn't know him to be brilliant I'd say he was a dope."

He decided that obscenity is an ornament to language except when it becomes routine; then it approaches idiocy. He cited a colleague's story about a First World War soldier who saw a dead mule at the bottom of a shellhole and remarked, "Well, that fuckin' fucker's fucked." Setting that down, Frye added, "What sort of person is it, incidentally, whose feelings would be spared by printing the above as 'that ----in' ----er's ----ed,' or 'that obscene obscenity's obscenitied'?" He had no time for prudes.

A dedicated amateur pianist, he always told his diary when he acquired new scores. One day he bought some sonatas by Edward MacDowell, which he described as sentimental -- but sentimental in a way he liked. And then a moment of revelation: "There's so much in that eager, starved life of mine that began when I was about nine and lasted until it began to break ... at 14 that still needs satisfying ...."

Frye's experiences at the theatre illustrated the difficulty of being the leading intellectual in Toronto when it was a pretty small town. In 1949 he went to the opening of his friend Morley Callaghan's To Tell the Truth, a play he found "acutely embarrassing." Fortunately, he noted, Morley asked his opinion at the intermission, before it became totally inept, so he could be honestly noncommittal. Three years later he saw his young friend Donald Harron in a Toronto production of Shaw's Arms and the Man. "Donald was really outstandingly bad. I lied like a gentleman, but I don't really know what to make of Donald as an actor. Maybe he's just too intelligent: that is, there's too solid a core of his own personality."

Helen Frye, his wife from 1937 till her death in 1986, made a vivid impression in the two volumes of their letters from the 1930s that were published four years ago. But in these pages she's a rather shadowy figure. He never ceases to depend on her, but he frequently notes her moodiness; often, it seems, she needed to be soothed. It becomes clear that as his career gathered steam they were no longer quite the life partners they once planned to be. She existed in one world; his work, including the vast continents of literature that it encompassed, existed elsewhere.

These wonderfully rich and evocative diaries map his transition from a precocious young man unsure how well he could perform on the critical stage ("Every once in a while I suspect I'm writing shit") to a hugely admired author who has settled into his role and finally decided that, all in all, it's not such a bad way to earn a living. One day he decided to forget all the undone work at the Canadian Forum and the unanswered letters at the office, say to hell with it, and stay home. He wrote: "I'm a Methodist; I hate taking time from the Lord's work. The Lord's work for me is sitting still in a comfortable chair thinking beautiful thoughts, & occasionally writing them down. This also happens to be what I like to do, which just shows you how wise the Lord is."

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