Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism is a canonical statement on the principles and foundations of literary criticism. It is widely noted for its scope and ambition, synthesizing theory from Aristotle to the present, critiquing the state of the profession of criticism in the twentieth century, and providing a toolkit for reading almost the entirety of Western literature. The vastly influential book has been called, understatedly, “monumental” (Lentricchia 3).
Published in 1957, the book came in the heyday of what has come to be called the “New Criticism.” This school of literary theory held that works of literature should be studied in isolation, in order to see how they develop their own meaning through language alone. That means literary critics should close read texts to find patterns of meaning, but they should ignore other sources of information in their interpretation, such as the biography of an author or the history of the society in which an author wrote. Frye’s book, too, ignores biography and history in its study of literature. But it moves beyond individual texts in order to find patterns across literature. In turn, it discovers categories of literary experience that themselves have a history, moving from the more primitive to the more complex.
Part of the appeal of the New Criticism was its relatively uncontroversial and easy to explicate method: close readings of individual texts. The 1950s saw, in the United States, not only the politically fraught situation of the Cold War, but also a massive increase of students going to college under the GI Bill after World War II. It was useful to have a method that provides a common point of reference for all these students. The Anatomy of Criticism was instrumental for this purpose. Its range of texts and its definition of literary vocabulary provided both an introduction to literature, and a textbook for how to study it. It would prove indispensable for a new generation of scholars of literature who needed the tools to close read and connect their readings to those of others.
Being so of its moment, however, the Anatomy of Criticism was equally criticized by a succeeding generation. Other currents in literary criticism, such as deconstruction and poststructuralism, would later destabilize the sense provided by Frye that there is a coherent system of literature. Frye’s structuralism—the idea that there is a structure of plots, themes, symbols, and genres that organize the literary field—would seem increasingly untenable in a world where meaning and truth were shown to be flexible and mobile. But in the Anatomy, Frye was already interested in how works of literature blur the very categories to which they seem to belong. His legacy may ultimately rest in the extent to which he both provided a stable set of terms for literary criticism, and anticipated how literary criticism would continue to evolve and grow in new directions.