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...
Northrop Frye was a literary theorist and critic born in Canada and massively influential across the United States and the English-speaking world. Raised in a time before it became customary for scholars of literature to pursue a Ph.D. in English, Frye’s education in Canada was first of all theological, and he even worked as a student minister in Saskatchewan for a short time. He never went on to get a Ph.D. But what always attracted him to theology was the study of texts, and his thinking is informed by years of close reading the Bible and other religious texts for their patterns, metaphors, and symbols.
Frye’s first book, which propelled him to international fame, was Fearful Symmetry, published in 1947. The book was a study of William Blake’s poetry, which Frye showed used a structure of images and metaphors Blake got from previous masterworks of Western religious culture, including the Bible and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In doing so, Frye provided an interpretation of Blake that rescued the poet from misunderstanding, and also set the terms for a new way of doing criticism that connected patterns of images across works of literature. This would prove to be central to the method proposed in his most influential book, published a decade later, Anatomy of Criticism. Most of Frye’s academic career was spent at Victoria College at the University of Toronto.
Today, the College honors him with the Northrop Frye Center, and the University of Toronto has a Northrop Frye Center for Comparative Literature. Frye was also honored more broadly in Canada; he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1972, and an honorary postage stamp with his visage was issued in 2000.