Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye

The following is adapted from the preface to my book, Northrop Frye in Conversation:

I first met Northrop Frye in 1984 when I interviewed him for a programme called "History and the New Age" which I was then preparing for Ideas.   My CBC colleague Peter Gzowski once described Frye as an interviewer's nightmare: a man who actually answered the questions he was asked rather than the ones he would have liked to have been asked.  His answers were usually pithy, sometimes cryptic, occasionally gruff, and they often ended in conversation-stopping aphorisms.  On this first occasion I chattered nervously while I set up my tape recorder.  Frye's seraphic smile and patient, unyielding demeanour did little to put me at ease.  I then stammered my way through an hour-long interview in which Frye gave brief pointed answers to my long and sometimes pointless questions. 

I returned twice in the succeeding years — Frye was always gracious about receiving interviewers, despite his evident lack of relish for the procedure — once to talk about Canadian culture and once to take about the English poet William Blake.  In both cases the rhythm of the conversation remained fairly jerky.  This made me reluctant to undertake the worthy, and even overdue project my Ideas colleagues kept urging on me: a series devoted to the ideas of Frye himself.  However, in 1989, through the good offices of Frye's secretary Jane Widdicombe and Sara Wolch, my Ideas colleague and a friend of Frye's, it was all finally arranged.  For a week in December, Frye and I spent each morning in recorded conversation.  Sara and I and our recording engineer, Brian Hill, turned up at Frye's Massey College office every morning at nine and, by midweek, had begun to feel quite at home there.  Sara's presence helped to create a relaxed atmosphere, and the fact that I had spend the previous months steeping myself in Frye's work helped me to dig beneath the surface of the epigrammatic answers Frye sometimes gave to questions he had been asked once too often.  Whatever the reason the interview possessed a fullness and flow that I had not previously experienced with Frye, and we ended our conversation on Friday in peaceful silence, gazing out through gently falling snow into the quiet courtyard of the college.  Just over a year later Northrop Frye died.

I supplemented my interviews with Frye with conversations with friends, colleagues, and interpreters, and the resulting three-part Ideas series was broadcast early in 1990.  Two years later a transcript of our entire conversation, made by Frye scholar Robert Denham, was published as Northrop Frye in Conversation.

I don't think my interviews with Frye really added anything to what he had already written, as my interviews with more reticent and less fully articulate thinkers like George Grant and Ivan Illich sometimes did.  Frye wrote from a clear, stable and consistent vision, and in more than twenty books he spelled out this vision with great thoroughness, as well as never-failing wit.  All I can claim, I think, is to have brought the remarkable range of his criticism together in one place and offered an introduction to it.  I have the impression that Frye, like many thinkers neither current, nor classic, is no longer read as much as he deserves to be.  I hope someone may discover him anew here...