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Celebrating Northrop Frye

Jeff Sprang's portrait depicts Frye at the blackboard in front of his lesson The Conspectus of Genres (image courtesy of Jeff Sprang)

July 14 marks the 100th birthday of the late Northrop Frye - and across Canada, scholars, writers, alumni and fans are remembering and celebrating the legendary professor who transformed literary criticism.

“He was brilliant and extremely articulate,” says alumnus and artist Jeff Sprang, 60, recalling a class he took with Frye in the early 1970s. “He would have been about the age I am now, and I was one of those students who sat at the back and kept my head down and my mouth shut – but he was very, very gentle with those brave souls who sat at the front and asked questions.”

Decades later, Sprang ran into a former classmate and, after reminiscing about the class, found himself researching the professor’s work and life. The result: a watercolour portrait which Sprang donated to Victoria College at U of T along with limited edition prints to use in fundraising.

“The importance of education is one of the things I took away from that class,” said Sprang. “And I thought if they could use it to help a deserving student in need that would be terrific.”

Frye’s lasting impact is something Dawn Arnold, a New College alumna who graduated in 1989, understands well. In 2000, the French and English lit grad and others came up with the idea of holding a literary festival to honour Frye in Moncton, New Brunswick, the town where the scholar spent much of his youth.

“People said no one would come,” Arnold says. So she felt justifiably proud when a respectable 3,000 people attended the first year, and when the crowds kept growing – to 17,000 last year.

The bilingual festival has surprised skeptics also by drawing many distinguished Canadian and internationally known authors, such as Richard Ford, Alistair MacLeod and Ursula Hegi.

“We’ve had winners of all the major national and international prizes,” says Arnold.

But for a long time, there was one conspicuous no-show. Every year, Arnold would invite Frye’s former student Margaret Atwood (BA 1961 Victoria); every year, a polite refusal.

In 2010, Arnold found herself next to the renowned author at a security checkpoint at Pearson Airport, both of them getting their hands swabbed for bomb residue. Arnold seized her opportunity, swiftly introducing herself and pressing her cause.

Atwood was a good sport about being buttonholed: “I should never be allowed out in public,” she later joked – and accepted the invitation to deliver last year’s keynote address, serving up an irreverent talk about the brainy professor’s impact on her and his other students.

This year, in honour of the scholar’s centenary, the festival commissioned a life-sized bronze sculpture of Frye unveiled July 13 in front of the Moncton Public Library. 

It’s the latest in a series of centenary tributes that began with the publication of a special edition of University of Toronto Quarterly, The Future of Northrop Frye: Centennial Perspectives with guest editors Germaine Warkentin and Linda Hutcheon. (See the journal here)

Last month, the CBC re-broadcast its three-hour Ideas series on Frye and his work.

In August, Knox College will be offering Northrop Frye, Einstein of the Verbal Universe as part of its summer program.

And, in October, Frye’s alma mater, Victoria College, will host its own international conference to mark the centenary, with themes ranging from “Canadian Literature in a Post-National Age” to “The Survival of the Literary Imagination in the Digital Age.” (Read more here.)

University Professor Emeritus Edward Chamberlin will be among the speakers.

“Frye’s basic message – that the imagination shapes reality – continues to be relevant,” Chamberlin says. “We still live through our stories.”

Read more about Frye's legacy here.