Northrop Frye: A Visionary Life


93 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography
ISBN 1-55022-184-1
DDC 801'.95'092





Reviewed by W.J. Keith

W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.


Northrop Frye was one of this century’s great scholars, and like all
scholars (great or otherwise) he spent much of his time at his desk
reading, thinking, and writing. Though a worthy way of spending one’s
life, this can be frustrating for any biographer.

Joseph Adamson’s succinct biography follows hard on the heels of
Robert Ayre’s more extensive Northrop Frye: A Biography (1989). After
the first section, “Beginnings,” it has little to say about the
personal events that preoccupy most biographies. Numerous letters to his
first wife are quoted, but there is little about the marriage itself.
Later, Helen Frye’s death in Australia, her husband’s grief, his
second marriage, and his own death are disposed of in seventeen lines. I
am not criticizing here, merely indicating Adamson’s priorities (which
distinguish his book from Ayre’s more personal, anecdotal—and
intellectually superficial—approach). Here is the biography of a mind
rather than a man, and in this case the limitation is justified. In
Northrop Frye: A Visionary Life, emphasis falls on the adjective; the
book traces the development of Frye’s imaginative vision.

It is therefore an admirable introduction to Frye’s ideas. Adamson
carefully and clearly indicates the centrality of Blake to Frye’s
“system,” as explored in Fearful Symmetry: how this develops into
the larger study of the whole field of “Literature” in Anatomy of
Criticism: and how this in turn leads inexorably to the two major Bible
Books, The Great Code and Words with Power.

One caveat: Adamson is naturally and properly a champion of his
subject, but, as someone awed by Frye’s learning yet unconvinced by
his “system,” I would have liked more acknowledgment given to the
case against Frye. The impression given here is that opposition is
confined to the indolent and undisciplined. This is not true: Frye’s
literary theory is not easily assimilated into the world of Derrida and
“post-colonialism,” and his theological views seem threatened to
some extent by a trend against Bultmann and “kerygma.”

Nonetheless, for anyone interested in Frye yet uncertain how to
approach his work, this is an excellent place to begin.


Adamson, Joseph., “Northrop Frye: A Visionary Life,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 17, 2024,