Northrop Frye

Visionary of the Educated Imagination

Northrop Frye and His Influence on The Productions of Time

The Productions of Time is informed in countless ways by the work of Northrop Frye, the most influential literary critic and theorist of the twentieth century.  It is common to say that Frye’s reputation and influence have waned in the twenty-first century, but Robert D. Denham, in The Critical Reception of Northrop Frye, shows that to be untrue except within academic institutions of the United States and England, and even there interest in his work is undergoing a partial revival.  Frye’s international reputation, based on purely objective evidence such as citations, articles, and dissertations about his work, continues in fact to grow. 

That Frye has an international reputation says something in itself—it is not, to put it mildly, something commonly possessed by literary critics.  Frye once came in number 2 in a Canadian list of The 100 Greatest Canadians, and he is almost certainly the only literary critic to appear (again in Canada) on a commemorative stamp.  And his popularity extends beyond academia, in part because his lucid and graceful, occasionally witty style is accessible to intellectually curious non-academics.  An ideal introduction to Frye is his short book The Educated Imagination, which began as six radio lectures for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in 1962.  The original radio talks are now available on YouTube—an early form of podcast.  No one writes as well as Frye, but I have attempted to compose The Productions of Time in similarly inviting prose. 

Frye wrote close to two dozen books and a few hundred articles, but is best known for four landmark books, two in the first half of his career and two in the second, each of which took a decade to complete.  When I was nineteen, my mentor at Baldwin-Wallace College, Ted Harakas, handed me the first of those landmark books, Fearful Symmetry, a study of the Romantic poet William Blake, and told me I needed to read it.  It changed my life by expanding my perspective beyond anything I had ever dreamed of:  the visionary aspect of Productions is very much a development of Blake’s theory of the imagination based on the uniting of subject and object as unified and dynamic Contraries. 

Frye’s second landmark book, Anatomy of Criticism, is really a continuation of Fearful Symmetry, applying what Frye had learned from the study of one poet to the whole of literature.  It became the most cited work of literary scholarship of the twentieth century and the basis of his fame.  The map of the literary and mythological universe, symbolized by the mandala, in Productions is influenced by the Anatomy

But it is also influenced by another diagram that was known by no one because it existed only within Frye’s unpublished notebooks.  After Frye’s death, it was found that Frye had filled 77 handwritten notebooks, 4000 pages of material, over a period of some fifty years.  Almost none of the material was drafts, and in fact much of it did not correspond to material in his published books.  Rather, it was private thinking, sometimes a good deal more radical and ambitiously speculative than the published work.  By some miracle, the right to edit and publish the notebooks was given to Robert Denham, who invited me to become his collaborator.  Bob and I spent fifteen years of our lives editing the notebooks into eight volumes, which were eventually subsumed into the larger project of The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, General Editor Alvin A. Lee, in 30 volumes, published by the University of Toronto Press.  I edited three of the eight volumes, and co-edited a fourth with Bob.  Late in the game I was invited to edit the fourth landmark volume, Words with Power, for the Collected Works (the third landmark was The Great Code:  both books concern the Bible and literature).  The first volume of notebooks I edited was The Third Book Notebooks of Northrop Frye: 1964-1972.  In those notebooks, Frye was working towards what he called The Third Book—in other words, the third landmark book after Fearful Symmetry and the Anatomy.  The book, which was to be in four volumes and titled The Critical Comedy, was based on a mandala-style diagram delighted named The Great Doodle.  The Third Book never got written, although a good deal of its material was incorporated into the second half of Words with Power.  But on one level The Productions of Time is an attempt to write my version of the Third Book project, complete with my own (rather different) mandala.

Works about Northrop Frye by Michael Dolzani

Volumes of The Collected Works of Northrop Frye

  • Volume 9, The Third Book Notebooks of Northrop Frye
  • Volume 15, Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance
  • Volume 20, Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Renaissance Literature
  • Volume 25, Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings, with Robert D. Denham
  • Volume 26, Words with Power:  Being a Second Study of The Bible and Literature


  • From the Defeated:  Northrop Frye and the Literary Symbol.  In Educating the Imagination:  Northrop Frye Past, Present, and Future, ed. Alan Bewell, Neil ten Kortenaar, and Germaine Warkentin.  McGill-Queens University Press, 2015.  Originally delivered as one of five plenary addresses at the Northrop Frye Centenary Conference at the University of Toronto, October 5, 2012. 
  • “Blazing with Artifice:  Light from the Northrop Frye Notebooks,”  a special issue of University of Toronto Quarterly, edited by Linda Hutcheon and Germaine Warkentin, 2012, the centenary of Frye’s birth.
  • Electronic Publication (Peer Reviewed Journal): “Desert Paradise:  A Polemical Reintroduction to Northrop Frye,”, hosted by McMaster University Library, posted April, 2010.
  • Electronic Publication: “The View from the Northern Farm,”, hosted by the McMaster University Library, 2010
  • “Frye and Utopia,” in Northrop Frye:  New Directions from Old, ed. David Rampton, University of Ottawa Press, 2009. 
  • “The Ashes of Stars:  Northrop Frye and the Trickster God,” in Frye and the Word:  Religious Contexts in the Writings of Northrop Frye, ed. Jeffery Donaldson and Alan Mendelson, University of Toronto Press, 2004.  Simultaneous publication in Semeia 89, Northrop Frye and the Afterlife of the Word, guest ed. James M. Kee, Society of Biblical Literature, 2002. Originally presented May 19, 2000 at Frye and the Word:  Religious Contexts in the Criticism of Northrop Frye, a conference at McMaster University, Ontario.
  • “On Earth as It Is in Heaven:  The Problem of Wish-Fulfillment in Frye’s Visionary Criticism,” New Directions in N. Frye Studies, edited by Wang Ning and Jean O’Grady, published in China, 2001.  Also published in Northrop Frye:  Eastern and Western Perspectives, ed. Jean O’Grady and Wang Ning, University of Toronto Press, 2003.  Originally delivered as the Jordan Lecture, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia, October 1999. 
  • “The Book of the Dead:  A Skeleton Key to Northrop Frye’s Notebooks,” Rereading Frye:  The Published and Unpublished Works, edited by David Boyd and Imre Salusinszky, University of Toronto Press, 1999. 
  • “The Ruins of Time:  Frye and the City, 1977,” The Northrop Frye Newsletter, Vol. 8, No. 1, Summer 1999, 1-7.  Originally presented at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in Toronto, Dec. 1996.
  • “Wrestling with Powers:  The Social Thought of Northrop Frye,” The Legacy of Northrop Frye, edited by Alvin A. Lee and Robert D. Denham, University of Toronto Press, 1994. 
  • “The Infernal Method:  Northrop Frye and Contemporary Criticism,” Centre and Labyrinth:  Essays in Honour of Northrop Frye, edited by Eleanor Cook, Chaviva Hosek, Jay Macpherson, Patricia Parker, and Julian Patrick, University of Toronto Press, 1983. 

Book Reviews

  • Northrop Frye:  The Theoretical Imagination by Jonathan Hart, in Style, Vol. 30, No. 3, Fall 1996, 519-23.
  • Northrop Frye:  A Biography, by John Ayre.  In The Northrop Frye Newsletter, 2:1, Winter 1989-90, 12-18. 

Other Media

  • “Northrop Frye’s Vision of Spirituality in Higher Education,” and participation in panel discussion.  October 3, 2004, as part of Faith, Freedom and the Academy:  The Idea of the University in the 21st Century, a conference at the University of Prince Edward Island.  
  • “The View from the Northern Farm:  Northrop Frye and Nature.”  Keynote address at the Northrop Frye International Literary Festival, Moncton, New Brunswick, April 21, 2004.  Panel discussion afterwards on the same subject with three other panelists. 
  • Radio Interview with David Cayley, incorporated into a three-hour series about Northrop Frye broadcast by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the show Ideas,  Feb. 19, 26, Mar. 5, 1990.

Works about Northrop Frye by Other Scholars

Overview of The Collected Works of Northrop Frye

Alvin Lee, “The Collected Works of Northrop Frye:  The Project and the Edition,” in Northrop Frye:  New Directions from Old (see below).

Collections of Articles about Frye

  • Center and Labyrinth: Essays in Honour of Northrop Frye. University of Toronto Press, 1983.
  • Visionary Poetics:  Essays on Northrop Frye’s Criticism, edited by Robert D. Denham and Thomas Willard.  Peter Lang, 1991.
  • The Legacy of Northrop Frye, edited by Alvin A. Lee and Robert D. Denham. University of Toronto Press, 1994.
  • Rereading Frye:  The Published and Unpublished Works, edited by David Boyd and Imre Salusinszky.  University of Toronto Press, 1999. 
  • Northrop Frye:  Eastern and Western Perspectives, edited by Jean O’Grady and Wang Ning.  University of Toronto Press, 2003.
  • Frye and the Word:  Religious Contexts in the Writings of Northrop Frye, edited by Jeffery Donaldson and Alan Mendelson.  University of Toronto Press, 2004.
  • Northrop Frye:  New Directions from Old,
  • Educating the Imagination: Northrop Frye Past, Present, and Future, edited by Alan Bewell, Neil ten Kortenaar, and Germain Warkentin. University of Toronto Press, 2015.  edited by David Rampton. University of Ottawa Press, 2009.

Frye Scholarship:  Robert D. Denham

The most important Frye scholar is Robert D. Denham, without whom “Frye studies” would not exist.  His importance is twofold, bibliographic and critical.

Bibliographic Work

Denham’s Northrop Frye: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources (University of Toronto Press) provided the basis for the Collected Works of Northrop Frye project.  It has had various updatings and amplifications, including The Northrop Frye Handbook: A Biographical and Bibliographic Guide (Macfarland) and Northrop Frye’s Uncollected Prose (University of Toronto Press).  Forthcoming is The Reception of Northrop Frye (July, 2021). 

Critical Work

Denham has published books and articles on Frye throughout a career spanning over fifty years.  Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World (University of Toronto Press, 2004) may well be the profoundest examination of Frye as visionary, and draws extensively on Frye’s previously-unpublished work.  Most recently he has published three volumes of Northrop Frye and Others (University of Ottawa Press), whose individual chapters focus on Frye’s relationship to a wide range of figures, from Aristotle to Tolkien. 

Representative Exemplary Articles on Frye

This list is highly selective. 

The short-title references are to the collections listed above. 

  • Carter, Adam, “Correspondences:  Frye, DeMan, Romanticism,” in Educating
  • Chamberlin, J. Edward, “Chanting Down Babylon: Innocence and Experience in the Contemporary Humanities,” in Educating
  • Forst, Graham Nicol, “Kant and Frye on the Critical Path,” in Eastern and Western Perspectives
  • Gill, Glen, “Beyond Anagogy:  Northrop Frye’s Existential (Re)visions, in Eastern and Western Perspectives.
  • Gill, Glen, “The Word Made Flesh:  Body and Spirit in the New Archetypology of Northrop Frye,” in Word.  See also Gill’s book Northrop Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth
  • Gorak, Jan, “Frye and the Legacy of Communication, in Legacy.
  • O’Grady, Jean, “Northrop Frye on Liberal Education,” in Eastern and Western Perspectives.
  • Salusinszky, Imre, “Frye and Ideology,” in Legacy.
  • Salusinszky, Imre.  “’In the Climates of the Mind’: Frye’s Career as a Spiral Curriculum” in Word
  • Tally, Robert, “Power to the Educated Imagination! Northrop Frye and the  Utopian Impulse,” in Educating
  • Tóth, Sára, “Recovering the Spiritual Other:  Martin Buber’s ‘Thou’ in Northrop Frye’s Late Work,” in New Directions
  • Tóth, Sára, “A World in which Everything is Here: Northrop Frye’s Immanent Vision of the Divine.” In The Immediacy of Mystical Experience in the European Tradition. Enikő Sepsi, Miklós Vassányi, Anikó Daróczi eds. Springer International Publishing, 2017. 239–246.
  • Willard, Tom, “The Visionary Education,” in Visionary Poetics.
  • Willard, Tom, “Frye’s Principles of Literary Symbolism: From the Classroom to the Critical Classics,” in Educating