CL History: Northrop Frye, Milan Dimić and Comparative Literature

Jonathan Hart


The two figures in this article are scholars and teachers I knew personally, but their importance for Comparative Literature is the main focus here. I first attended one of Northrop Frye’s lectures in Toronto in the mid 1970s and first met Milan Dimić in the mid 1980s in Edmonton. Frye was a key to the founding of Comparative Literature at University of Toronto in the 1960s, as Dimić was instrumental in the start of Comparative Literature at Alberta about the same time. These two programs are the earliest and most longstanding in English Canada: this despite their vicissitudes, in a period that has not been kind to the study of language, literature and the humanities. Frye was born in Sherbrooke in 1912 and Dimić in Belgrade in 1933; places where languages and cultures coexisted and collided. They were both interested in French and English cultures, and Dimić also concentrated on Germanic language, literature and culture. Although both were committed to Comparative Literature, Frye was also a Professor of English and Dimić of German. Comparatists have often had various backgrounds in different disciplines. In the United States and Canada, scholars, not trained alone in Comparative Literature, helped to found or develop new programs and departments in the discipline and to train younger scholars in them. Here, I would like to discuss aspects of Frye and Dimić that made them exemplary comparatists.

In July 2010, Elizabeth Church wrote in The Globe and Mail about Frye’s role in the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University:

What began as a groundbreaking initiative more than four decades ago by Northrop Frye, one of the greatest literary theorists of the 20th century, is set to become the latest casualty of campus cost-cutting.

The Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, which the world-renowned scholar and author of The Great Code led as its founding director, will welcome its final class this fall under a plan now being considered by the university.

Fortunately, the students, faculty and others at University of Toronto and elsewhere banded together to save the Centre. Earlier in the decade, the same thing happened at University of Alberta. In some ways, the story of the legacy of Frye and Dimić is the erosion of the humanities since the 1960s in Canada and elsewhere. In a multicultural and multilingual country like Canada, in the context of globalization, the attempted curtailment of Comparative Literature at two major universities is a puzzle. The institutions have attached the names of Frye and Dimić to a building and Research Institute respectively, but both universities tried to close the Comparative Literature departments. In both places, the students were instrumental in defending their discipline in the face of shrinking budgets. Arts generally, not to mention the Humanities and Comparative Literature, seem to be a shrinking priority while universities reach out to international students and seek connections with other universities across the globe. It may well be in a period in which medical sciences and engineering are so emphasized that the human sciences and the arts are left to fend for themselves or are left to suffer neglect. Neither Frye nor Dimić would likely accept the marginalization of literary studies in the university and society. Both spent their lives teaching and writing about the importance of folklore, myth, literature and culture. The good news is that University of Alberta and University of Toronto eventually saw fit to continue to support Comparative Literature, and the students and faculty at both universities continue the legacy of Frye and Dimić.

Frye’s books show the range of his interests, his comparative interests and his ability to relate literature and society, and the literary and other fields. In Fearful Symmetry (1947), Frye discusses the work of William Blake, a poet and visual artist who worked on the cusp of Romanticism, in terms of philosophy and religion. Frye stresses Blake’s spiritual and visionary poetry and his prophetic poems, and notes Blake’s disagreement with Joshua Reynold’s aesthetics, which owed something to the philosophy of John Locke (Fearful 18). The literary imagination is powerful, and science and philosophy need imagination, too (Fearful 29). Frye extends his analysis of Blake’s patterns of images and his use of words to begin a theory of literary production and reception: one in which the author supplies the words and the reader the meaning (Fearful 427-28). In literary criticism or theory, Frye is at his most comparative. Along with Fearful Symmetry, Frye developed a series of articles that contributed to Anatomy of Criticism (1957) – one of the key works of literary theory in English – that dealt with function, cultural history, meaning, symbolism, comedy, satire, music in poetry, the genre of drama, prose fiction and myth.  

In Anatomy, Frye develops the ideas of biblical typology and literary symbolism in his critical theory, interests that he had expressed in relation to Blake but which he now hoped to apply to Edmund Spenser. A theory of allegory became a larger theoretical structure, as Frye explains in his Preface to Anatomy. In the “Polemical Introduction,” Frye declares the independence of critical theory as existing as a structure of thought and knowledge. He explores how the historical, ethical, archetypal and rhetorical theories treat modes, symbols, myths and genres, respectively. In the “Tentative Conclusion,” Frye sees, as part of his comprehensive framework, the critic or theorist as being concerned with myth or archetype, with history, with levels of meaning, and with text and texture. At the close of this conclusion, he recognizes criticism (theory) as the reforging of the broken connections between creation and knowledge, myth and concept, art and science. Just before this, Frye also compares literature and mathematics, and sees the mathematical and verbal as being different means to conceive of the same universe. Frye understands that class structure underlies history, and that text and context in literature and critical theory are their own structures, but these also seem to represent an imaginative truth, if not truth itself. Frye’s work argues for the autonomy of literature and critical theory while also showing an appreciation of interdisciplinarity.

Frye’s books have implications beyond the authors he is discussing, as we saw with Blake, and this also applies to Milton, whom Frye discusses in The Return of Eden (1965). In this book, Frye considers the central myth to be that of lost identity and suggests that all vision, courage and reason aim to regain that identity – not in terms of the individual but as a recognition that there is but one person, mind and world (143). Frye also writes about social and educational ideas, for instance anarchy, communism and the university, in one of the chapters of Spiritus Mundi (27-48). Frye’s notebooks include a few comments about Comparative Literature: “a person who is in comparative literature is bound to try to make the effort, at any rate, to widen his sympathies as far as possible” (Northrop Frye’s Fiction 57). The widening of perspective is something Frye associates with this discipline. In his notes for a paper given at the Canadian Comparative Literature Association meetings on 31 May 1974 in Toronto, Frye notes that “Third C. L. conference: question of theory seems central” (Northrop Frye’s Fiction 332). Frye’s interest in theory finds a connection with that same interest in Comparative Literature. Frye also considers the discipline in the context of the university: “Practical difficulties of C. L.: settles uneasily in graduate work above the teaching departments: those in it aren’t ‘in’ anything” (ibid). The uneasy situation of Comparative Literature institutionally is longstanding. Frye observes: “When we come to structure, C. L. involves translatability, in the largest sense” (333). Comparative Literature affects structure through translation, and the translatable is between languages and more. The linguistic is a key – Frye says: “Crucial stage however the understanding of the language; comparative literature fulfills itself when its comparative becomes positive” (335). In his actual talk, “Literature and Language,” Frye says: “I don’t see how there can be any difference between a theory of comparative literature and a theory of literature in general” (Northrop Frye on Literature and Society 219). He sees the problems of Comparative Literature in terms of the social context of literature (190). Frye talks about the absence of a distinctive theory for Comparative Literature because of the accidental barriers of language in literature, pointing out, for instance, that Latin, French and Italian have influenced English literature more than Old and Middle English (191). Much English fiction, according to Frye, is based on popular literature in ballad and folktale (ibid). He also says that because languages make it so hard to learn to read literature in a nuanced way, undergraduate language departments are limited to one language, and the Comparative Literature graduate program concentrates on “an exceedingly rarified aspect of translation” (ibid). Frye suggests that verbal structures are important, so he discusses reading in terms of two stages: sequence as a pre-critical act, and theme or meaning as a critical unity or structure (192). Reading is centrifugal and centripetal, inside and outside the work (192). Frye is interested in literary structure as one of myth and metaphor, that is, narrative and its units (193). Classical philosophy and Christianity also have much to do with the status of verbal structures. Whereas for Plato all verbal structures are to be judged by truth and falsehood, for Aristotle literary works are exempt from that judgement (194). The structure of the Bible is, for Frye, mythical and not logical (ibid). Frye maintains that “words have a very limited informing power for the outer world, as compared with mathematics” (ibid). Philosophy and homiletics based on the Bible are, like literary works, found in internal criteria (195). Frye, then, examines the internal and external dynamics of literary texts and does so in an interdisciplinary context. His view of Comparative Literature has much to do with his theory of literature, with a basis in the verbal structures themselves, while being compared to those that attempt to describe the external world.

But Frye’s idea of Comparative Literature is more intricate still, having a changing configuration, which his discipline has not had here (at least for undergraduates) but which is becoming more a central concept than in departments based on one language and literature. A professor of English who was the founding director of the Centre for Comparative Literature at University of Toronto, Frye takes a rather surprising view given the size and scope of departments of English and the vulnerability of the various academic shapes that Comparative Literature assumes: “I think Eng. lit. may have had it as a discipline; I think we may be moving toward the centralizing of the humanities on what is really comparative literature, in translation for kids and in the original for those who want to learn the languages” (Northrop Frye’s Fiction 355). This view puts Comparative Literature at the centre of the humanities and makes English seem on its last legs as a field. Frye’s assumption appears to be that students, faculty, universities and the society at large will move to comparative literature and an understanding of the translation of culture and the importance of other languages. This vantage assumes that people with be open and educated in the connections in literature and the world.  

Whereas Frye is interested in mythology as expressing human concern about humanity and its place in the world and on the primary mythological constructions of the Biblical-Aristotelian (based on subject object and reason) and the modern (based on the experimental and empirical approaches of Science), Dimic is fascinated with folklore (Hart 24). These interests cross linguistic and cultural boundaries, so it is not surprising that Comparative Literature received the attention of both scholars. It is Dimić’s background and his concern with Comparative Literature to which I now turn.

By 1964, Dimić had published three books, Predanja klasične starine (Legends of Classical Antiquity), Predanja starih Germana (Old Germanic Legends), and Predanja azijskih naroda (Legends of Asian Nations). In 1965, he brought out an edition of Franc Kafka. Pripovetke (Franz Kafka: Selected Narrative Prose). In 1966, Dimić joined the University of Alberta after spending his early career in Yugoslavia and Germany. He was the founding chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Alberta in 1969. Dimić was an important part of the Congress of International Comparative Literature Association (ICLA/AILC) in Montreal and Ottawa in 1973. A year later he was founding editor of the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée (CRCL/RCLC). In 1985, Dimić established the Research Institute for Comparative Literature (RICL; now the M. V. Dimić Institute) of which he was the founding director. RICL sponsored research projects and conferences, and was instrumental in hosting the Fourteenth Congress of the ICLA/AILC at the University of Alberta in 1994. He retired as University Professor at Alberta in 1998, but until 2001, he continued to teach and supervise. He was then Visiting Professor, Department of English, Shih Hsin University in Taipei (see Gillespie 2009).

Dimić writes on an array of comparative topics. For instance, in the volume that grew out of the Congress in Ottawa and Montreal, he discusses the relations among the Gothic in Europe, the United States and Canada, seeing traces of the Gothic in writers from William Faulkner to Anne Hébert and beyond (“Aspects” 149). His Prolegomena in the first issue of the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature in 1974 surveys the journals of Comparative Literature, discusses Comparative Literature in Canada, sets out editorial policies and the material conditions for the journal and defers to the reader (“Prolegomena”). About twenty-two years later, Dimić discusses the state of Comparative Literature; and how the triumph of English and departments of English in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet “empire” threaten, amid the triumph of the market economy and shrinking budgets, to create a conformism in which the truths of English-speaking North America are not questioned in terms of alterity and other languages, literatures and traditions (“Preface: W[h]ither” 9-13). This dilemma of Comparative Literature is similar to the one Frye identifies, in which he thinks Comparative Literature will move English aside and in which he sees Comparative Literature as having no location at the undergraduate level as compared with national literatures like English. Dimić – about five years after Frye’s death – sees ever-increasing pressure on Comparative Literature in universities in Canada and the United States.

Moreover, he makes contributions in comparative Canadian literature, polysystem theory, globalization and other areas that are still key to debates in Comparative Literature, the humanities and beyond. He also contributes to the institution of Comparative Literature in Canada and internationally, as well as to an understanding of the institutional and intellectual situation of literary studies, especially in its comparative manifestation (see, for example, Dimić in Chen and Lin). Dimić says that globalization must benefit the vast majority of people and their communities in order to avoid being a dystopia (“Mind-Forg’d” 50). Even though Dimić writes about systems and institutions, he does not lose sight of the individual and the reader in culture and literature, nor the person who lives in economic and political hardship. He conveys the dilemmas of people in and beyond literature in the world.

Soon after 1912 to 1991, Frye read literature and came to study, teach and write about it, and soon after 1932 to 2007, Dimić did the same. Their presences overlapped in Canada from 1966 to 1991, and both attended some of the same meetings, including that of the Canadian Comparative Literature Association. Dimić brought a different point of view from the Balkans and Germany before coming to his adopted land. Both teachers were important to their Universities and to the establishment of Comparative Literature there and in Canada generally. They both made significant contributions to literary and comparative studies internationally. Frye and Dimić were dedicated teachers and supervisors. Furthermore, Dimić contributed a great deal as an editor and research director in Comparative Literature and to the executive of the Canadian Comparative Literature Association and the International Comparative Literature Association. I was fortunate to have had Frye as a teacher and Dimić as a mentor at these two institutions. They are more than the sum of their writings and have touched many of their students and colleagues. Frye and Dimić were committed to humane letters and to being responsible in the world, and they touched people near and far and instilled in them an understanding of literature and culture in that world. 


Works Cited


Church, Elizabeth. “U of T plans to shut down Centre for Comparative Literature,” Globe and Mail, Tuesday, July 13, 2010.

Dimić, Milan V. “Prolegomena.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/ Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée 1 (1974): 1-7. Web.

---. “Aspects of American and Canadian Gothicism.” Proceedings of the 7th Congress of the International Comparative Literature, Volume 1, Literatures of America: Dependence, Independence, Interdependence, ed. Eds. Milan V. Dimić and Juan Ferraté. Stuttgart: Kunst und Wissen/Erich Bieber, 1979. Print. 143-49.

---. “Preface: W[h]ither Comparative Literature?” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/ Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée 23 (1996): 6-13. Web.

---. “Once More About Globalization: An Introduction.” Cultural Identity in the Age of Globalization. Ed. Peng-hsiang Chen and Jenn-Shann Lin. Edmonton: Dimić Institute, 2010. Print. 1-23.

---. “‘The Mind-Forg’d Manacles’: Literary Encounters with Culture, Identity, and Subjectivity in the Age of Globalization.” Cultural Identity in the Age of Globalization. Ed. Peng-hsiang Chen and Jenn-Shann Lin. Edmonton: Dimić Institute, 2010. Print. 24-59.

Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947). Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974. Print.

---. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957). Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973. Print.

---. The Return of Eden: Five Essays on Milton’s Epics (1965). Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1975. Print.

---. Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society (1976). Bloomington: U of Indian P, 1983. Print.

---. Northrop Frye on Literature and Society 1936-1989: Unpublished Papers. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Collected Works of Northrop Frye, vol. 10. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1996. Print.

---. Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings. Eds. Robert D. Denham and Michael Dolzani. Collected Works of Northrop Frye, vol. 25. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2007. Print.

Gillespie, Gerald. “In memoriam Milan V. Dimić (1933-2007).” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 11.1 (2009). Web.

Hart, Jonathan. “Introduction.” City of the End of Things: Lectures on Civilization and Empire. Ed. Jonathan Hart. Toronto: Oxford UP, 2009. Print. 1-34. 





Jonathan Hart, who first taught at the University of Alberta in 1984, has held visiting appointments at Harvard, Cambridge, Princeton, Sorbonne-Nouvelle, Toronto and elsewhere. He is the author of many monographs, including Representing the New World (2001), Comparing Empires (2003), Interpreting Cultures (2006), Empires and Colonies (2008), Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (2011), Literature, Theory, History (2011) and Fictional and Historical Worlds (2012).



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