Brian Russell Graham (Aalborg)
The Anti-Elitist Nature of Northrop Frye's Conceptions of Highbrow and Popular Literature
The Anti-Elitist Nature of Northrop Frye's Conceptions of Highbrow and Popular Literature
A critic's construction of the cultural categories of high and low is quite obviously a political matter, and it is commonplace to flesh out the politics of any critic's treatment of the two categories. This article deals with the politics of Northrop Frye's discussion of highbrow and popular literature, and it advances the argument that Frye's understanding of the opposition should be viewed as decidedly 'anti-elitist'. As the article explains, this anti-elitist tendency in Frye's account of highbrow and popular rests on two important factors: i) in Frye's iteration, the category of popular literature engulfs the main tradition of English literature, so that much of what we usually think of as 'the canon' gets reconfigured as the literature of the general public, and ii) in his view, popular literature itself involves a kind of literary training which facilitates upward mobility in the literary domain. The article also includes a 'reading' of a list of literary works that rehearses the training afforded by popular works, clarifying the nature of the education in question.
One of the crucial questions to be asked about any theory or poetics of "high and low" is whether it re-enforces the class structure or undermines it. This article is the first of two that seek to evaluate Frye's thinking about highbrow and popular literature in that light. Working with a specific definition of what sociologists call "dominant taste", a second article will arrive at a final verdict on Frye's ideas in this domain. This article limits itself to a consideration of the politics of Frye's notions of highbrow and popular literature, and it argues that, in this regard, Frye's thinking is unequivocally anti-elitist.
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Implicit in Frye's view is a sense of how not to conceptualize highbrow and popular literature, which we might fairly characterize as an elitist view of literature. In that account, the literature of the general public is limited to popular literature, elite literature belongs to a social elite, and there is no upward mobility between the two levels. This article argues that Frye's critical vision of "high and low" may justifiably be considered anti-elitist because i) in his poetics, the category of popular literature is vastly expanded, so that the main tradition of English literature (much of which is conventionally thought of as highbrow) becomes the literature of the general public, and ii) in his view, popular literature represents a gateway literature which offers low-status readers a kind of training which facilitates upward mobility in the literary domain.
One early discussion of Frye’s view of the literary canon is Jan Gorak’s "Northrop Frye and the Visionary Canon", chapter 4 of his The Making of the Modern Canon: Genesis and Crisis of a Literary Idea (Gorak 1991), but that discussion fails to clarify the nature of the relationship between high and low in Frye’s thinking. Some of my work on Frye and the popular touches upon some of the issues dealt with in this article. "Northrop Frye and the Opposition Between Popular Literature and Bestsellers" (Graham 2013) represents an early attempt to provide an account of the ambiguity inherent in Frye's conception of popular literature. That piece, however, fails to investigate the matter thoroughly enough, and it unhelpfully mixes considerations of the aesthetics and ethics of popular literature. "Frye and Hoggart on Film and TV" (2015a) seeks to defend the attitude to mass media which Frye and Richard Hoggart shared, which has been criticised as elitist. And in "Northrop Frye on Leisure as an Activity" (2015b) a piece which, like the present article, discusses Frye's ideas about high and low against the background of social class, I mount a defence of Frye's preference for leisure over "boredom". None of these pieces, however, amounts to a clear articulation of the important points adumbrated in the preceding paragraph.
In attempting to throw those points into sharp relief, this article, arranged in three parts, achieves three interrelated aims. Part I introduces the conception of formally popular literature and clarifies the nature of the training it offers "low status" readers. Part II seeks to do justice to how, in what is a highly political gesture, Frye expands the category of popular literature, while clarifying how he conceptualizes the non-popular. And Part III represents a rehearsal of how "low-status" readers profit from reading formally popular literature.
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We notice that when speaking of the popular in "Blake After Two Centuries", Frye has two different types of the popular in mind. He thinks of two types of popular in terms of the distinction between form and content: "The two senses of popular seem to be, up to a point, connected with the distinction of content and form" (Frye 1963: 141). One possible inference is that most popular material consists of form and content, and that, consequently, the distinction fails to alert us to different types of the popular. But Frye also thinks in terms of distinct "centres of gravity", meaning that we may speak about one position on this continuum where the popular is more a matter of form and another position where it is more about content.
In this seminal article, Frye speaks of poetry and fiction in connection with both types of popular fiction. With respect to the first kind of popular literature, which is more a matter of content rather then form, the concept is the principle of popular poetry, and something along the lines of displaced narrative is the principle of popular fiction. Labelling the conceptual kind of popular poetry "vogue poetry", Frye provides us with a small handful of examples:
With respect to fiction, Frye's view is that the first kind of popular fiction it is characterized by topicality: it may possess "news value" (Frye 1963: 140), as Frye suggests at one point. But presumably it may be historical as well, its relevance relating to its representation of the past. More generally, he has in mind popular fiction that passes muster as "realistic", although the safer term is "displaced". In Frye's own times, clearly the popular novels of Graham Greene would have provided examples of this kind of material.
It is the second kind of popular that is of prime importance to us. On a general level, Frye is of the view that metaphor is the formal principle of poetry, while myth is the formal principle of fiction, and this distinction determines how he conceptualizes the formally popular. If, in the first context, the concept is the principle of popular poetry, and displaced narrative is the principle of popular fiction, in the second context, metaphor is the principle of popular poetry, and myth is the principle of popular fiction.
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Frye has in mind both the romantic and the mythical, but we can keep it simple and stick to the shorthand phrase "myth and metaphor".
Popular fiction, and what it offers readers, in this second context, can be dealt with quite quickly. If it is displaced in the first context, it is mythical or romantic in the second, and its power resides in its ability to introduce readers to myths. If we turn to Poe's "Ligeia" (Poe 1984), considering it in this manner, we become aware of its mythical structure, which can be characterized as the story of Proserpine or what Frye calls, in Anatomy of Criticism, the "mythical death and revival pattern" (Frye 2006a: 128). The story imparts knowledge of a particular mythical pattern to the reader, and the knowledge of that myth means that the reader is equipped for other literature, some of which is highbrow.
Popular poetry in this context takes more explaining. The key concept is spoken of in Anatomy of Criticism as "archetypal metaphor". He states that "Archetypally, where the symbol is an associative cluster, the metaphor unites two individual images, each of which is a specific representative of a class or genus" (Frye 2006a: 115), a formulation which needs unpacking. If we start out with classes or geni, Frye often works with categories of Being derived from the idea of the "Great Chain of Being".
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Frye refers to an image which is a "specific representative of its class" by which he means that, in this mythical domain, one image of the vegetable world, say the image of a tree, represents the whole genus. It is a tree that represents all trees, as it were.The banyan tree in Blake's "The Human Abstract", with its "dismal shade" and "fruit of deceit" (see below), is an example of this kind of image.
If we have understood that it is possible for an image to be a "specific representative of its class", we can proceed to the first dimension of what Frye says: "the metaphor unites two individual images, each of which is a specific representative of a class or genus." So, one image of this type gets identified with another image of this type. What we find in Blake's poem, when viewed from this viewpoint, is the identity of the vegetable world and the animal world.
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The poem offers three images that might be considered representative of the animal world: metaphorically, the tree "is" the raven, not to mention the caterpillar and the fly. The poem is yet more metaphorical. The human world also gets identified with the vegetable world: at the end of the poem, the tree is located inside the human body.
The reader might object that it is strange if this tree is all trees; after all, some trees are quite pleasant. Clearly, some kind of polarity inheres in literary imagery. The mythical area must be divided into two, which Frye names the apocalyptic and the demonic.
To simplify this somewhat, the apocalyptic column consists of the mythical images which hold great appeal; they relate how we like things to be. The demonic column comprises images that are the polar opposite: they inspire fear, dislike or even disgust. Blake's representative of the vegetable world, banyan tree, belongs of course to the demonic structure of imagery. It is the fearful tree that is all fearful trees, if you will.
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Another poem on the list provides us with an apocalyptic image that is a representative of vegetable world, namely Yeats' "holy tree" from "The Two Trees".
This tree is the counterpart of the one in Blake's lyrical poem. Thus:
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Yeats's poem, in fact, deals with both trees: the text is concerned with the contrast between the "holy tree", on the one hand, and the tree of death spoken of the poem, on the other.
Interestingly, the metaphor is the same as it is in Blake. The latter tree is identified with "the ravens of unresting thought", and the former (and probably the latter) is also identified with the human body the holy tree, we learn, grows in the beloved's heart.
Frye's view is that the reader of formally popular literature learns about myth and metaphors through his or her encounter with that literature, that knowledge equipping the reader for other, more challenging, highbrow literature. In "Blake After Two Centuries", Frye states that this kind of popular literature represents "the art which affords the key to imaginative experience for the untrained" (Frye 1963: 141). The formally popular, then, has the capacity to eventuate a kind of mobility in literature, whereby readers with less literary experience may quickly acquire a form of training, which allows them to proceed to other kinds of literature, indisputably highbrow literature included.
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Let us proceed by rehearsing one what might seem like the right conclusion. It could be argued that the anti-elitist nature of Frye's thinking about high and low consists in the fact that he thinks in terms of a form of upward mobility in relation to a hierarchical arrangement. Popular literature offers a training in literary experience, and, having gained that training, the reader may proceed to elite literature.
The notion of upward mobility is key to Frye's anti-elitist thinking about types of literature, but this conceptualisation of his viewpoint as its stands is not quite right. In a movement that is obviously highly political, Frye reconfigures the main tradition of English literature as formally popular, thereby suggesting that that tradition, which includes much of Shakespeare, Blake and a host of others, represents the literature of the public rather than an elite.
"Blake After Two Centuries" is again the key text in this regard. In this seminal article, Frye advances this argument primarily with reference to Blake. He is of the view that the popularity of Blake stems from his politics, religious views and literary preferences, which are radical, Protestant and Romantic respectively, but the most important point relates to the definition of the popular that we have already considered. The formally popular amounts to material that introduces readers to literary experience. In that case, Blake's oeuvre is popular in its entirety, argues Frye:
It is not only Blake's oeuvre that is popular in this way. Having identified the main rump of English literature as Romantic, revolutionary and Protestant, he makes a bold claim about its popularity and connects that popularity with the features in question. The "combination of Protestant, radical, and Romantic qualities", he argues, "is frequent enough in English literature to account for the popularity, in every sense, of the products of it" (Frye 1963: 149).
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A critical vision in which the central tradition of English is understood as popular begins to emerge in Frye's poetics, then. An obvious question hovers into view at this point, though. Does the cogency of Frye's thinking not begin to suffer when he expands the popular to this extent? After all, if the popular is defined in relation to its power to introduce readers to literary experience, does that not presuppose another domain which the reader proceeds to, having received his or her training?
Three points can be made by way of a response. Firstly, Anglophone modernism does not represent part of the enlarged domain of Anglophone popular literature. In "Blake After Two Centuries", Frye also speaks of the Anglophone writers who clearly do not appertain the tradition he is describing. "There has been no lack of Catholic, Tory and Classical elements too, but the tradition dealt with here has been popular enough to give these latter elements something of the quality of a consciously intellectual reaction" (149). Frye stops short of stating that it makes no sense to describe this tradition as popular, but his conclusion is obviously that there is no scope for claims about the popularity of, say, Pound, paralleling those made about Blake. In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye speaks of the high and low of this period of literature in relation to a "gap": the gap is broader in "ironic writing" (Frye's term for the modernist period), he observes (47).
Secondly, other literatures are not as popular as English literature. Again in "Blake After Two Centuries", Frye contrasts English culture with French culture in a very revealing manner:
Thirdly, despite Frye's bold statements about the main tradition of English literature, we can safely infer that a number of works in that tradition are better positioned not as works introducing us to literary experience but as works we proceed to once we have begun to feel at home in poetic imagery. Frye would never contradict what he says about Blake's popularity, and he would insist on the popular nature of a much greater amount of the main tradition than perhaps any other literary critic, but he is prepared to speak of Milton, for example, as a writer in that tradition who requires learning on the part of the reader.
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In The Secular Scripture, Frye endeavours to separate what (in scare quotes) he calls "elite" literature and popular literature. Pope belongs to the other tradition, so it is no surprise that he is presented as an elite writer; but Milton, who clearly belongs to the main tradition, is also spoken of as "elite":
The conclusion which emerges, then, is different from what we first imagined. The anti-elitist nature of Frye's thinking about high and low does indeed consist in the idea that popular literature is a gateway literature which facilitates a form of upward mobility, whereby low-status readers acquire the training they need to engage meaningfully with unequivocally highbrow material. But it also consists in the fact that he thinks in terms of an enormously expanded conception of the area of popular fiction, so that what is conventionally construed as the "canon" becomes the literature of "the public".
Having clarified the principles at stake, let us turn our attention to the reading list appended to this article, in order to rehearse how readers may gain a "key to imaginative experience" through popular material (see Appendix below). Some of the texts are works of popular literature often referred to by Frye.
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I have chosen others, and I have attempted to incorporate "new" types of fiction (graphic novel, interactive storytelling), in order to foreground that the applicability of what Frye says is not limited to traditional genres.
As this piece has explained, in Frye's view, these works of fiction, like all works of popular fiction, offer the reader an education in myth, which in this context is one dimension of what constitutes a formal training in imaginative literature. Poe's "Ligeia", as we have seen, offers us experience of the story of Proserpine, and the other works offer other mythical patterns. Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood(Pyle 2005) is characterized by a mythical shape, which is best thought of as the myth of the tree-god. When we start thinking about Lord of the Rings in this way, we become aware of the renounced quest pattern in the story: Frodo succeeds in his quest when his nerve fails and he starts to gives up. In the interactive fiction Galatea by Emily Short (Short 2000), it is of course the myth of Pygmalion and his creation that provides the author with her inspiration, and that myth that the reader/player gains experience of. Lastly, when we turn to Alan Moore's V for Vendetta (Moore 198889), we become appreciative of the fact that it introduces us to the archetypal story of the killing of the tyrant leader/sacrificed victim (identified by Frye in Anatomy of Criticism as "the demonic or undisplaced radical form of tragic or ironic structures" (Frye 2006a: 137)). The myth is actually even clearer in the film adaptation, where "Adam Sutler" is very obviously a sacrificed victim figure in addition to tyrant leader.
The works of popular fiction on the list have the capacity to provide the reader with an introduction to various myths, then, and a similar statement can be made in relation to poetry: the small handful of poems on the list, supplemented by some works of fiction, has the capacity to provide readers with something of an introduction to archetypal metaphor. If Blake's banyan tree is an example of an individual image representative of a class, the imagery of these works follow that pattern.
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And of course the images in question are identifiable with other individual images also representative of a class. Just as we were able to identify the metaphorical nature of the imagery in Blake and Yeats, so we might easily begin the pick out the archetypal metaphors in this table, too. If we take Donne's religious lyrical poem, for example, one of the first things that strikes us is that the poem invokes the conventional notion of the God who is three in one. In other words, the individual is identical with its class. In addition to that, and in relation to the principle that "the metaphor unites two individual images, each of which is a specific representative of a class or genus", in Donne's poem, the relevant categories are the divine and the "sexual imagery" subdivision of the human world. The speaker's relationship with God is spoken of metaphorically as that of two individuals involved in a sexual relationship one that has strongly sadomasochistic overtones, as it happens. Specifically, the God (who is three in one) is identifiable with the (probably) male lover, and the speaker identifiable with the female beloved:
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Other identifications emerge as the reader continues to work with this corpus. Of course any story in which animals get up on their hind legs and start talking in the manner of human beings points to a sustained identification in the narrative of animal with human worlds. Lewis's Aslan, then, is an identification of those worlds. And so on. An understanding of some identifications would necessitate an expansion of the table used here. Frye gives critics the option of adding two worlds fire and water to the five. It only becomes obvious what Tolkien's Sauron is identified with (the world of fire) when we add these.
By way of a final point, even a pared down corpus would provide us with instances of the opposing metaphors. Just as the two trees are easily identifiable in Yeats' poem, so both the apocalyptic and demonic are discernible in the demonic column texts in the other four categories. Blake's "Jerusalem", of course, is also focused on the divine city (which provides the poem with its title), which offers such a stark contrast to what Blake sees around him. In Animal Farm, if Napoleon is the demonic figure, Boxer, his moral opposite, might be viewed as his apocalyptic counterpart. At the end of V for Vendetta, much is made of the fact that V (by this time dead) is everyone in society. And Lord of the Rings actually provides us with the outline of a "three-in-one" divine world figure: Gandalf, Frodo and Aragorn function in the manner of a single divine figure (an Old Testament Messianic figure) who is threefold. And if we persisted with this way of "reading" these works, it would become clear that, as in Yeats' "The Two Trees", the metaphors unite separate images which are representative of a class or genus.
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Popular literature equips us for more highbrow material, and it is easy to briefly rehearse the way in which it does so. If we begin with myth, the reader's engagement with, say, Galatea and "Ligeia" equip him or her for Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. In that play, Hermione returns to life at the end of the action. She comes back from the dead (Proserpine); a statue of her comes to life (Galatea). If we adopt an excessively aggressive attitude to literature, insisting forever that anything that is implausible must have some kind of "natural" explanation, we might find ourselves insisting that she had not died and that rather than a statue, what was revealed was a "living statue". But popular literature, introducing us to the mythical, prepares us for all kinds of violations of the canons of plausibility. And the student of Shakespeare's play who has absorbed the mythical nature of literature will hopefully investigate the play's meaning without diminishing its mythical structure.
Turning to metaphor, the reader's experience of, say, Yeats's "The Two Trees" equips him or her to engage with Milton's Paradise Lost. Two trees figure in Milton's epic: the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (the tree in the "bitter glass") and the Tree of Life (the "holy tree"). Perhaps a sound training, afforded by popular literature, might have prompted professional critics to deal properly with the second tree more quickly. Writing in 1966, commentator Ann Grossman lamented the fact that while critics had dealt comprehensively with the former tree in their works, the Tree of Life had been neglected in critical treatments. Interestingly, in her exposition of the tree's significance, she starts to think about the tree in part as an archetypal metaphor. Working within the tradition established by figures such as Ambrose, Augustine, Bede, Aquinas, and John Bale, she reminds us of "the traditional identification of the Tree of Life with Christ" (Grossman 1966: 683).
The article has clarified the full nature of what I have called pronounced anti-elitist tendencies in Frye's poetics. In a sense, what is at stake is Frye's cultural democrat bona fides, and it should be clear by this stage that Frye's view of the popular and the highbrow is unequivocally democratic.
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In the short Introduction, I suggested that this is the first of two articles focused upon what kind of impact Frye's ideas might have on class structures. The reader may conclude that an examination of the politics of Frye's notions of high and low might suffice: if his ideas are anti-elitist in this manner, presumably this means that they undermine the class structure. Indeed, the former does indeed suggest the latter. However, that point has not yet been demonstrated. What has been clarified is that i) in Frye's iteration, much canonical Anglophone literature may be described as popular, and ii) in his view, popular literature itself facilitates upward mobility in the literary domain. A follow-up study is required if we are to arrive at a conclusion about the possible impact of Frye's ideas on class structures. That study will have as its starting point the idea, promulgated in recent scholarship, that dominant cultural taste today is not so much the taste of the cultural snob of old, as that of the cultural omnivore.
John Donne "Batter my heart three-personed God"
William Blake "And did those feet" and "The Human Abstract"
W. B. Yeats "The Two Trees"
Samuel Johnson "The City of God"
Walt Whitman Song of Myself (section 24)
J. R. R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings
C.S. Lewis The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
George Orwell Animal Farm
Edgar Allen Poe "Ligeia"
Howard Pyle The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
Alan Moore V for Vendetta
Emily Short Galatea
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Blake, William (1982): The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Edited by David V. Erdman. Rev. ed. Berkley: University of Calfornia Press.
Donne, John (1996): The Complete English Poems. Edited by A.J. Smith. Penguin Books: London.
Frye, Northrop (1963): "Blake After Two Centuries". In Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology, 138150. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
Frye, Northrop (2006a): Anatomy of Criticism. Edited by Robert D. Denham. University of Toronto Press: Toronto.
Frye, Northrop (2006b): "The Secular Scripture" and Other Writings on Critical Theory: 1976 1991. Edited by Joseph Adamson and Jean Wilson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Gorak, Jan (1991): The Making of the Modern Canon: Genesis and Crisis of a Modern Idea. London: Athlon Press.
Graham, Brian Russell (2013): "Northrop Frye and the Opposition between Popular Literature and Bestsellers". Academic Quarter. Vol. 7. 93104.
Graham, Brian Russell (2015): "Frye and Hoggart on Film and TV : An Alternative to the Postmodernist Paradigm." Hamilton Arts & Letters, Vol. 7, No. 2. (n.p.)
Graham, Brian Russell (2015): "Northrop Frye on Leisure as Activity". in: Akademisk Kvarter Vol. 11, No. 4, 3546.
Grossman, Ann (1966): "The Use of the Tree of Life in Paradise Lost". The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. Vol. 65, No. 4, 680687.
Johnson, Samuel (2000): Major Works. Ed. Donald Greene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Lewis, C. S. (2009): The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. London: Harper Collins.
Moore, Alan (19881989): V for Vendetta. London: Quality Communications.
Orwell, George (1945): Animal Farm. London: Secker and Warburg.
Poe, Edgar Allen (1984): "Ligeia", in: Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales. Ed. Patrick F. Quinn. New York: Library of America, 262277.
Pyle, Howard (2005): The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. New York: Sterling Publishing.
Short, Emily (2000): Galatea, available at http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/short__galatea.html.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954): The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings. London: George Allen and Unwin.
Whitman, Walt (1996): Poetry and Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America.
Yeats, William Butler (1996): The Collected Poetry of W.B. Yeats. Rev. ed. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. New York: Simon & Schuster.