Category Archives: Essays

The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye

educated imagination

Northrop Frye was, and still remains, one of Canada’s true national treasures. He was one the most prolific academics and thinkers this country has ever seen. He was a master in so many fields, literary criticism, philosophy, Biblical scholarship, cultural criticism, and was an able observer of the visual arts. On top of this, he was a skilled writer who could succinctly make a point and disseminate obscure concepts to the general reader. His contributions to literary studies were numerous: he literally changed the paradigm in English literary criticism with his signature book, Anatomy of Criticism; he defined the overarching thematic thread in early CanLit in his conclusion to W.H. New’s History of Canadian Literature; he wrote one of the great contemporary pieces of Shakespearian scholarship with his 1986 Governor General Award winning Northrop Frye on Shakespeare; and he wrote The Great Code, a masterful book examining the influence of the Bible over every aspect of Western artistic culture. It is really impossible to overstate the contribution of Frye to Canadian culture; he really was one of the greatest Canadians.

The Educated Imagination is Frye’s 1962 contribution to the CBC Massey Lectures – only the second set delivered. Still in print, this book is a regular title you’ll see stocked in the miniature section called “Literary Studies” at your local bookstore. This is a thin book; I read the Kobo edition which was only about 160 screens, so the paper version would be around 100 pages. Despite its small size, not since Margaret Atwood’s Survival have I been so affected by a single book. This little book should be required reading for every university English major in their first week and then be re-read every year. Additionally, everyone who teaches English, from elementary school through to PhD programs should be reading this book regularly.

This series of essays attempts to answer two questions: Why study literature? And How do we best teach literature?. Frye uses his strong and fluent prose to answer these questions. He contrasts the study of literature with that of physical sciences to demonstrate the power and importance of the human imagination. The Educated Imagination looks at so many topics: different levels of imaginative communication, use of metaphor and simile, censorship and free-speech, teaching methodologies, the importance of knowing Biblical and classical stories, and the interplay of the arts, social sciences, and physical sciences.

There was nothing revelatory about this book. By that, I mean there wasn’t any new Earth-shattering notions that hadn’t crossed my mind before in the abstract. This book affected me the way it did because of how it articulated concepts and ideas that have vaguely occurred to me over my many years of academic study and general reading. Frye lays out, in clear and eloquent language, the argument for the study of literature and the arts.

Massey Lecture titles are always very engaging reads. Northrop Frye’s books are always a highly pleasurable experience. The two combined is something almost too overwhelmingly great to put into words. Ironically, this book was only Frye’s third published volume of work and his first following his seminal Anatomy of Criticism. Even this early in his career, he shows off his intellectual muscle. Now, not to sound elitist or “snobby”, but this book is not for everyone because, honestly, a lot of people will not connect with the topics or even understand them. This book is a must read though for anyone who has formally studied literature (and wondered why as we all have), anyone who writes seriously, or anyone who reads to be enlightened or to expand the intellect, not just to pass the time.

The Educated Imagination is one of the best books in that large fuzzy “non-fiction” category, and the best literary studies book, I have ever read. Full stop. Go read it.

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Hunting Tigers Under Glass by Mordecai Richler

Winner of the 1968 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction

In 2004 Mordecai Richler was ranked as number 98 on the list of the 100 Greatest Canadians. While his fiction, in my opinion at least, is among the best produced in our nation’s literature, it his essays and non-fiction pieces that have established Richler as an icon not only in Canadian culture, but in the Canadian public. His best known piece of non-fiction was his 1992 historical book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country; with this book, written at a time of great national disunity, was hailed as a heroic piece of writing almost unanimously by English Canada but denounced as subversive and racist by the Francophone community. Hunting Tigers Under Glass: Essays and Reports, Richler’s first book of non-fiction, contains pieces he had written for magazines and newspapers from approximately 1960 to 1968, the year of publication of this volume. These essays run the gamut from Canada’s centennial celebrations, Canadian culture, sports, literary matters, and, most passionately, about the Jewish “problem” of his generation.

Typically when I read an older book I do not review it or evaluate it in a historical sense, unless of course the book calls for it (Hard Times by Dickens for instance), but for a collection of essays I am going to need to put my typical methods aside. Because this collection is over 40 years old, there are a few of the essays that really have no relevance to me or my interests because of my age, most notably the sports essays. The pieces that were of real interest to me were the ones on the state of Canadian culture in the 60s. Right now Canadian literature, art, film, TV, and music are either going through, or have already gone through, a great proliferation both domestically and internationally.  I found Richler’s comments about the cultural vacuum that existed during his time very intriguing; he equated Expo ’67, Canada’s centennial celebration, to the possible seed of national patriotism needed for a cultural renaissance. On a somewhat related topic, in one essay the author discusses the state of film and the occupation of writing for the screen. Having written dozens of screenplays and receiving an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of his signature novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Richler has some very interesting insights into the business that still ring true today; one passage really struck me as it is something that is basically still being said:

In recent years, it is fair to say that films have become less juvenile, more intelligent. An increasing number of good satisfying films have come from Europe. There have been two or three that are arguably great. But, by and large, I am convinced that the new films are not nearly so good as they are cracked up to be, their seriousness is often spurious and half-educated, and they they are being critically oversold. A major trouble is we are so grateful for even a modicum of originality on the screen, we are so flattered to be addressed directly, we seldom realize that the so-called film is, for the most part, shamelessly derivative, taking up a position abandoned by novelists years ago. (“Writing for the Movies” p. 105)

The underlying theme or topic in all of the essays, and fundamentally in all of Mordecai Richler’s work, is trying to answer the “Jewish question” of his generation. The final essay in the book is called “This Year in Jerusalem”, which eventually was revisited and worked into a full length book in 1994; in this piece Richler takes his first trip to the homeland to explore the state of Judaism. I was surprised that the author’s tone was somewhat hostile towards the new nation of Israel and many of it’s inhabitants, this was the exact opposite of what I expected. Richler was appalled by the developing class distinctions between the European Jew and the North American Jew and how the residents who hailed from the new world were essentially second class citizens. Another thing I found very interesting about this essay was Richler’s seeming concern for the Arab inhabitants of this new nation. He continually asks residents what he thinks of this issue; he closes the essay with perhaps the most common thought amongst the Israelis:

“But Surely,” [Richler] said, “if the Jews are entitled to come ‘home’ after two thousand years then the son of an Arab refugee is a Palestinian too?”

“All right. Conditions in their camps are deplorable. However, the conditions I lived under in Dachau were worse.” (“This Year in Jerusalem” p. 176)

Hunting Tigers Under Glass is definitely worth reading for its historical significance and insight. But, that being said, this book is almost impossible to find. Published in 1968, this book  has been out of print since 1972. On abebooks.com, a used book site that you can find anything on, there are only 39 copies available in Canada. I ordered my copy, printed in 1971, from a bookseller in Ontario. I hope that an academic press like UofT Press, Penguin, or Oxford University Press eventually resurrects this book as it is an important piece in the career of an important writer and a milestone in our literary evolution.

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